Valuable lessons

Fellowship gives student research opportunity and helps faculty gauge program impact

By Brelyn Powell

Each spring, Sharon Zumbrunn, Ph.D., and Joan Rhodes, Ph.D., associate professors in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, lead a two-week study-abroad trip to Italy. There, VCU graduate students teach English to elementary school pupils and study how teaching methods used in Italian schools can be employed to meet the needs of learners in the United States and beyond.

“We visit Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf-Steiner-inspired schools,” Zumbrunn explains. “Many of those approaches originated in Italy, so seeing them practiced there is a unique experience.”

Hoping to take a deeper look into the impact of their study-abroad program, Zumbrunn and Rhodes applied to the School of Education’s Faculty Excellence Fund to create an international teaching fellowship. Established by an anonymous donor, the fund aims to support faculty in research or professional projects. Two awards ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 are given each year from the fund at the discretion of the school’s Advancement Council, which comprises alumni and donors.

The professors received $4,980, which supported educational psychology doctoral student Savanna Love to join them as a co-teacher and research assistant on the trip this past March.

Love helped Zumbrunn and Rhodes by interviewing the VCU students and reviewing their blogs and journals to gauge the effectiveness of the study-abroad program. She collected data on how experiential learning abroad deepens students’ understanding of the course material – all while gaining valuable experience in graduate-level instruction teaching alongside Zumbrunn and Rhodes.

Although Love’s role as a researcher began with the fellowship, she has continued to work with Zumbrunn and Rhodes in analyzing the data. The results of the ongoing research are not yet finalized, but Zumbrunn and Rhodes are certain their findings will help them develop their program to provide the best possible student experience.

“It’s very common for faculty to have a lot of ideas that could improve their programs,” Zumbrunn says. “It’s not as common that resources are available to support efforts to research those ideas.”

Love, who is on track to graduate in 2017, says that becoming a mentor to the students was crucial to her growth as an educator.

“Teaching at the graduate level is new to me,” says Love, a former high school teacher. “Taking on that role as a leader really pushed me forward in learning to be an effective instructor.”

Zumbrunn adds that as Love’s academic adviser for a number of years, working with her as a co-teacher was rewarding. “Seeing her take on that role and come into her own was so fulfilling,” she says.

“The School of Education Faculty Excellence Fund is a great example of how the generosity of others supports opportunities for faculty innovation,” says the school’s dean, Andrew P. Daire, Ph.D. “Impactful teaching, learning and research for students and faculty are central to the aims of the VCU School of Education.”

To learn more about the School of Education, contact Ed Kardos, senior director of development, at (804) 828- 4692 or