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At times, parents can be teased for using “baby talk” with their young children. But it turns out that baby talk, the slow, elongated, varied-pitch manner in which parents often speak to babies and small children, may actually help with their language and speech, an insight that could be helpful for children with autism.

Micheal Sandbank is studying how typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies are providing researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, with an eventual goal of leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. The studies may also inform intervention practices for children with autism. Sandbank is an assistant professor and area coordinator for early childhood and special education in the College of Education.

Photo of young girl wearing brain sensorsThrough their research, Sandbank’s team has found that the word processing “signal” is strongest when typically developing children hear words spoken in baby talk rather than adult-directed speech. This is even the case with children as old as 36 months. While the team sees a good signal for these older toddlers with adult-directed speech, baby talk is still stronger. The researchers are still examining this signal in children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

Photo of the Brain and Language Lab

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using a device resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses. The team continues to recruit children with autism and process data.

The team is conducting a meta-analysis of early intervention data.

If you’re an athlete or soldier, or anyone vulnerable to a head injury, you’ve asked the question.

That’s because concussions are a type of non-penetrating traumatic brain injury (TBI), and it’s not known how many can lead to debilitating later-in-life health consequences such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a devastating degenerative brain disease found in some athletes, soldiers, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The prevailing thought has been that TBIs elicit the same physiological response across the population—that most people are similarly affected by one or more head injuries and the best–and really only—response to a TBI is to limit exposure.

It turns out, though, that asking how many concussions is too many isn’t the right question to ask, because it may not be the right way to think about how and to whom TBIs cause damage.

According to research by Steven Kornguth, the right questions have to do with vulnerability versus resilience, and protection versus overcoming.

For some people, one or more TBIs can have devastating effects later in life. For others, whether they’ve had a few or many, there are limited long-term consequences. Because TBIs are experienced differently by different people, there are more relevant ways for you to think about TBI:

  • What’s your vulnerability to TBI to and what’s your level of resilience?
  • What’s the level of protection you need from a TBI and how can you can overcome its effects once you’ve had one?

“TBI affects people in the prime of their lives. How do we change that? How do we help them? That’s a big motivation for me,” Kornguth says.

Steven Kornguth stands in front of a class of undergraduates at UT Austin

Steven Kornguth teaches “Autoimmune Disease,” an undergraduate course in the College of Education, cross-listed in Undergraduate Studies. The course is open to undergraduates from across the university.

Kornguth is looking at the surprising role of the body’s autoimmune system in TBI development. He is a senior research fellow in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and professor of neurology at Dell Medical School.

There are molecular, cellular and systemic responses to traumatic head and body events, so he and his colleagues are asking a new and surprising question: What is the body’s autoimmune response to TBIs?

Rather than simply looking at limiting exposure to concussions, Kornguth is looking at those who may have high resilience and would be unlikely to suffer long-term consequences, and then what role the autoimmune response plays in that.

Is there an evolving autoimmune process that leads to CTE? If that’s the case, can customized treatment protocols be applied for the management of the autoimmune disease process? Can better and more specialized equipment be provided?

These questions are leading them in an attempt to determine if there are pharmacological treatments that can be offered to reduce the effects of TBI and prevent the development of CTE.

If researchers can understand the level of vulnerability an individual may have in the first place, it’s possible there can be medications given to vulnerable populations before and/or after a TBI that will limit autoimmune response.

Steven Kornguth sits with undergraduates in his Autoimmune Diseases course

Steven Kornguth sits with undergraduates in his Autoimmune Diseases course.

Kornguth is one of the nation’s foremost researchers on the long-term effects of concussions on athletes and soldiers. For years, he has worked on biodefense programs with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Texas at Austin, and the Army Research Laboratories and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Washington, D.C.

But each spring of the academic year, you can find him leading an undergraduate signature course, Autoimmune Disease, talking about sense-making and the autoimmune system with 18-22 year-olds.

Why does Kornguth choose to teach undergrads? “Why wouldn’t I?” he says. “The rate of scientific discovery relating to the cause and treatment of these diseases is progressing very rapidly, and so as both a faculty member and student, I find there is a new insight we all perceive from each day’s discussion,” he says.

How he does it:

Sense-making is one element of Kornguth’s life work. It’s the process of finding patterns in seemingly unrelated data to gain new insight for civilian and soldier protection.

Sense-making is critical in medicine, he says, “where a practitioner can take what appear to be dispersed signs and symptoms reported by a patient, and align these into a fused diagnosis.”

This same process, he notes, is critical in technology innovation and intelligence-gathering, and many other aspects of life in the world.

Learn more:

In a series of podcasts produced by the Office of Instructional Innovation, Steven Kornguth discusses various aspects of health and autoimmune disease.

Listen to the Learning from Texas Education Innovators podcast.

Inside the light room at the College of EducationWe all know that students need math support, but sometimes teachers need new ways to support their students’ learning. In her video studio in the College of Education, Sarah Powell creates short videos for YouTube that offer tools and strategies on a variety of math topics—from solving equations to partial products multiplication. The clips provide research-based techniques and strategies that are easy for teachers to transfer to the classroom.

The videos are part of Project STAIR—Supporting Teaching of Algebra: Individual Readiness—and they offer quick and easy-to-understand tutorials, whether you’re a new teacher or a classroom veteran—or a parent looking for help with your student’s homework.

Powell is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education. Her research interests include developing and testing interventions for students with mathematics difficulties. Project STAIR is a research project collaboration among the University of Missouri, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Austin.


Jim Hoffman working with students in Mozambique

An interview with James Hoffman, professor of language and literacy studies, on his collaboration with University of Texas San Antonio Professor of Literacy Education Misty Sailors and their longstanding partnership with educators in Mozambique.

Current work

In 2016, Misty and I became the primary literacy consultants on a seven-year project in Mozambique funded by the Canadian government. We work in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, CODE Canada, and Progresso (our local NGO).

This is our most recent and current project and is closest to what we do in our work at home as literacy teacher educators.  We are working directly with teacher training colleges to improve the quality of teacher preparation for primary schools.

Initially, we focused on designing and gathering baseline data on current practices in teacher preparation. Our work has shifted to focus on work with teacher educators to promote the use of interactive/participatory methodologies that encourage active teaching and active learning in academic courses. Our long-term goal is that the next generation of elementary teachers use these interactive tools and strategies in their own classrooms.

Adapting methods to local context

For the last year, we’ve been engaged in a feasibility study of a mentoring partnership between a teacher training college and their annex elementary schools. Our approach is modeled on the methods we use currently at both UT Austin and UT San Antonio in our tutoring and mentoring.

We have adapted our methods to the local Mozambique context and are working to develop a model that can be used nationally. Throughout our time working in Africa, we have been intentional in conducting research with our colleagues that can inform the international community.

Respect for local expertise

We are careful in our work to respect and use local expertise. We are sometimes positioned as external experts who bring solutions to problems. We are not that. We work hard in building relationships to be supportive of local efforts, local expertise, and local problem-posing.

We work as partners. We worry a great deal that much of international development work comes from a very different model where grand solutions are imported by outside experts to solve problems identified by these same outsiders.

Mostly, these grand solutions are simplistic, wrong, and deflect attention away from the powerful work that is being done by locals. Post-colonial oppression thrives in the form of international aid efforts.

 James Hoffman directs the undergraduate reading specialization program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin and teaches graduate courses focused on literacy research. He is a professor of Language and Literacy Studies.

 For more than 15 years, he has conducted research and development work in Africa with Misty Sailors, professor of literacy education in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at University of Texas at San Antonio. Their work has taken them to several nations where they have collaborated with local experts and communities to improve literacy instruction in the primary grades.


Victor Sáenz began his tenure as chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in June. He discusses how changing the department’s name from Educational Administration better reflects the dynamic field, and what’s happening within the department and in the educational leadership and policy arena.

You have said that changing the name of the department reflects an evolution that aligns with changes in education. What are the most critical changes in the field right now?

The new department name reflects immense changes in the field of education, brought on by innovations in school leadership and management as well as shifting policy priorities. Issues such as school choice, demographic change, the rights of undocumented students, state divestment of public education, the compounding effects of poverty on school systems, and innovations in technology are re-shaping the education landscape. We need to train our school leaders and policy researchers for contemporary K-12 and higher education contexts, and our current faculty are engaged in research and practice that informs these new educational realities.

The department has a history of graduating principals and superintendents who go on to lead schools and districts not just in Texas, but across the country. What sets your graduates apart from other public education leaders?

Our department has built a national reputation for producing award-winning educational leaders and policy researchers. To ensure this legacy continues, we must be proactive and stay ahead of new educational leadership and policy challenges. Our department has a strong core of senior faculty with years of executive experience in training leaders and scholars, mid-career and junior faculty who employ cutting-edge methodological training in their expansive research agendas, and clinical faculty who possess years of professional experience that they bring into their classrooms. This balance is a key asset for our department and our students, and it must be carefully supported as our educational systems are disrupted by technology, curricular innovations, and shifting educational policy priorities.

What is the role of leaders in today’s educational arena?

Our leadership program’s goal is to achieve equity and excellence in academic outcomes for all students. As demographic changes portend more racial and ethnic diversity in the coming decades, especially in urban contexts, it is imperative that our educational leaders have a bold vision to promote the way in creating greater access to meaningful education opportunities for all students. We train educational leaders to have a strong grounding in research and best practices, to focus on improving teaching and learning, and to utilize inquiry-based, data-savvy, and strategic-planning skills. Training strong and effective educational leaders then leads to strong and effective schools, and this is how we aim to achieve our goal of equity and excellence for all.

How do faculty and students in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy work together to address pressing policy issues?

Our department has a rich legacy of students and faculty working collaboratively across sectors to address key policy issues in education. It begins with a group of faculty committed to working with students to provide meaningful experiential and field-based experiences that enrich learning in and out of the classroom. As a result, some of these opportunities have led to real policy impact. Our students emerge from our programs equipped to not only navigate multiple policy arenas but also to effectively influence and impact key policy conversations in education spaces.

What are your recommendations for anyone considering a career in educational leadership and policy?

Prospective students interested in applying to our educational leadership and policy programs should consider our strong legacy of training equity-minded scholars and practitioners. We train policy scholars who address emerging education policy issues and are committed to researching inequities in schools for all students. We prepare school leaders who anchor their practice in social justice and anti-racist leadership. We provide powerful learning experiences that are deeply grounded in fieldwork within schools and communities. These experiences launch our master’s and doctoral students into meaningful careers as scholar-practitioners with an optimal blend of theory and practice.

Victor B. Sáenz is chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy and is an associate professor in the Program in Higher Education Leadership. In 2010 Sáenz founded Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), focused on advancing success strategies for male students of color across the education pipeline.

The goal of the Department of Special Education is to be a bridge of expertise for families of children with autism, and for the community. We provide a space for our faculty to conduct basic and applied research. We also prepare our students to create and deliver best practices in a variety of environments: the home, community settings, and as researchers at other institutions. Mark O’Reilly, Chair, Department of Special Education

Basic Research

Baby Talk

Micheal Sandbank, assistant professor, is studying how typically-developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies may provide researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, eventually leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. They may also inform intervention practices for children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using something resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses.


What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a set of behaviors associated with specific differences in how the brain perceives and processes environmental input.

1 in 68
children have been identified with ASD.

Boys: 1 in 42 | Girls: 1 in 189
It’s around 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.
of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

Source: Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network


How is autism diagnosed?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed by looking at criteria in two categories: Social Communication and Behavior.

What are the major transitions in the life of someone with autism?

1. Diagnosis (Typically age 2-4)

Research has shown that most children are diagnosed with ASD around age 4, though a diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid, and stable.

2. Transition to Schooling (typically age 5-6)

Parents and guardians begin to navigate the school system.

3. Transition to postsecondary life (typically age 18-22)

Early interventions, public awareness and K-12 support have increased educational opportunities for children with autism. But what are the options for life after high school?

Applied Research

Bluebonnet Trails

The Department of Special Education collaborates with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services in Georgetown. This collaboration allows doctoral and master’s students to provide family-centered applied behavior analysis (ABA) in home and community settings for children between the ages of 3 and 15 who have a diagnosis of autism and live in Williamson, Travis and surrounding counties.

Programs are embedded into daily routines. Graduate students may accompany a family to the grocery store to work on making a successful shopping trip, or to the library to follow rules in the community related to staying with a parent.

This collaboration offers families interventions that reduce challenging behaviors and increase and improve communication, daily living skills, and abilities related to health and safety. They also increase social opportunities that children and young teens have through their relationships at home and in the community.

The result is long-lasting change. Parents learn to implement strategies rooted in behavioral principles that are supported by applied research in the field of autism, behavior analysis, and special education.

“Families get immediate solutions to challenging behaviors that may be occurring throughout the day. Our children learn skills and behaviors that support higher learning at home, in the community, and at school.” – Suzy Albarran, BCBA Second-year doctoral student, Field Supervisor, Bluebonnet Trails


“Everyone I worked with helped my family so much. My child is now able to take care of his basic needs without my help because of their guidance and interventions.” – Noemi,mother of child with Autism

Next Generation Research

Special Education graduates are leading research at major universities across the country, including:

  1. Wendy Machalicek, M.Ed, ’04, Ph.D., ’08, University of Oregon—Effective behavior analytic assessment practices and interventions addressing the behavioral and educational needs of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
  2. Mandy Rispoli, M.Ed. ’04, Ph.D. ’09, Purdue—Functional behavior assessment and function-based intervention for challenging behavior in children with ASD and developmental disabilities
  3. Helen Malone, Ph.D. ’05, Ohio State University— Teaching new skills to individuals with severe to profound disabilities and assessment/ treatment of challenging behaviors
  4. Colin Muething, Ph.D. ’16, Emory University— Novel treatments for severe problem behavior, the mechanisms that mediate their effectiveness and reporting large outcomes from these treatments
  5. Tonya Davis, Ph.D. ’08, Baylor University— Treatment of severe challenging behavior among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Beyond Autism

Faculty in the Department of Special Education and its associated centers provide research across the spectrum of learning and behavioral disorders—focused on topics like intensive math and reading interventions, design and evaluation of assistive technology, supporting bilingual students, and the transition to post-school employment for people with disabilities.

Research on learning and behavioral disorders is a growing need. In 2014–15, 13 percent of all public school students—ages 3–21—received services for learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders.  Learning disabilities in particular are the most prevalent; children with learning disabilities represent more than one-third of all school-age students with disabilities.

What do you want your child to get from sports?

Leadership? Health benefits? The thrill of winning and the dignity of handling defeat with grace?

Think about what psychological and social skills you value and how those may correlate with success in all areas of life. How can you use sports to instill them? Don’t rely on coaches or other adults to do that for you.

Organized sports require your child to balance the immediate reward of a win and the delayed reward of a season-long championship pursuit. Sports can help kids face disappointment publicly and learn how to focus on process-oriented goals.

When the first question you ask your child after a game is “Did you win?” that shapes her psychological response to her performance.

If she’s a four-year-old chasing around the usual swarm of other kids on the soccer field, she doesn’t have the self-awareness, sport-related skills, or psychological development to make a clear impact on the outcome of that game. Yet you just framed how she interprets how you’re evaluating her performance in terms that are out of her control.

Instead, try asking her if she had fun, what she was proud of herself for doing, and one thing she thinks she could improve-–things that are process-oriented and generally under her control.

Matt Bowers helping his son climb a rock wall

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Which sport should your daughter or son play and why?

As a caveat, so much of the answer to this question depends on the individual coach and the league, but some sports clearly foster different things than others.

Do you want a sport that produces better physiological and health outcomes? Try ultimate Frisbee or cross country.

Do you want a sport that could lead to lifelong participation? Go for tennis or golf.

Do you want a social environment with more peer-led, democratic social structures? Try skateboarding.

Do you want to instill an American rite of passage? Try baseball or softball.

This isn’t a plug for a specific sport, but rather an opportunity to think about what sports can deliver based on their nature, their design, and their implementation. Look for sports–and sport leagues–that align with your values and what you want emphasized in your child’s development.

Matt Bowers with his son at the climbing gym.Matt Bowers researches the management of systems for athlete and coach development. He also investigates the potential supplemental impact that non-organized sport settings—such as pick-up sports and video games—may have on these development systems. Drawing from a blend of quantitative, qualitative, and historical methodologies, his research focuses on leveraging this understanding of settings to influence the design and implementation of sport programs and policies that promote both elite performance and mass participation throughout the lifespan. 

Text messaging and phone calls make it easier for new moms in Quito, Ecuador, to care for their newborns and for themselves. Results from research conducted by a faculty member in UT’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE) are driving new protocols for this population.

Julie Maslowsky is an assistant professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her focus is health and health promotion for children and adolescents, in the U.S. and abroad. For 11 years, Maslowsky and her colleagues have conducted studies on ways to improve maternal and child health in Quito, in partnership with Ecuador’s Ministry of Public Health.

In an ongoing series of studies, the team has examined various processes, including the continuum of care before, during and after hospitalizations.

Photo of Julie Maslowsky

Julie Maslowsky

“We identified follow-up care as an opportunity to improve postpartum maternal and infant health,” she says. “Great care was taken in the hospital with patients and their needs but once they were discharged, new mothers didn’t have continuing support.”

The postpartum period is a key window of opportunity for health education. Various health issues may arise after mothers and newborns leave the hospital. For mothers, recovering from delivery, breastfeeding, postpartum depression, and accessing contraception are common concerns that arise. Mothers also need support in knowing what is normal and what is a serious health problem in their infant.

Maslowsky says, “We knew that mobile technology would be key to help solve these issues. More than 90 percent of adults in Ecuador have cell phones.” Maslowsky and her colleagues developed an intervention designed to support and educate new mothers via mobile phone.

The intervention had two parts. First, each mother received a phone call from a nurse 48 hours after she was discharged from the hospital. The nurse spent approximately 30 minutes talking with the mother and educating her about common postpartum concerns for mothers and their infants, including breastfeeding, family planning, safe sleeping, vaccines, fevers, and the newborn’s eating, sleeping and bowel habits.

After the brief educational session, the mother was then free to call or text the nurse any time during the next 30 days if she had a question or concern. In their most recent study, 178 women took part and were randomly assigned to the intervention or the control group.

The intervention produced significant improvements in health for mother and baby, which were measured when the baby was three months old. Compared to the control group, participants in the intervention group experienced positive outcomes:

  • Mothers were more likely to exclusively breastfeed their infants.
  • Newborns were less likely to have to go to a doctor for acute illnesses.
  • Women were more likely to bring newborns to well-baby visits.
  • Women used more effective forms of birth control, i.e. a long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) method rather than only a condom.

Maslowsky and her colleagues were thrilled with the results. “Our Ecuadorian collaborators are enthusiastic about the potential of this intervention to improve postpartum maternal and infant health,” Maslowsky said.

“We are planning the next phase of the study: universal implementation of this program for all new mothers in one of southern Quito’s health zones, which has a population of more than 400,000,” Maslowsky says.Group of people holding a Texas Longhorns flag

In 11 years, Maslowsky has traveled to Quito more than a dozen times. In a trip this spring, she was joined by Ric Bonnell, director of Global Health Programs in the Dell Medical School’s Department of Population Health program. They are exploring potential partnerships for Dell with Maslowsky’s program in Ecuador.

Maslowsky is one of many faculty in the College of Education whose research extends beyond the U.S. Read about the international projects changing the world in Mozambique, New Zealand, China and more.

Huriya Jabbar examines the influence of market forces on the nation’s charter school environment.

Nowhere are charter schools more closely examined than in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city scrapped its failing school system. Today, more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend tuition-free charter schools.

Some of the hopes for increased student achievement have come to pass in this grand experiment—various test scores have risen and completion rates are edging up.

And most of these schools are doing what their champions said they would in response to competition: they’re improving academic and operational quality.

What’s surprised researchers, officials and parents, though, is the extent to which market forces and competition affect how school administrators find and admit students, how students with learning difficulties have sometimes been excluded, and how the changes have influenced the teacher labor market.

“New Orleans is the city where charter school success is being examined and defined,” says Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor in the Educational Policy and Planning program in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education.

Jabbar has been studying the charter school system in New Orleans for almost four years and is a nationally recognized expert on school choice and competition among schools.

Her background is in economics and early in her academic career she developed an interest in how public schools compare to the private sector.

“I’m interested in how markets interact with government. Markets don’t create equity. So my ongoing questions are, ‘What’s the role of the private sector in providing social services, and What is the role of government oversight of private organizations in public education, like charter schools?’”

“The theory is that competition puts healthy pressure on charter school leaders to improve their academic services, programs, extracurricular activities, or some combination of those, to attract and retain families,” she says.

According to Jabbar, most studies of New Orleans’ charter schools have missed an important point. “They assume that school leaders are aware of competitive pressures and can respond in productive ways.

“When I began my research in 2012, I wanted to know what actually happens in a competitive marketplace of schools. Are leaders aware of their competition? Which schools do they view as rivals and why?”

Jabbar also asked, “Do school leaders respond to competitive pressure by improving their schools academically?”

The results of her research showed that in the short term, the answer is no. “Competition places pressure on schools, but the strategies schools use to compete are not necessarily those that policy makers expected,” she says.

Every Kid is Money

Advocates of charter schools point to the fact that if schools don’t meet the standards of their charter, they will be closed.

Jabbar’s research found that some did focus on improving academics. About a third “added what they call ‘innovative curricular programs’ to attract parents, which is what we want them to be doing,” she says.

But to keep their charters, “almost all of the schools began to engage in superficial strategies that don’t generate  real change. The other concerning finding was that one third of the schools screened out students, even though they were supposed to accept everyone.”

In one interview, Jabbar quoted a principal as saying, “Every kid is money.” Another said, “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

This short-term focus on keeping their charters and attracting federal and local funding brought in by students meant that charter school principals were less likely to strengthen academics.

To position themselves to attract the right students, according to Jabbar’s research, principals engaged in a “selection strategy,” meaning they focused on activities such as moving low-performing students out of the schools, increasing targeted marketing and advertising, or both.

Some schools hosted invitation only open houses where they dissuaded parents whose students had poor academic records and could lower test scores. Some chose not to fill seats left empty mid-year by students who didn’t return or who were pushed out.

They didn’t want to fill those seats with students who might have been out of school for a few months or who had moved from school to school due to issues like behavior.

Jabbar says there were also signs of “cream-skimming”—leaders targeting affluent or higher-achieving students for supposedly open-enrollment schools.

Turning Point

In New Orleans, the model for charter school enrollment continues to evolve.

The focus on marketing and creamskimming by the schools prompted change in the way charter schools enroll students.

Parents now have access to a universal application to centralize enrollment. Parents list schools in order of preference and submit online.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems”

Using objective criteria, the system then assigns a child to a school.

“When schools can’t directly enroll students, they can’t screen out particular types of students as easily. It helps provide equal access,” Jabbar says.

And New Orleans continues to redefine its role as a regulatory body when it comes to K-12 education. The city is moving from a free market experiment in public education to one where government addresses market failures and concerns of equity.

Future Research Questions

Jabbar’s research has the attention of local and national organizations. She partners with Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University to disseminate research. Her findings have also received extensive local and national press coverage.

She’s extending her research to charter school programs in San Antonio and Detroit where, unlike New Orleans, there is more competition from a traditional public school system. In the spring, she was chosen as a 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.

“I’ll be exploring ways in which teachers find and choose jobs in cities with high numbers of charter schools,” she says. “I want to learn how school choice and charters influence the teacher labor market because voluntary moves impact the distribution of teacher quality across schools.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems.”

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Pencil and BatteryKids are innately and passionately curious. How can teachers of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—reframe their classrooms to fuel that passion?

The College of Education’s Center for STEM Education is recognized nationally for its research and classroom teaching. Its faculty and staff know that cultivating a passion for discovery produces lifelong learners. Center Director Victor Sampson is in his second year as the center’s director. An associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Mathematics Education, Sampson talks about the current state of STEM instruction and opportunities for the future.

How Can Teachers Improve STEM Education?

Victor Sampson has identified five ways we can change the way classroom teachers interact with students.

1. Create an environment where everyone is teaching and learning.

This is more than semantics. It is one of the fundamental problems with how we think about schools. Teaching and learning co-occur. If we remove the dichotomy of teaching and learning, we can recognize that students can also teach each other.

Students can teach the teacher. In my own teaching experience, for example, I would often ask a student to help when I had a problem with technology. The student taught me the solution. An effective learning environment supports all of these relationships.

2. Encourage students to investigate questions in their own way.

Students should have more voice and choice in STEM subjects. I advocate an approach where a teacher poses a scientific question to students in middle or high school, such as, “How is the strength of an electromagnet affected by the number of turns of wire?” Students have to design an investigation to answer the question, collect and analyze data, and support an answer with evidence.

It’s OK for students to fail at first. When an experiment doesn’t go the way you thought it would, it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to learn.

3. Let students follow their unique interests.

Students should explore topics that are meaningful to them. Meaningful topics are those that students themselves are curious about: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? How do I contribute to climate change? What does it mean that my neighborhood is a “food desert” and why does that matter?

These require scientific and mathematical knowledge to answer. Furthermore, they are open-ended, in that an answer to \ one part of the question inevitably leads to another question.

4. Encourage collaborative learning across disciplines.

STEM fields are no longer isolated from each other. Breakthroughs are often the result of collaboration. As but one example, the paper reporting on the first discovery of gravitational waves has more than 100 authors. STEM is a social endeavor, and we should represent that to students as they carry out investigations. Ideally, students should see themselves as part of a community of learners and scientists, engineers or mathematicians.

5. Assess, Assess, Assess.

What works? What doesn’t? Assessment provides invaluable guidance.

Interview with Victor Sampson – Director of the Center for STEM Education at the College of Education.

Our good work with schools and teachers opens doors for us to create and pilot innovative curricula and then conduct research on students' learning using that curricula

How has teaching science and math changed in the last 50 years?

In many ways it hasn’t. In a lot of classrooms, students still sit at a desk, listen to the teacher and take notes. Then they’ll be asked to read a chapter and answer questions about it. They are consumers of knowledge rather than creators of it.

It’s the same with math. Students watch a teacher do math problems and then work on their own problems. Lost is the responsibility of students to engage with deeper principles. In other words, students are not held responsible for negotiating meaning in these situations.

How is the Center for STEM Education’s research translated into strategies for teachers?

The center includes a professional network of teachers called the Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC). The TRC has grown to reach more than 10,000 teachers across Texas annually. More than 60 of these collaboratives are set up across the state and enable us to move ideas quickly to teachers.

We attend state and national conferences for educators. Center faculty have presented our work at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting, and the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching.

I have presented at the Texas Education Leadership Association annual meeting, another important avenue not only for disseminating our work, but also for improving STEM education. If we want to improve STEM education, we need to work with school boards, superintendents, principals, and educators.

When teachers use the center’s strategies, how do outcomes change?

Learning increases in science and math. We have evidence they also make gains in other subjects. For example, students who learn through the argument-driven inquiry (ADI) approach I developed with collaborators show significant gains in science proficiency.

What is Argument-Driven Inquiry?

Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI) is an innovative approach to laboratory instruction based on current research about how people learn science, and includes recommendations for making lab activities more meaningful. ADI helps students learn how to participate in the practices of science, and use core ideas and crosscutting concepts of science to make sense of natural phenomena. ADI gives students an opportunity to learn how to read, write and speak in the context of science. Current research indicates that when teachers incorporate ADI into the science curriculum, all students—including those who tend to be at a disadvantage in traditional science classrooms— make substantial gains in inquiry skills, understanding content, and the ability to write in a scientific manner. It has the potential to make science classrooms more equitable and more effective.

Why is the Center for STEM Education important?

We are a hub for all parties interested in improving STEM education: teachers, schools, districts, policy makers, state educational leaders, and private industries relying on a STEM knowledge base.

We research STEM teaching and learning, evaluate other programs designed to improve STEM education, provide professional development for educators, and then share findings from these activities so that others benefit from our work.

We collaborate across the UT campus and are currently working on projects with faculty in engineering, computer science, and psychology, to name a few.

Richard Crawford, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with Stephanie Rivale, Todd Hutner and me on a project recently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We are investigating a promising approach to integrating engineering into science classes. We want to create a curricular framework to help students learn science content, scientific practices, and engineering practices at the same time.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, associate director for STEM education research in the center, works with Chandra Muller, a professor in the Department of Sociology. The NSF is funding their research on ways to increase the number and diversity of undergraduate students entering and completing STEM majors. This is important research, and I am very excited to see the results of their project.

We are also a national leader in STEM education. For example, Dr. Riegle-Crumb just finished a two-year term as president of the Sociology of Education Association. I’m an associate editor of the Journal of Research Science Teaching, the leading journal in science education. Carol Fletcher, who is our deputy director, works with people across the U.S. on ways to increase the number of computer science teachers in schools. These are indicative of the respect that the broader STEM education community has for the work we do.

What’s your next challenge?

We are very much focused on the need to improve computer science education.

We need to provide professional development to current teachers in both the content and pedagogy of computer science. We are well-positioned to meet the needs of the teaching force in Texas, thanks to Dr. Fletcher, who oversees these efforts. The center has gained a reputation for the high-quality professional development we provide.

Personally, I’m focused on changing the nature of STEM learning environments for students for whom English is a second-language. This is particularly important in Texas. There is a shortage of STEM teachers who speak a language other than English, and this tends to result in learning environments that are not very equitable or inclusive.

I am working on a grant with Rebecca Callahan, an associate professor of bilingual/bicultural education in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, to study ways science teachers can use the ADI approach. We want to help teachers provide a more language-rich learning environment for emerging multilingual students so these students can learn science at the same time they are developing skills in reading, writing, and English.

We have to find ways to improve teaching and learning in STEM with respect to the language needs of our students.