Photo of Northeastern Illinois University's Student Union during the day with people walking on the quad

Ruth (Breckie) Church earns Northeastern research professor award

Friday, April 12, 2019

Professor of Psychology Ruth (Breckie) Church has been honored with Northeastern Illinois University’s 2019 Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor award.

The late Bernard J. Brommel, Professor Emeritus, established the award to be given annually to the tenured or tenure-track member of the Northeastern faculty who best demonstrates excellence in research and scholarship.

Church’s research focuses on non-verbal communication, specifically co-speech gesture in teaching contexts. She studies how teachers and students use non-verbal gestures (or talk with their hands) while they are trying to explain various math concepts. Her first book, “Why Gesture? How the Hands Function in Speaking, Thinking and Communicating,” was the first book to take an in-depth, scientific approach to understanding the purpose or function of co-speech gesture in communication for both the user of gesture as well as the viewer of gesture. The book was co-edited by Martha Alibali, a professor at University of Wisconsin, and Spencer Kelly, a professor at Colgate University. Kelly was one of Church’s first students at Northeastern more than 25 years ago.

“Although Dr. Church is the recipient of this research award, and an amazing scholar, the true winners are the undergraduate students who have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Church on research,” Psychology Chair Amanda Dykema-Engblade said. “Dr. Church shines as a research mentor, as evidenced by her popular lab class and by the number of her students who have entered into doctoral programs based on their training in Dr. Church’s lab. Dr. Church embodies the mission of NEIU and provides access, excellence and opportunities for our majors.”

In addition to the book, Church has published several articles about the relationship between co-speech gesture and math learning. She is currently preparing to publish a paper looking at gestures produced by chemistry students describing chemistry concepts. This research shows  that there is emerging knowledge about chemistry that shows up in gesture first, and when it does, students are more likely to benefit from chemistry instruction. Church also described new research that indicates that female college students in chemistry classes are particularly receptive to chemistry instruction that requires them to gesture.  When these female students are asked to gesture about chemical molecules their learning of chemistry becomes equivalent to that of boys. Her hope is that this research can inform instructors about how to use gesture to scaffold knowledge and bridge learning gaps specifically in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Gesture, we think, could be a wonderful tool that can be used in public schools where children aren’t coming from homes where they are exposed to huge vocabularies and parents who spend time doing math homework,” Church said. “Gesture can be a tool that gives children a leg up on understanding math. We feel that’s really important right now when STEM careers are  an important career option but with a pipeline that is not open to minority populations and women.”  

Church said that though she is thankful for being recognized for her research,  being able to mentor students in doing research and preparing them to become scientists is the biggest reward. She also loves hearing about students getting into doctoral programs because many of her students are first-generation minority students who are underrepresented in advanced areas of higher education.

The Brommel award is being presented this year for the 22nd time, and will be formally presented at the May 2019 Commencement ceremony.

As the Brommel Distinguished Research Professor, Church will receive a cash award of $5,000. She will make a presentation about her research and creative activities to the Northeastern community during the Fall 2019 semester.

Photo of Ruth (Breckie) Church

Ruth (Breckie) Church