New to Pitt: Education professor focuses on connections


Working at Pitt has brought her career “full circle,” says Veena Vasudevan, assistant professor of Digital Media and Learning in the School of Education.

After first coming to Pittsburgh to earn her undergraduate degree in information systems and international relations at Carnegie Mellon University in 2004, she began working in tech development, then found herself at the crux of tech and teaching with the New York City Department of Education. There, Vasudevan says, the “ethnographic sensibilities” she had gained at Columbia University, while earning her master of public administration degree, began to show. “My heart was always in social justice work,” she says.

She had already done some international work, “traveling the world and being rooted in the educational challenges that were posed in (different) educational environments,” she says. But in New York City, she saw directly the importance of “coming to know a community by noticing what’s there and asking people” to talk about their experiences, rather than advising them based on theory.

It was important to build connections with students, parents and teachers “around caring about what other people’s lives are about, caring about what matters to them.” She was still involved in building a data platform for use by parents and teachers, but found the tech company hired to design it “had wanted humans to use it” but “hadn’t included them in any part of the design process.”

She recalled attending a meeting in which fourth-grade teachers made an inspiring presentation about their best practices: “I walked away thinking: That’s the way a meeting should go.” But the reaction of her fellow school officials was disheartening — they just felt the teachers’ ideas didn’t follow their rule book.

That left Vasudevan deeply frustrated, and pushed her to pursue her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

One of her post-doctoral fellowships, in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, focused on early childhood learning experiences at the museum. She observed and participated in science classes for children as young as 2 to 4 years old.

“What you start to realize is, the conceptions of science” — by scientists and teachers of young children — “are not so far apart as they seem.” Science can be as complicated as solving climate change or as simple as asking, “What is that ant doing over there?”

She noticed that the museum’s approach to education was immersive. Teachers got their hands in the mud to help kids examine worms. Even the youngest learners were handling walking stick bugs and lizards, trying on costumes and handling artifacts from other cultures and eras.

Previously, she said, she had run into theories of education that had “not allowed teachers to play” as part of teaching. This new method was “giving them the language and lenses they could look through,” finding “that there was so much more of science in everyday practice than they had pictured before. It would change and shift their practice over time.”

Such observations helped her notice “all the ways the world is transdisciplinary.”

Her second post-doctoral fellowship at New York University reinforced this lesson, demonstrating how older students could best learn science by proposing and doing brain and behavior experiments that mattered to them, which in turn helped to reshape the way educators taught them. It also helped students learn to use art as a tool to present their findings — to work with data in a more meaningful way.

“I was really excited by coming to the (Pitt) School of Education,” she says, “where in this moment there is such a clear vision for social justice.” She hopes her work can “not just tell (K-12) teachers what to do but model it, introducing play, curiosity, tinkering to standards-based models so many teachers must use.

“I really appreciate a position that took me so seriously as a researcher and a scholar,” she adds about the University. Her colleagues are “very vocal and clear about their intention behind the work” of doing better for parents and teachers. “A lot of what I am today was shaped by my former years in Pittsburgh, so it’s kind of poetic to come back to a place that meant so much to me.”

Today she and and colleagues Bea Dias and Tinukwa Boulder are building the Critical Technology and Digital Media for Learning Certificate program at the school, specifically focused on designing learning experiences that take into account the sorts of lessons Vasudevan absorbed as a post-doctorate.

Her teaching thus far has included a course on digital literacies and teaching across educational contexts, which she developed for Pitt, as well as a cultural digital literacy course for the school’s online program. She is the online MEd program coordinator and STEAM certificate program coordinator as well.

As with most new University employees arriving during the pandemic — she started last July — Vasudevan hasn’t gotten out in the city as much as she would have liked. Having young children hasn’t helped give her time to explore either. Still, “a lot of it has changed,” she observes of Pittsburgh, “but it’s been nice to come back and learn a lot about the city.”

Most recently, she was one of the editors of the anthology, “Care-Based Methodologies Reimagining Qualitative Research with Youth in US Schools,” which shows ethnographers and other researchers that, when working with young children in their schools, “we need to be transparent about what we are doing and why we are doing it. … Kids come to rely on you — you become a confidant, a supporter and advocate. We can, through caring relationships, cultivate more respectful relationships with them … making decisions that put them first, over the needs of our research.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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