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School of Education faculty win $3.5 million in NSF research funding

Proposals funded in five different NSF grant competitions

Logo of the National Science Foundation
Researchers at the UNC School of Education have won more than $3.5 million in National Science Foundation awards to pursue five projects — three focused on STEM learning and two regarding learning in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The awards will support investigations that promise to reveal new understandings that inform instructional practices and policies, including ones that can better extend educational opportunity to underserved students, said Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, dean of the UNC School of Education.

“We are appreciative of this support from the National Science Foundation,” Abd-El-Khalick said. “These awards are indicative of the strengths of our researchers, and the relevance of their research agendas during this time of challenge and change in education.”

“These awards are indicative of the strengths of our researchers, and the relevance of their research agendas during this time of challenge and change in education.”
Dean Fouad Abd-El-Khalick

The projects supported by the awards include one that is producing and evaluating middle and high school science instructional materials based on the COVID-19 pandemic, another that will explore what we can learn from families’ responses to the pandemic, and three projects investigating aspects of the STEM educational and career pipelines.

Jill Hamm, the associate dean for research and faculty development at the UNC School of Education, said it was notable that each of the five awards was from different NSF program competitions.

“We have innovative researchers who are diving into important questions across a range of fields within education,” Hamm said. “This round of NSF funding will help these researchers uncover new data, insights, and interventions that can fuel improvements in educational experiences and outcomes for learners at all levels.”

Following is more about each of the projects:

Principal investigator: Troy Sadler
Project Title: “Learning about Viral Epidemics through Engagement with Different Types of Models”
NSF award: $1,886,928

NSF funding will support work over four years to develop lesson plans in which students create scientific models to study complex issues in science. Troy Sadler and his colleagues will then gauge the impact of engagement with modeling on student learning, with an emphasis on learning among Latinx students.

The project builds on earlier work supported by the NSF in which Troy Sadler, the Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning at the UNC School of Education, and his team created lessons plans for middle and high school students centered around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project is based on research by Sadler and colleagues, which has demonstrated the effectiveness of engaging students in scientific learning by building lessons plans centered around “socio-scientific issues-based” instruction — hot topics of interest to young people, such as climate change, sexually transmitted diseases, and vaping.

With the new funding, Sadler and his fellow researchers will develop lesson plans in which high school students build different types of models — mechanistic, computational and system models — to learn about virus outbreaks and other complex societal issues centered around scientific concepts.

The co-principal investigators on the team are Li Ke, a postdoctoral researcher at the UNC School of Education; Patricia Friedrichsen, a professor of science education at the University of Missouri-Columbia; and, Laura Zangori, an assistant professor of science education, also at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The project will research three aspects of student learning: 1) conceptual understandings about viral epidemics, 2) epistemic understandings associated with modeling, and 3) model-informed reasoning about viral epidemics and potential solutions.

NSF award abstract

Principal investigator: Jill Hamm
Project Title: “Collaborative Research: Engaging Adolescents through Collaboration on Simulated STEM Career Scenarios and Mathematics Activities (CASCADE)”
NSF award: $697,563

To stimulate interest in and build skills for STEM careers among adolescents historically underrepresented in STEM careers — particularly African Americans and Latinx — the research team will create and evaluate a set of simulations designed to provide experiences using mathematics and collaboration skills in settings similar to work environments.

Jill V. Hamm, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the UNC School of Education, is the principal investigator on the $700,000 award to UNC-Chapel Hill. The project is part of a total $1.3 million collaborative research award with Daniel J. Heck of Horizon Research, Inc., that builds on Hamm and Heck’s prior research on collaborative learning in middle and high school mathematics classrooms.

The CASCADE project will create three simulation modules, each centered on completing a career-relevant mathematics task with a virtual partner, incorporating common challenges that arise during mathematics collaboration and guidance regarding STEM careers and the relevance of collaboration to these careers.

The CASCADE simulation will be designed for use in informal learning environments that are supportive of Black, Latinx and first-generation college-going students. The project includes UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and LatinxEd, an outreach initiative that works to encourage college aspirations among Latino high school students, as strategic partners, and six African American and Latinx career professionals representing diverse fields that use mathematics.

The simulations will be designed so that practice with them will help adolescents build mathematics collaboration skills and develop STEM career identities.

The simulations will be developed and tested in iterative play-testing phases with a total of 96 African American and Latinx adolescents, and adolescents who are potential first-generation college students. The final stage of the project will be a field-test of the simulation with 80 participants enrolled in the strategic partners’ programs.

Data gathered in the field test will include player data from the simulation, interviews with program staff, and a peer-to-peer mathematics transfer task, to provide preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of the simulation.

Co-principal investigators are Robert Martinez, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Education, and Robert Hubal, an associate professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Martinez, a faculty member in the school counseling program, has extensive experience conducting research and interventions to help Latinx students overcome barriers in educational settings. Hubal’s research has focused on technology-assisted learning, including the use of simulations of situations found in healthcare settings for use in training medical practitioners.

Disclaimer: Hamm and Heck, are married, and Heck is employed by and a co-owner of Horizon Research, Inc. A review of these arrangements was conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill, which concluded that the possible benefit to Hamm or Heck is not likely to affect participant safety or the scientific quality of the study.

NSF award abstract

Principal investigator: Daniel Klasik
Project Title: “How Do Unrepresentative College Grades Shape Race and Gender Gaps in the STEM Pipeline?”
NSF award: $498,250

How do different students interpret a final grade of C in “Introduction to Organic Chemistry”? Some may celebrate. Others change their majors.

And when a student has a stressful experience — such as suddenly shifting to remote learning in the midst of a deadly pandemic — that causes a difference in the course grades they typically receive, how does that affect their school trajectory?

A team led by Assistant Professor Daniel Klasik of the UNC School of Education will examine students’ differing interpretations and reactions to grades in college-level STEM courses and how those reactions affect the students’ trajectories in STEM majors.

The project will examine unrepresentative grades students may receive due to unexpected stressors, such as family or health concerns, to better understand how students respond.

The study also will generate estimates of how students’ differential sensitivity to grades may affect the size of race and gender gaps in the STEM pipeline.

Klasik has conducted research to produce descriptions and causal analyses of students’ pathways into and through college, with a focus on issues of racial and socioeconomic stratification in higher education. Co-principal investigators are School of Education Assistant Professors Ethan Hutt, who has researched the metrics — including grading systems — that typically describe schools and academic progress; and Lauren Sartain, who conducts research using quantitative methods to understand the impacts of policy changes on students, teachers, and administrators.

The project aims to address shortcomings in earlier research by studying student grades in all STEM courses from 15 university campuses in the University of North Carolina system over a period of nine academic years. Earlier similar research has been limited to data from individual courses or from single colleges, making it difficult to rule out rival explanations based on other aspects of students’ academic records, aspects of their institutions, or personal hardships.

This study will include analyses of the disruption caused by COVID-19 during the spring of 2020 and will consider how the potentially unrepresentative grades students received then may have shaped their subsequent choices to pursue STEM coursework.

The team plans to interview academic advisors from a sample of STEM departments in the UNC system to better understand the guidance students receive about how to interpret their grades when deciding whether to pursue a STEM degree.

The researchers expect that their project will inform knowledge about grading policies and academic advising that can narrow achievement gaps in STEM participation.

NSF award abstract

Principal investigator: Kathryn Leech
Project Title: “Using Computational Language Processing Techniques to Determine if Parental STEM Language Varies By Child Gender”
NSF award: $335,948

Do parents of pre-schoolers talk to their boys differently about mathematics and science topics than they do to their girls? Do any of those differences transmit gender stereotypes that can lead to the underrepresentation of women in STEM courses and careers?

Kathryn Leech, as an assistant professor in the School of Education, conducts research in the role of parents on early childhood language and literacy development, will study whether variations in parents’ speech affects children’s scientific thinking and talk about science.

The project will include development and testing of a new research method using computational text analysis to examine everyday conversations among members of 80 families using 200 previously collected transcripts of parent-child conversations.

Leech will examine three questions:

    • Are there differences in parents’ use of STEM language based on whether the parent is interacting with their son or daughter?
    • What family characteristics — for example, parents’ own gender, socioeconomic status — moderate associations between parents’ STEM language and child gender?
    • How reliable is computational text analysis compared to manual coding approaches for identifying parental STEM language?

A goal of the project is to develop targeted interventions that eventually can broaden representation in STEM courses.

NSF award abstract

Principal investigator: Thurston “Thad” Domina
Project Title: “Collaborative Research: School family nexus and educational differences during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond”
NSF award: $149,934

Thurston “Thad” Domina, the Robert Wendell Eaves Sr. Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership, will investigate how schools and families responded during the COVID-19 pandemic and how those responses varied among students and families of different demographic and socioeconomic groups.

The project is part of a total $380,000 collaborative research award with Linda Renzulli, professor of sociology at Purdue University and frequent collaborator with Domina on research regarding students’ family involvement with schools.

Questions being pursued by the project include

    • How do school and family collaborations vary with demographic and socioeconomic status?
    • To what extent is this variation attributable to differences in practices used during the remote learning period across and within schools?
    • To what extent school and family collaboration facilitates access to critical resources for students and their families?
    • To what extent do school and family collaborations mitigate learning losses associated with the pandemic and related measures and how do these vary by social group?

The project will document interactions between schools and families amid the crisis and analyze the processes through which schools facilitated the construction of social capital among families even as they closed school buildings and moved instruction online. The study will explore links between these family-and-school interactions and the learning experiences of students.

The study uses survey data collected from parents, teachers, and school leaders in a diverse countywide public school district; extensive interviews with parents and teachers conducted throughout the pandemic; data scraped from websites and social media; and other data sources.

Domina said he expects study results will help inform research, decisions and interventions aimed at reducing disparities and fostering resilience among students.

NSF award abstract