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Catalyst Grants Support K-12 Students and Teachers For More Personalized, Equitable and Engaged Learning

Each year the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and the NC State College of Education encourage faculty and staff to collaborate in developing innovative research through the Catalyst Grant program. Started in 2018, this program provides seed funding for projects that have the potential to continue past the life of the grant and receive external funding. For the 2021-2022 round of funding, three research teams were awarded Catalyst Grants. Researchers presented their work during the fourth annual Catalyst Grant Research Symposium, hosted Sept. 27. 

This past year’s Catalyst Grant projects gave students agency over their learning, revealed that residency-licensed special educators wanted more support to provide their students with equitable instruction and provided insight into how math and science teachers currently teach with data.

The presentations shared by researchers once again showed the power and promise in supporting early stage collaborative research,” said Hollylynne Lee, interim associate dean of the Friday Institute and distinguished professor of mathematics and statistics education in the College of Education. “All of the projects from 2021-22 investigated issues relevant to K-12 education. The findings and lessons learned that were shared at the symposium sparked engaging discussions among attendees. We look forward to continuing this tradition, now going into its fifth year of funding, for sparking creative inquiry and innovative solutions for education.”

Using Artificial Intelligence for a Student-Led Inquiry into Redlining

Assistant Professor Amato Nocera and former Director of Technology Programs at the Friday Institute Jennifer Houchins found that artificial intelligence (AI) provided students with agency in their learning and helped them work with large datasets. In their project, “Machine Learning in the History Classroom: Using Artificial Intelligence for a Student-Led Inquiry into Redlining,” the researchers built on a unique pairing of educational technology and primary sources to lead sophomores at a local urban high school in a weeklong investigation on the historical context of redlining. 

Data from the Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America project was put into the AI platform StoryQ to create models of text from documents that Home Owners’ Loan Corporation agents used in the 1940s to describe neighborhoods. These documents helped determine if a family was awarded a mortgage or not. 

“There was a unique potential for AI to be used in this way to look at historical input and help students consider structural explanations for racial inequality,” said Houchins during her presentation. “The surprising thing that we noticed was that students expressed the affordances of using the platform to do this exploration. We even had one student that actually said, ‘I liked looking at this because we could look at more data and we didn’t have to just read the texts that our teacher picked for us to read. We could explore what we thought was important, not just what our teacher thought was important,’ so students got a sense of agency out of that.”

Nocera and Houchins found that students were explicitly noticing how neighborhood descriptions worked in service of creating racial segregation and its accompaning inequality. Students not only connected these findings to the past but also to assigned readings in other courses. One student even brought in current listings from the real estate marketplace platform Zillow, pointing out similar language they found in descriptions of neighborhoods in and around their own home. 

Amato, along with colleagues Shiyan Jiang and Christy Byrd, will move forward with new funding to partner with scholars who developed Mapping Inequality to connect the curriculum even more with the data.

Supporting and Retaining Residency Licensed Special Educators 

Associate Professor and Friday Institute Faculty Fellow Jessica Hunt, in collaboration with several former staff members at the Friday Institute including Alex Dreier, Laura Albrecht and Patricia Hilliard, observed that residency-licensed special education teachers wanted to become more knowledgeable about their students and learn how to meet them with innovative and equitable instruction. 

 Hunt and her team gathered survey responses from teachers and conducted a focus group with a few educators.

“Trends were around teachers feeling that they did not understand what it meant to teach well outside of what is prescribed as a structured or scripted curriculum,” said Hunt. “Another clear trend was wanting to know more about the strengths of students with disabilities and how to leverage those in instruction.”

Initially started as a way to provide ongoing support and coaching to special educators who were prepared in alternative ways, this project revealed contradictory stories of the perceptions and experiences of residency-licensed teachers, according to Hunt. She found that one group of educators felt unprepared and incomplete with what it meant to teach and support students who learn differently. The other group of teachers, when connected to a learning community of general education teachers and families, felt more confident to use resources they were provided and do more with them. 

Hunt would like to replicate the study with a larger sample and wants to find grants to support more people to come through the college’s special education program

Investigating How Teachers Implement Data Lessons and Support Equitable Student Participation

Friday Institute Senior Research Scholar Gemma Mojica, Assistant Professor Sunghwan Byun and Friday Institute Research Scholar Emily Thrasher learned that math and science teachers were looking to engage with large real world data sets and tools to use in their lessons. Through classroom observations, interviews and surveys, the team examined how six middle school and high school teachers implemented data-intensive lessons in their classrooms. 

According to the team, each teacher had a different idea of what composed complex data, but they did try to position students in a positive way and put the data in context so it was more relatable for students. Researchers saw opportunities to support teachers through access to visualization and analysis tools and data from real contexts in order to engage students.

“Students should have opportunities to solve real problems, hopefully they are problems that have a societal impact, but that usually requires engaging with real data, which would mean we’re probably interacting with the data in some type of dynamic software,” said Mojica during her presentation. 

In addition to learning how to support teachers, the team built great partnerships that they hope to utilize for future work. They plan to supplement this work with other grants and hope to find funding to support teachers in middle school to implement data clubs with underrepresented students while researching its effects on students’ self efficacy, STEM identity and content knowledge.

About the Friday Institute

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation advances K-12 education through innovation in teaching, learning and leadership by bringing together students, teachers, researchers, policymakers and educational professionals to foster collaborations that improve education for all learners. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation is part of NC State’s College of Education, one of the leading land-grant colleges of education in the nation.