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Empowering the next generation of STEM professionals

Researcher: Jill Hamm

Jill Hamm, Ph.D., says she never could have imagined writing “screenplays” nearly 25 years ago, after earning her doctorate in educational psychology and launching a research agenda that still seeks to understand the peer social dynamics of adolescents inside and outside classrooms.  

But here she is with three screenplays to her name. They aren’t bound for Hollywood or big screens. Rather, Hamm’s 50-page scripts are bound for computer and tablet screens with the goal of providing BIPOC middle and high school students with digital learning experiences that help them grow their skills as STEM problem solvers and collaborators.

The Edge: Jill Hamm, Ph.D., William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education, has spent her career working to understand the social dynamics of middle and high schoolers and how those dynamics can help teachers to deliver better instruction inside the classroom. Her most recent research pulls together a range of collaborations from across her career — Hamm calls collaboration “the hallmark of her career” — that promise to provide BIPOC middle and high schoolers with an interactive simulation to help grow their collaboration skills and explore possible STEM career fields.

When fully realized, Hamm’s scripts will provide those students — in informal and after-school learning settings — with interactive simulations that place them in archetypal STEM organizations working with an avatar as their partner to collaboratively solve an authentic problem faced by STEM professionals. One simulation challenges students to use data in the development of a community greenway. Another places them in a virology lab. The final simulation brings together artificial intelligence and business analytics in a hospital setting.   

Ultimately, Hamm and her collaborators aim to provide students with critical skills in collaboration, skills that serve them in small group learning environments in STEM classrooms now and in their future education and careers.  

Throughout the simulation, students also receive mentorship from virtual STEM professionals —based on actual STEM professionals from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM careers, who shared stories of their personal journeys into those careers. Hamm simultaneously hopes to provide students who play the simulation, many of whom would be first-generation collegegoers, with the possibility of an unknown or unconsidered career pathway. According to 2021 data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hispanic workers represent 15% of the total STEM workforce, and Asian and Black workers are 10% and 9%, respectively. 

The three simulations are part of CASCADE — or Collaborative Activities in STEM Careers for Adolescent Engagement — a study with Horizon Research Inc., funded by a $1.5 million NSF collaborative research grant. Hamm’s husband, Daniel Heck, Ph.D., vice president at Horizon Research Inc. and a mathematics education researcher, is also a principal investigator for CASCADE. 

In addition to working with Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill-based company founded by alumna Iris Weiss (’75 Ph.D.) in 1987 to improve STEM education efforts through research, Hamm is working with school counseling faculty member Robert Martinez, Ph.D., to ensure the scripts embed invaluable messages of cultural capital, especially in simulations for Latino students.  

To create the actual simulations, she’s working with Robert Hubal, Ph.D., a research scientist at RENCI (Renaissance Computing Institute), and with UNC Digital and Lifelong Learning. To deliver these simulations, she is partnering with strategic community partners including UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, who work to provide college and career readiness and pathway programs for youth.

“This is a project I never could have dreamed of when I was just beginning my career,” said Hamm, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the UNC School of Education, “but with decades of research around social dynamics and small-group learning coupled with really incredible stories and journeys of individuals within STEM fields and a recent collaboration in informal learning environments, this really is a dream project for me.”  

Supporting peer dynamics for academic success 

When Hamm graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she envisioned a career focused on understanding peer relationships and the factors that contribute to and support those relationships. With her doctoral advisors and after graduating, she worked within datasets from nine high schools in Wisconsin and California, studying the friendships of adolescents from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

As a postdoctoral fellow, Hamm’s work zoomed in from the school level and into math classrooms, studying students’ authority within classrooms and how math teachers distributed power to students. When she arrived at Carolina in 1999, her interests in peer relationships and classroom instruction quickly converged. She served as co-PI on an NSF study in which she focused on how students’ sense of belonging and peer norms regarding effort and achievement evolved in middle school mathematics classrooms in relation to the classroom environment.  

Soon after, Hamm began a long-running research collaboration with then-Carolina faculty member Thomas Farmer (’89 M.A., ’94 Ph.D.), now at Virginia Commonwealth University, that remained focused on the classroom but refined her work, recognizing the impact of teachers on social dynamics and academic success.    

Hamm joined the National Research Center for Rural Education Support — funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and led by Farmer and then-Carolina faculty member Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D. — and she and Farmer launched the Rural Early Adolescent Learning Project (Project REAL), developing and implementing professional learning experiences teachers in rural schools across the U.S. Those learning experiences supported early adolescent social, behavioral, and academic adjustment.   

This work was grounded in part in a concept introduced by a Farmer-led team, of the teacher as an “invisible hand,” then an understudied concept which posited teachers had the potential, sometimes intentionally but often without their awareness, to influence children’s peer relationships and their broader adjustment in school.  

Hamm’s work with teachers went further and focused, in part, on the idea of teacher attunement, conceptualized originally by achievement motivation scholars as a critical aspect of teacher involvement with students. In a 2011 article published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Hamm applied the idea of attunement to classroom social dynamics, asserting that teachers’ attunement to or accurate awareness of students’ peer group affiliations was an important means of promoting a classroom peer culture characterized by positive, productive student relationships.  

Hamm and colleagues found that with professional development, teachers could improve their attunement to students’ peer relationships, and subsequently improve students’ sense of classroom belonging. More broadly, Hamm and colleagues found that students’ social dynamics in classrooms of teachers who completed the Project REAL professional development became more productive as compared to similar classrooms of teachers who did not take part in the program.  

Detailed in Developmental Psychology, Hamm and colleagues found that peer group norms were more supportive of effort and achievement, and that achievement and effort had greater social value with peers in classrooms of teachers who completed the Project REAL professional development. Students in Project REAL classrooms viewed their academically engaged peers as “cool,” more so than compared with students in classrooms in which teachers did not complete the professional development.  

With an additional $4 million in IES funding, Hamm and Farmer built upon Project REAL and created Supporting Early Adolescents’ Learning and Social Success (SEALS), providing teachers in 26 metropolitan schools in the southeast with knowledge and tools to support positive peer cultures around academic effort and achievement within their classrooms.  

The leadup to CASCADE, part 1 

In 2014, Hamm built on her work on classroom social dynamics and interest in mathematics classrooms, collaborating with Heck and launching a $1.5 million, NSF-funded PEARL — Peers Engaged as Resources in Learning.  

Research at the time found that small group work occurred in 70% of middle grades mathematics classrooms at least once a week, and on average, accounted for 25% of instructional time in those classes.   

The need for student opportunities to engage and persevere with meaningful and challenging mathematics problems, and to take active and collaborative roles in problem solving, was and continues to be critical. Yet, effective group work can prove challenging. Students disengage from difficult tasks and find it difficult to talk about their mathematical thinking. Students’ social concerns over their peers’ perceptions — if they appeared too interested in the content or not capable enough to complete the work — often limit their willingness to learn from one another.  

The 5-year collaborative grant enabled them to go inside middle and high school math classrooms and observe students and teachers. PEARL involved a carefully sequenced set of research phases that included classroom observations, interviews, and surveys with teachers and students regarding mathematics small group work in both naturalistic settings and designed conditions to develop and test both a framework for understanding small group learning and strategies to help teachers support successful group work. Results of the study are informing teacher preparation and ongoing education, mathematics teaching practice, and educational research. 

PEARL already has yielded a new model for peer engagement in groups. The team designed tasks with embedded pointers to help students get started and make progress, and provided mathematically meaningful roles so that each individual student made specific contributions and was accountable for the group’s solutions. Student materials included prompts to guide help-seeking and help-providing, so that students could use each other effectively and respectfully as resources, rather than calling for the teacher with every question or devolving into unproductive interactions.  

“We created really strong deliverables for teachers and students,” Hamm said, “but in the midst of rolling out these ‘group worthy’ tasks, we quickly realized that students needed opportunities to practice how to work in groups, how to productively and successfully collaborate.”  

At that point, the PEARL team devised the idea of an interactive simulation that could help students learn to collaborate and practice their collaboration skills. But with the Covid-19 pandemic happening, offering the simulations in the classroom had grown difficult.  

The leadup to CASCADE, part 2 

Early in Hamm’s tenure as the School’s associate dean for research and faculty development, a position created by Dean Fouad Abd-El-Khalick in 2017, a meeting with Todd Boyette, Ph.D., executive director of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, would push her research interests beyond classrooms and schools. 

“Todd wanted a stronger relationship with the School in terms of research,” Hamm said. “He also wanted to pursue NSF funding around advances in informal science learning and to do so in collaboration with School faculty members.” 

Hamm connected Boyette with Janice Anderson, Ph.D., a School of Education associate professor whose work has sought to engage both teachers and students in the use of new and emerging technologies in the teaching and learning of science, and in 2019, the team, which includes Crystal Harden (’93 M.A.T., ’21 Ed.D.), Morehead’s director of program and inclusion initiatives, won a $2.86 million NSF grant to develop exhibits and programs illuminating world-changing scientific contributions by BIPOC scientists. 

The project, called “Hidden No More: Shedding Light on Science Stories in the Shadows,” continues to engage Morehead visitors with innovative learning resources including transportable, interactive exhibits focused on light: how humans perceive light, sources of light from lightbulbs to stars, uses of real and artificial light in human endeavors, and past and current STEM innovators whose work helps people understand, create, and harness light now. 

Exhibits explore the characteristics of light — color, energy, time — in multiple ways: short documentary and animated films, virtual reality experiences, interactive “photobooths,” and technology-based inquiry activities. Morehead staff have also taken these experiences on the road to rural North Carolina and to many partner sites across the U.S. 

Hamm and Anderson have provided expertise and insights on exhibit narratives and activities, and are studying how middle school students engage with and learn from the exhibits.  

“This is a really fascinating project that has taken me and my work in ways I never would have gone,” Hamm said.  

Inspiring future STEM professionals and better collaboration 

With “Hidden No More” and her prior work on social dynamics in mathematics classrooms, in mind, and set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, CASCADE began to take form.  

Thinking about the work with Morehead, Hamm and Heck re-imagined the simulation to practice collaborative learning outside of school settings.  

And when NSF put out a request for proposals for its Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program — a request that challenged applicants to leverage technology in students’ STEM learning and help to inspire the next generation of STEM professionals from range of backgrounds — Hamm and Heck saw a new way to teach adolescents in college and career pathway programs how to work in groups. Building on PEARL, their proposed simulations would incorporate opportunities to practice collaborative skills with a virtual partner, working on authentic tasks arising in STEM careers such as engineering, computational chemistry, and artificial intelligence. The simulations would also feature the stories of real STEM professionals from groups historically underrepresented in these fields and the teamwork they undertake each day. CASCADE naturally fell into place. 

“When you start working on a project, sometimes it takes on a new shape, some of it is anticipated,” Hamm said. “I don’t think we could have predicted the incredible partnerships with STEM professionals and strategic partners that have been foundational to this project.  

The powerful stories they heard — ones of adversity and ultimately success — from BIPOC STEM professionals are threaded into the simulation storylines in engaging ways. As students move through the collaborative work challenges in the simulation, they hear career feedback directly from these professionals. Moreover, in short podcasts they hear how these professionals have navigated their journeys into and through a STEM career. Hamm hopes those stories, combined with the other simulation elements, will inspire today’s students to see themselves as effective collaborators in STEM careers 

 Later this year, Hamm and her collaborators will share CASCADE’s first module and those powerful stories, and subsequently her first screenplay, with the next generation of collaborative STEM professionals. 

The CASCADE and the PEARL research projects were funded by the National Science Foundation through grants to Jill Hamm, Ph.D., and Daniel Heck, Ph.D. Heck and Hamm are married, and Heck is employed by and a co-owner of Horizon Research. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has reviewed these arrangements and concluded that the possible benefit to Heck or Hamm is not likely to affect participant safety or the scientific quality of the study. 


Heck, D.J., Hamm, J.V., Dula, J.A., Hoover, P., Hoffman, A.S. (2019). Supporting group work with mathematically meaningful roles. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. Volume 24. Issue 7. Pages 436-442. Published by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  

Hoffman, A.S., Hamm, J.V., Farmer, T.W. (2015). Teacher attunement: Supporting early elementary students’ social integration and status. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Volume 39. Pages 14-23. 

Hamm, J.V., Farmer, T.W., Lambert, K., Gravelle, M. (2014). Enhancing peer cultures of academic effort and achievement in early adolescence: Promotive effects of the SEALS intervention. Developmental Psychology. Volume 50. Issue 1. Pages 216-228.  

Hamm, J.V., Farmer, T.W., Lambert, K., & Gravelle, M. (2014). Enhancing peer cultures of effort and achievement in early adolescence: Benefits of the SEALS program. Developmental Psychology. Volume 50. Issue 1. Pages 216-228.  

Farmer, T.W., Lines, M.M., Hamm, J.V. (2012). Revealing the invisible hand: The role of teachers in children’s peer experiences. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Volume 32. Issue 5. Pages 247-256. 

Hamm, J.V., Hoffman, A. & Farmer, T.W. (2012). Peer cultures of academic success in adolescence: Why they matter and what teachers can do to promote them. New York: Information Age Publishing.