IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Developing Research Training Programs (Part 2): Advice from IES-funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Their Partners

This blog post featuring advice from IES-funded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partners on developing research training programs is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs.

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to encourage undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and master’s students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in education research. The Pathways program grants were made to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and their partners to provide one year of mentored research training. We asked the leadership teams from our six initial Pathways Programs to share their lessons learned on establishing research training programs. In this post (part two), we share lessons learned from Pathways Programs based at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partner institutions. In part one, we shared the lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).

 

RISE Training Program 

University of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Leadership: Shenika Hankerson, William Drakeford, Sean Coleman, Megan Stump, Debbie O’Banion (not pictured)

 

Establishing cross-campus partnerships is important. Students in the RISE Program have benefited from interacting with individuals in a variety of formats and from a variety of backgrounds. Students meet with faculty mentors, graduate students, and administrators and faculty to discuss research, participate in professional development, and learn about graduate school. Similar to the mantra of “it takes a village,” no training program will be as beneficial as it could be without larger campus support. Make sure to establish your program, know its goals and aims, and share this information widely with the campus community to create buy-in and generate support for the program. The more that students from underrepresented populations are able to interact with individuals who look like them from a variety of academic and administrative contexts, the more these students will be able to visualize themselves in various roles and develop plans to reach these future academic and career goals.

 

RISE Training Program

North Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington

Leadership: Wynetta Lee, Marta Sanchez, Nina Smith, Rene Johnson

 

Overall, our experience implementing RISE has been positive and rewarding. We would absolutely do it again if given the chance to do so. We have learned many lessons along the way that other institutions (especially MSIs) should consider when developing undergraduate research training programs:

  • University support, beyond project funding, is crucial for the full development of students (academically, emotionally, financially, etc.) as their needs are manifested.
  • Unlimited access to the PI/Co-PI is very important as a means of fostering students’ sense of belonging. It is important to reassign duties for those who take this on as it will morph into full-time work.
  • Personnel selection is very important. It is a long-term commitment that requires considerable time. Post-tenure personnel are best as the key personnel for the project.
  • It is important to be flexible and able to pivot, without losing the purpose of the program. The unexpected is inevitable.
  • Institutions must be willing to be an authentic partner with the project, ready to stand in the gap for essential needs that are not covered with external funding.
  • Many students are first-generation college and are unaware of the higher education landscape, especially when it comes to credentialing beyond the undergraduate program. It takes time for the idea of graduate education to take root as a possibility for them.
  • Fellows are vulnerable yet resilient—their research capacity should not be underestimated.
  • Continual reinforcement of their sense of belonging in education and social science research is critical for success.
  • Cognitive lessons will sometimes be on hold to address “life happens” situations. As it is with students, “life happens” with mentors and instructors, too.

 

PURPOSE Program

Florida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Leadership: Jeannine E. Turner, Peggy P. Auman, Alysia D. Roehrig, Tamara Bertrand Jones, Novel Tani, Erik Rawls, Steven Williams (not pictured)

 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) typically provide support for developing student cultural and social identities. We recommend tapping into this aspect and supporting student development of researcher-identities by focusing on social justice research. We created an interdisciplinary research network by inviting scholars with existing projects to partner with us, thereby expanding our capacity. Before partnering with community organizations, we recommend assessing your institution's existing research capacity and assets that are available to support student research development. If your project is a collaboration between two universities—as ours is between a predominantly White institution and historically Black university—you can share resources and build upon opportunities on both campuses. We believe that research opportunities are shaped by institutional cultures, and cross-cultural collaborations can raise awareness about structural inequities and the benefits of cross-cultural research experiences. It is important to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion across the schools and pool resources to provide professional development and research experiences that broaden and build on student knowledge and interests. Furthermore, we have found over the years that past fellows have a commitment to future fellows. Past fellows want to contribute to the development of current fellows as scholars and are willing to serve as peer mentors and presenters at seminars where they share their knowledge, skills, and research passions. Linking past and future fellows allows us to build and sustain a communal network. Such communal networks help us to provide not only research support but also nurture research trainees as whole people who are able to sustain work-life balance. Thus, personal and research identities positively reinforce one another and may buffer the stress from demanding academic environments.  


Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.

Developing Research Training Programs (Part 1): Advice from IES-funded Hispanic Serving Institutions

This blog post featuring advice from IES-funded Hispanic Serving Institutions on developing research training programs, is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to encourage undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and master’s students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in education research. The Pathways program grants were made to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and their partners to provide one year of mentored research training. We asked the leadership teams from our six initial Pathways Programs to share their lessons learned on establishing research training programs. In part one of this blog, we share the lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). In part two, we share lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partner institutions.

 

Pathways: Successful Transitions to and Through Higher Education

California State University, Sacramento (HSI, AANAPISI)

Leadership: Jana Noel, Timothy Fong, Jacqueline Brooks, Erica Zamora

 

We have five areas for universities to consider that wish to develop undergraduate training programs:

Create an interdisciplinary training team. Draw on the strengths of the wide range of researchers on your campus and beyond. An interdisciplinary team provides an expanded range of perspectives on both the research methods and the questions that are important to pursue within education. All are important and valuable to the expansion of research that will make a difference to the lives of underrepresented students.

Develop partnerships. Develop partnerships across departments and colleges as well as in the community. Our apprenticeship sites span the university and into the community and include university research centers and institutes, K-12 offices of education, and non-profit public policy centers. Apprenticeship partnerships provide fellows with the opportunity to be part of a team that actively conducts research into pressing educational issues and contributes to the research needed to make practice and policy decisions within your region and state.

Intentionally match mentors to fellows. As much as possible, match the fellows’ diversity when selecting research mentors. Mentors provide support on learning new research methodology, asking new questions, working as a team, preparing to present research at conferences, and preparing for graduate school.

Choose a broad research theme. Choose a broad research theme that will appeal to a wide range of students. In our case, we study the barriers and supports for underrepresented students in K-12, community college, and higher education. This allows underrepresented students at MSIs to know that they are welcome in the program and that their experiences and voices will be valued.

Provide continuity across cohorts. Fellows in our program speak at recruiting events for future cohorts, participate in panel discussions for future cohorts, and truly serve as our best source of encouragement for future fellows. The continuity persists during and beyond the program as fellows engage in their academic journeys together.

 

AWARDSS Training Program

University of Arizona (HSI)/College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arizona

Leadership: Michelle Perfect, Brandy Perkl, Sara Chavarria, Andrew Huerta

 

Our number one piece of advice for establishing undergraduate research training programs is to add in bridges over the biggest barriers to URM participation.

Our Pathways program (AWARDSS) was built on the idea that (1) support from campus programs and (2) intentional mentoring are vital aspects of promoting participation in research from traditionally underrepresented students. For that reason, we have learned that undergraduate research training programs within MSIs need to build on what is already present. Add in the elements you know your students need most, such as financial support, increased access to resources, and focus on improvement of specific skills.

To achieve this in our practice, we built a complementary, hybrid, add-on program to the University of Arizona’s well-established and award-winning Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium (UROC) experiences. UROC provides the primary coursework and faculty, while we deliver the add-ons that allow for underrepresented minority (URM) student participation. We focused initially on providing additional funding for our students’ experiences. Then, we added a required inclusion-oriented mentor training to bolster the intentionality of those relationships and the quality of this potentially transformative relationship. This often allows us to support underrepresented mentors, as well. Mentoring does not occur in a vacuum though, and the latest research shows that those with a developmental network outperform those without one. Thus, we staffed the program specifically to serve as a supportive developmental network for our students. Finally, we assessed and trained students in academic areas of need (for example, statistics) at both the cohort and individual levels. 

We also suggest that leaders of undergraduate research training programs continuously examine their practices and adjust their models accordingly. We plan to further train our staff in more inclusive and anti-racist practices ensuring that the entire AWARDSS network is informed, intentional, and engaged in supportive practices from day one. 

 

Pathways Program 

University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA; HSI)

Leadership: Guadalupe Carmona, Ann Marie Ryan, Francesca Bronder

 

Our goals for the program are to 1) broaden participation of undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds in doctoral study, and 2) develop a pipeline of talented interdisciplinary researchers who bring fresh ideas, approaches, and perspectives to addressing the challenges of inequalities that exist in P-20 educational experiences, transitions, and outcomes. 

Through a structured program design, undergraduates can be exposed to research at an early academic stage and discover that through academic and scientific research, they can achieve their passion to systematically improve education and transform their local communities. By learning how research is conducted, closely working with faculty mentors, finding their own research focus, and developing their work, our UTSA Pathways Fellows have gained in academic and personal development, self-confidence, a sense of accomplishment and peer support, independence of work and thought, and have become more academically resilient. For many of them, UTSA Pathways has opened doors and facilitated access to several graduate schools. For others, it has helped them apply their newly acquired research skills to a variety of professional fields and become more marketable in their chosen careers.

We identified three central concepts for UTSA Pathways that we think would be helpful for others who are developing undergraduate research training programs: Empowerment, Transformation, and Inspiration.

  • Empowerment. Once unheard student voices are now becoming part of our education research community as fellows actively participate in academic and research activities. Your program should empower students to form their own identities as fellows and help to extend this empowerment to their personal lives.
  • Transformation. Our Pathways program has generated change in multiple communities, built new collaborations, recruited new faculty, and obtained supporters devoted to Pathways and its goals of broadening participation of historically underrepresented voices. We suggest that your program identify the critical partners and potential levers of change specific to your program’s model and goals.
  • Inspiration. We have found that our fellows’ resilience and commitment has been channeled through their active engagement and dissemination of their research that, for most, begins with UTSA Pathways. And our mentors’ passion and generosity has guided and supported a new generation of scholars in educational research. We encourage you to create an environment of hospitality and engagement that will embrace a passionate group of young scholars to participate in their communities of research and practice.

 


Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.  

El Camino…The Path of a Young Latina in the Making

Formally, I am known as Dr. Lorena Aceves, but you can just call me Lorena. I am a first generation (first in my family to graduate high school and college) Latina scholar. I recently completed my PhD in human development and family studies (HDFS) at the Pennsylvania State University. Currently, I am working as a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start. In my current role, I work on all things related to Head Start from issues facing the Head Start workforce to considering the impact that COVID-19 has had on the daily lives of Head Start children. Given that September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to share my camino (path) with the hopes of inspiring other Latinx students and to demonstrate the beauty of Hispanic excellence in education!

How It Started

My journey into higher education began before I could even remember. My amazing parents are two immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. Their journey of migration was fueled by the desire to open more doors of opportunity for themselves and their future family. They settled in southern California, where they would start building the foundation of values and motivation that would lead me to my PhD.

In California, my parents had their first interaction with opportunity and education for their daughter with Head Start. As a four-year-old, Head Start gave me a step up in my educational career and connected my parents to resources and services that could increase our familial wellbeing. The journey here was just getting started when my parents decided that it was time to leave southern California for Arizona. In Arizona, my parents were able to earn better wages and purchase a home in a good school district. This opportunity was not as accessible to them in California. This move, as my mom always says, “(as difficult as it was) was the best thing we could have done educationally for you and your younger brother.”

I started my elementary education in the Gilbert Public Schools school district. It was when I got to high school that a major educational opportunity opened for me—the founding of Gilbert Classical Academy (GCA), a public college prep school. GCA was a saving grace for this little Latina who had every aspiration to go to college but had no clue where to even begin! It gave me all the tools and preparation I needed to make it to college, and I did. I was admitted to 80% of the colleges I applied to and continued my higher education at the University of Arizona (UA). 

Moving Away and Embracing My Latina Identity

After high school graduation, I moved two hours south of home to attend the UA. This move was a BIG deal for this eldest Mexican daughter. My parents were not happy about me living in a dorm, but they knew it was necessary to achieve that “American Dream” that we always talked about where I would never have to scrub toilets as my mother had done most of her life.

Life at UA was amazing. I got to embrace my Latina identity because, for once in my life, I was finally surrounded by people who looked like me and had the same familial experiences. I also got to explore all my potential career options. I started college wanting to be a pediatrician but ended up finding my passion in the HDFS major. I loved the idea of studying human beings, especially in the context of their families. I finally was going to be able to understand my family and culture from a scholarly lens.

In my third year of college, I was unsure about what I wanted to do post-graduation. I knew I wanted to pursue graduate education; I just didn’t know for what. And that’s when I stumbled upon research, which ultimately led me to my PhD. Before this moment, I had no idea what a PhD was, but I was sold on pursuing one because being able to use research to support Latinx youth and families seemed like a dream come true.

In my last year of college, I was a McNair scholar, which set me up for success in graduate school. With the program’s help, I was able to gain social capital and academic skills I did not have as a first-generation student, which are critical for successfully pursuing a graduate degree. With the help of the program’s staff and training, I was admitted to 8 out of the 10 doctoral programs that I applied to! I ultimately decided to pursue my PhD at Penn State. This little Arizona girl had no idea what she had signed up for by leaving sunny warm weather for cold, gloomy central Pennsylvania. At Penn State, my research focused on examining the cultural, familial, and individual level factors that contribute to Latinx youth’s academic outcomes.

I started graduate school with the goal of becoming a professor to continue this kind of research and helping other Latinx students like me attain their PhDs. That dream quickly evolved after a few internships at the U.S. Department of Education, including with IES, as well as the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics (formerly known as the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative). It was thanks to IES that I was even able to pursue these internships. As a graduate student, I was an IES predoctoral fellow, which afforded me opportunities to do the research I was interested in, as well as pursue these non-traditional graduate experiences. Through these internships, I quickly learned that I could do more. I learned that there is great need for Latinx scholars like myself in federal spaces, where decisions about funding and policies are happening. I became passionate about federal service, which led me to my current postdoctoral position.

Moving Forward

My main goal with my newly blossoming career as a doctora is to be able to work for a federal agency where I can use my skills and training to serve diverse communities, particularly communities of color. Federal leadership is still not reflective of the communities that make up the United States. I hope to serve in a federal leadership position in the future to represent the communities of color and make our leadership more reflective of its citizens. I plan to give voice to Latinx children, youth, and families of this country that need to be heard. Juntos podemos (Together, we can)!


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.

Lorena Aceves (Lorena.Aceves@acf.hhs.gov) is a Society for Research Child Development Federal Postdoctoral Policy Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Head Start.

This guest blog was produced by Caroline Ebanks (Caroline.Ebanks@ed.gov), Program Officer, National Center for Education Research.

 

Peer to Peer: Career Advice for Aspiring Education Researchers from Pathways to the Education Sciences Alumni

This blog is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs. For more information, see this DEIA update from Commissioners Elizabeth Albro (National Center for Education Research) and Joan McLaughlin (National Center for Special Education Research).

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to broaden participation in education research. Pathways grants are awarded to minority serving institutions and their partners to provide up to year-long training fellowships to undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, and masters students. Each Pathways program has a specific education theme such as literacy, equity/social justice in education, student success, and education pipelines. Pathways fellows receive an introduction to scientific research methods and their program’s education theme, as well as meaningful opportunities to participate in education research, professional development, and mentoring. Currently, there are seven funded Pathways programs; IES recently launched the newest program focused on learning analytics and data science to the University of California, Irvine. Over 250 students have participated in Pathways, and many (39 at last count) have already started doctoral programs. In honor of HBCU week (September 7-10), Hispanic-Serving Institutions Week (September 13-19), and Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15- October 15), we reached out to six Pathways alumni who are in graduate school to ask them for advice for other students who wish to pursue graduate study related to education research. Here is what they shared with us.

 

Comfort Abode

RISE Training Program, University of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Indiana University

My number one piece of advice for students who want to become education researchers would be to keep in mind the purpose of your research. If nobody understands it, it is not helpful. And in order for people to understand it, you yourself need to understand it. You cannot teach what you do not know. Especially considering that the research is in education, the goal should be to educate teachers, students, faculty, or whomever, about what is being studied and (hopefully) steps that can be taken towards improving that area. You have to keep your audience in mind and while it should not be “dumbed down,” you have to make sure that your point is getting across clearly. In order for that to happen, you have to know what you are talking about. Project RISE was especially helpful in the fact that there were a lot of mentors and people willing to help you understand the scope of the research as well as provide comments and feedback on areas to improve upon.

 

Jeremy Flood

RISE Training Program, North Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington/Pennsylvania State University

Doctoral Student, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

My only advice would be to remember the mission of solving challenges in education. Within the body of education research, there are several ways one can accomplish this—whether it is by policy research, grounded theory, ethnography, or experiments, there are quite a diversity of tools available at a researcher’s disposal, so much so that it may seem overwhelming at first.  Do not stress if you find this true; you are not the first or the last to feel overwhelmed! Instead, use this as an opportunity to rededicate yourself to the mission and allow your dedication to choose a research path that is best for you. Whichever one, two, or three (or more) that you choose, make sure that the end goal seeks to improve the practice of education.

 

Jessala Grijalva

AWARDSS Training Program, University of Arizona/College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arizona

Doctoral Student, University of Notre Dame

I advise Pathways fellows to take the time to reflect and internalize the cultural competency components of the program. The Pathways program will not only prepare you with the hard and soft skills that you need to be a successful researcher, but also help you become an all-around culturally competent researcher. Sometimes, we assume that as students of color or students from diverse backgrounds that we are inherently culturally competent; yet, there is so much more to learn and to be aware of. From my experience as a participant in the Pathways program, I’ve learned of ways to extend cultural competency beyond research and into my interactions with other researchers, colleagues, mentors/mentees, and the broader community. To be an effective researcher, it’s not only important to conduct culturally component research, but to also work with people of all walks of life, and to be able to disseminate our research and findings to the public. Training in cultural competency is very rare and very valuable–and something we may not fully appreciate—so take advantage of this opportunity and make cultural competency an important priority in your conduct as a researcher.

 

Camille Lewis

PURPOSE Program, Florida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Florida State University

There is an African proverb that states: “Knowledge is like a garden. If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.” On the quest to become an education researcher, it is easy to get caught up in the hype of being “the expert.”  My #1 piece of advice to anyone who is interested in education research is to remain a student of life. Your journey to becoming an education researcher will be filled with many opportunities to learn, adapt, and understand the process of learning. Embrace these experiences; allow your researcher identity to be shaped and influenced by new discoveries and new interests. Continue to seek new information and allow your knowledge base to be cultivated. My experience as a public-school teacher, PURPOSE fellow, and doctoral student has shown me the importance and necessity of continually seeking advice, experiences, knowledge, and professional development related to learning and education. This pursuit of knowledge has informed and shaped not just my research, but my life outside academia as well. I never allow myself to become a “know it all.” This keeps me humble and allows me to continue to make improvements in every facet of my life.  

 

Christopher Terrazas, MA

Pathways Program, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA; HSI)

Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin

UTSA Pathways was instrumental in developing my identity as a researcher and graduate student. The other day, I described my experiences as being in a rocket, and Pathways provided the fuel to take off and get one step closer to my goals as a researcher. During my time, I made it a priority to be curious, always. I did this by attending all seminars offered and asking questions—even questions that I thought were not the right ones to ask at the time. You never know who may share a similar experience or perhaps a differing one to support you in your endeavors. Be bold and use your voice as an instrument to understand the world of research and graduate school during this exciting journey. It is crucial to get into this mindset because this will be your experience, perhaps your first. You will want to make sure that you are well prepared for this process as an aspiring researcher and scholar because this is your future. With that said, my number one piece of advice is to look inward to reflect on your own life experiences. Use these thoughts to feed your inner sense of self because you know more than anyone what you want for your future to be. 

 

Erica Zamora

Pathways Program, California State University, Sacramento

Doctoral Student, University of Arizona

The Pathway Fellows Program had a tremendous impact on my growth as a scholar and education researcher. My advice to students is to engage in research that not only reflect their scholarly interests but also reflect their values as community members and educators. My experience in the program gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of social justice and equity work in research. Education has the potential to transform communities and encourage growth and development while perpetuating various forms of oppression. Engaging in education research that centers the voices of and the issues that historically marginalized groups experience could lead to transformative outcomes at postsecondary institutions.

 


Written by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions, including Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, American Indian Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Predominantly Black Institutions, Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institutions, and any other minority-serving institution as specified in request for applications.

The Enduring Friendship of the MOCCA Team: How Camaraderie Benefits Research

This blog is a part of our Spotlight on IES Training Programs series and was written by Shirley Liu, a virtual intern for NCER.

One of the important—though sometimes overlooked—benefits of the IES training programs is friendship. When you think of what makes a good research team, friendship is probably not your first answer. However, the researchers behind the Multiple-Choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment (MOCCA) demonstrate just how crucial strong bonds are. This blog shares how three long-time friends and members of the MOCCA team–Drs. Gina Biancarosa, Sarah Carlson, and Ben Seipel–have benefited from friendship.

 

(From top left: Sarah, Gina; Ben, Sarah; Gina, Ben)

 

How they met

Sarah and Ben first met during their IES predoctoral program at the University of Minnesota. During a grant-writing course, they developed a proposal for what would eventually become MOCCA. When Sarah attended the University of Oregon for her IES postdoctoral program, she met Gina, who ultimately joined in the MOCCA research.

The three scholars shared a passion for reading comprehension and assessment and a love for trading jokes. The team’s love of cute animal stories, especially otters, as another reason they get along well. “Every otter story that was in the news got shared multiple times,” Ben said as others laughed in agreement. Over the years, they have continued to invest in their shared interests and in one another.

How their friendship benefits their work

The three credit their friendship as contributing to their personal and professional growth in three key ways.

Combatting loneliness. According to Gina, “[Socialization] just gets you out of your head. That is not only good for your emotional health and mental health, but also for stimulating new ideas and improving the rigor of old ideas.” Whether it is visiting cool restaurants, taking pictures of each other with funny filters after long conferences, or going on retreats, the MOCCA team makes sure to create time for non-research related activities. Even during the pandemic, MOCCA still prioritizes the socialization aspect of their research by meeting online instead.

Creating a supportive atmosphere that encourages taking risks. The MOCCA team has found that their friendship creates an open-minded and supportive atmosphere for their research. This environment encourages risk taking and helps researchers voice their opinions. In turn, this stimulates innovation and intellectual diversity. “It makes it easier to float ideas that you think might not be all there and not have to risk rejection. They’ll tell you if it’s not all there, but you’re not going to feel crushed,” explained Gina. “It makes you take more risks.”

Fostering growth and personal development. The MOCCA team has also found that friendship leads them to see one another as more than just experts. Instead, they acknowledge their individual strengths while encouraging one another to grow intellectually as complex and constantly learning individuals. As a result, each member of the MOCCA team contributes to the research in unique and equally appreciated ways. “We all have that creative energy, but we have different types of creative energy,” said Ben. “Sarah is really the dreamer: What can this look like? What can it do for teachers? And I really am an innovator: I take things that are different, make them new, and get at things that we have not been able to get at in the past. But Gina really brings that maker aspect: How can we actually make this work? What are the things that function in our toolbox to make it happen?”

The value of friendship

Although the MOCCA team’s bond seems like a uniquely serendipitous union of like-minded people, all of us can reap the benefits of friendship in research and in everyday life. This past year has taught us the value of community and personal relationships in times of isolation. Researchers like the MOCCA team have known this for years.


Dr. Carlson and Dr. Seipel were predoctoral fellows in the Minnesota Interdisciplinary Training in Education Research program, Dr. Biancarosa was a postdoctoral fellow in Stanford University’s Postdoctoral Research Training in the Education Sciences program, and Dr. Carlson was a postdoctoral fellow in the Preparing Education Scientist training program. For more information about MOCCA, please visit the MOCCA webpages (here and here). 

The MOCCA team has been awarded three IES grants to support their measurement work: Multiple-choice Online Cloze Comprehension Assessment (MOCCA) (R305A140185); Multiple-choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment for Postsecondary Students (MOCCA-College) (R305A180417); Multiple-choice Online Causal Comprehension Assessment Refinement (R305A190393).

By Shirley Liu, virtual intern for NCER and an English/Anthropology & Sociology double major at Lafayette College.