Looking ahead at early childhood education – The San Diego Union-Tribune
When it comes to preschool and childcare, Kathryn Owen is looking toward the future. The head of early care and education at UC San Diego, she has made it a mission to modernize early childhood education by bringing more men into the classroom, and employing a robotic helper to lend a hand.
Her program provides high-quality care and education for the children of students, faculty and staff, serving babies and kids between 3 months to 6 years of age. It now includes 234 children but is opening a new facility in April 2016 that will accommodate 60 more children aged 2 to 5 years of age.
Owen, 54, is originally from Adelaide, South Australia, and moved to San Diego after getting married in 1998. She now lives in the College Area near San Diego State University. She started her career in education as a primary school teacher but found her niche in early childhood education.
Named an “Exceptional Master Leader in Education” by the Childcare Exchange, a U.S.-based partnership supporting early childhood professionals throughout the world, Owen was recognized as a leader in early childhood research for her work at UCSD.
Q: Please describe what you do.
A: I was hired by UC San Diego in 2000 and have served as the director of Early Care and Education since 2003. As director, I ensure that children in our programs get the high-quality care and learning opportunities that will give them the best possible start in life.
Q: What interested you in early childhood education?
A: I’ve been fascinated with babies since I was little. Understanding the impact that positive relationships and learning experiences have in the development of a young child is both exciting and rewarding.
Q: What were the experiences that led you to a career in the field?
A: My mother was principal of a school room at Adelaide Children’s Hospital, so I grew up knowing the challenges families face when their children are ill. That’s when I began to understand that young children need to experience security and joy in their learning environment. My family always expected me to become a teacher, but I became a dental nurse instead. I enjoyed dentistry, but when I became a single mom at a relatively young age, the hours became challenging and I decided to make a change. With the support of my family, I put myself through college and became a primary school teacher, which helped me be home more for my two young children.
Q: What are some of the unique programs you use there?
A: Being part of an incredible university like UC San Diego allows us to participate in some really innovative research. For example, we’re exploring the interaction between children and bendable sound — a novel fabric base that allows children to make music when tapping and touching elements as they appear on top of the surface. We’ve also been investigating the interaction between children and social robots — the RUBI project — for over a decade.
Q: How do you use technology, such as the RUBI robot, to help with classroom instruction?
A: RUBI was developed to explore interactive technology as a way to teach children. RUBI can detect faces, interpret facial expressions and teach basic skills through an interactive touch screen. The robot can also track observations between children and others so it captures information the teachers may not be able to capture. Weekly lesson plans reflect these observations and help build on the children’s interests.
Q: What other innovative teaching methods do you use?
A: Our programs are inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy of learning in which children become the researchers, guided by their curiosity and working cooperatively with teachers and parents. We are committed to this type of hands-on learning in which children drive discovery to understand their world and their role in the community.
Q: What steps have you taken to encourage men to work in early childhood education?
A: I helped form a monthly support group for male early education teachers at UC San Diego. We must create a culture where men are accepted and valued in our field. Children will not experience true diversity until there is a balance of both men and women in the classroom.
Q: How could the techniques you have developed at the university be adapted to other daycare centers?
A: UC San Diego is very diverse with many children coming to us from different countries. Our teachers have developed strategies to support these children, which were recently highlighted in research and training materials published by the California State Department of Education. Children participating in the RUBI project have also shown significant improvement in vocabulary skills, so there is the potential to build on this success and implement it in other places. In fact, we already have a parallel RUBI project underway at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Q: What do you hope your young students will gain from your program?
A: A sense of wonder and confidence in their ability to take risks, explore and succeed.
Q: What are the top three things a parent should look for in a preschool or childcare facility?
A: Nurturing interactions among teachers and children, creativity and sensory-rich learning experiences
Q: What’s the best advice you ever received?
A: To be joyful
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I don’t speak Spanish well, but I understand it and I’m also a proud grandmother!
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Sipping a latte while exploring different neighborhoods with our two dogs, Molly and Bruno. Swimming in our pool in the summer and going to a concert nearby. Going to church on Sunday and then catching up later with family.