College of Education research news in brief

November 17, 2020

Two doctoral candidates receive Prevention Research Center anti-racism research grants

Two doctoral candidates in the College of Education are among those awarded funding by the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC) for research projects focusing on reducing racism or promoting anti-racist practices and culture.

Andrea Layton, doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership Program, is doing research on “The Link Between Institutional Racism, Mental Health and Academic Efficacy.”

She will conduct an online survey of Black Penn State undergraduates between the ages of 18-25 who have received mental health services while attending Penn State. Based upon her findings, she will propose ways to create a student-centered environment based upon the survey respondents’ descriptions of their college experiences.

Her faculty adviser is Deborah Schussler, associate professor of education.

Sarah Zipf, doctoral candidate in higher education, is doing research on “Experiences of Racialization in Online Undergraduate Education.”

She is studying color-evasiveness in online education, in hopes of informing policies and practices that will reduce racism experienced by online students. She is surveying online students in one college at Penn State about their perceptions of race and of the online classroom climate. She also will analyze written communications such as syllabi and websites that students may encounter.

Her faculty adviser is Alicia Dowd, professor of education and director and senior scientist for the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State.

The grant recipients will share the outcomes of their research projects at public seminars hosted by the PRC. Registration for email notification of upcoming PRC seminars is available by sending an email to

Read more here.

Researchers study trends in Pennsylvania school reopening plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges to school districts across the nation as they have debated options for educating students safely. According to researchers in Penn State’s College of Education, the decision by Pennsylvania school districts to reopen schools in-person, remotely or through a hybrid system is closely tied to the racial demographics of the region, and they recommend a series of steps to support equitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by school districts.

“Our hope is to try to help school district leaders in Pennsylvania understand the different ways people are responding (to the pandemic),” said Erica Frankenberg, professor of education (educational leadership) in the Department of Education Policy Studies. “Hopefully, this sharing of knowledge will help inform the work they do.”

Frankenberg, co-founder and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, conducted the study with Katharine Dulaney, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education Policy Studies. They shared key findings and policy recommendations in a research brief, “Inequity in Pennsylvania School District Reopening Decisions: How Districts’ Mode of Delivery Varies by Region and Student/Community.”

Read more here.

Intervention improves sense of belonging for minoritized students

Broad-access institutions — colleges and universities that are relatively affordable and less selective than elite institutions — open doors for many students from disadvantaged social backgrounds who might not otherwise pursue higher education. Yet these institutions struggle with persistence and graduation rates among this population.

Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies, is part of a research team that is seeking to help first-generation and racial-ethnic minoritized college students succeed by enhancing their sense of belonging through a social-psychological intervention.

“While this study was a field experiment that enables us to make causal inferences, my earlier work using descriptive research on larger, nationally representative datasets also lends support for the main hypothesis: that a strong sense of social belonging might be a protective factor that enables students to persist and thrive in college,” said Gopalan.

Gopalan’s research team, led by Mary Murphy, the Herman B Wells Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, recently published a paper, “A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university” in Science Advances.

Read more here.

New $4.6 million research award to make sure that every voice is heard

A new, five-year, $4.6 million award from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research will fund research, technology development, training and dissemination to assist people who cannot communicate through speech or writing.

David McNaughton, professor of education (special education) in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education, who serves as the director of Training and Dissemination for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC), is part of the interdisciplinary research team led by Janice Light, Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children’s Communicative Competence and professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State.

Individuals with complex communication needs participate in every step of the RERC on AAC’s work. In this way, the center is able to truly understand and respond to the real-world needs of the people they serve. When new technology is designed, people with complex needs are evaluating its usability and effectiveness. When researchers from the RERC on AAC present their innovations at academic or professional conferences, individuals with complex communication needs participate in the presentations.

“Our partnerships with the people who use AAC technology is essential to the work that we do,” explained McNaughton. “They are the ones who know what needs are being met with current technology, and what needs must be addressed with a new generation of AAC technology supports.”

Read more here.

Researchers examine ‘race unknown’ enrollment data in higher education

When a college student self-identifies as “race unknown,” what does that mean in the context of higher education research? According to researchers at Penn State and Michigan State University, the “race unknown” category does not represent random “noise” in data collection but rather can be attributed to some combination of student responses and data collection practices. Additionally, they discovered high concentrations of “race unknown” enrollments in certain institutional types (the most and least selective).

Therefore, the research team suggests that researchers refrain from dropping “race unknown” from their studies and also from interpreting the results for the “race unknown” category because “it is not a conceptually meaningful ethnoracial group.”

“We’re hoping that we change the way (higher education) researchers think about racial groups,” said Karly Ford, assistant professor of education (higher education) in the Department of Education Policy Studies in Penn State’s College of Education.

According to Ford, higher education researchers often drop the “race unknown” category when examining college enrollments and doing so changes the racial compositions of student bodies. A problem with that approach, she added, is that if “you drop this group it makes the percentages of other groups look larger because you’ve taken a slice out of the pie, so the other pieces of the pie all get bigger.”

“We just can’t ignore the fact that we don’t have great race data on students,” said Kelly Rosinger, assistant professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies.

“If we really want to understand enrollment, persistence, completion, borrowing or other outcomes by race (in higher education), we need to understand the limitations that exist in data collection.”

Ford and Rosinger, along with Qiong Zhu, a postdoctoral research associate in the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, present their findings in their paper, “What Do We Know About ‘Race Unknown,’” which was published recently in Educational Researcher.

Read more here.

Researchers use Convergence Accelerator grant to shorten drug discovery timeline

Amy Voss Farris, assistant professor of education, is part of a team of researchers awarded a $960,000, nine-month National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator grant to explore faster and more cost-efficient methods of discovering pharmaceuticals using quantum artificial intelligence.

“This research will converge researchers from multiple disciplines such as engineering, science, medicine and education in quantum-enabled drug discovery to make a tangible impact on our society,” said Swaroop Ghosh, principal investigator and Joseph R. and Janice M. Monkowski Career Development Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering.

“Computational approaches to accelerate drug discovery is of tremendous economic and societal relevance. If successful, this project will address two of the Grand Challenges in Engineering listed by National Academy of Engineering, namely, engineering better medicine and engineering the tools for scientific discovery. The importance of these two challenges is amplified under the current global crisis due to COVID-19. We are excited about the prospects of quantum artificial intelligence in resolving these important challenges,” Ghosh said.

In addition to Voss Farris, the co-PIs and senior personnel, all of Penn State, are: Nikolay Dokholyan, College of Medicine; Sean Hallgren, computer science and engineering; Mahmut Kandemir, computer science and engineering; Morteza Kayyalha, electrical engineering; Mehrdad Mahdavi, engineering; Nitin Samarth, physics; and Bhuvan Urgaonkar, computer science and engineering.

Read more here.

Last Updated November 17, 2020