This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked researcher Mingyu Feng, a senior research associate at WestED, to discuss her career journey. Dr. Feng serves as principal investigator of the IES-funded ASSISTments and MathSpring efficacy studies, which examine the effects of intelligent tutoring systems, data-driven instruction, and formative assessment on student learning outcomes.
How did you become interested in a career in education research? How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
When I first came from China to the United States to pursue a PhD in computer science, I wasn’t thinking of having a career in education research. My goal was to become a computer scientist who plays with algorithms and codes every day. Then, I was surprised to learn how many U.S. students trailed their peers academically in a highly developed country like America. The 2002 NAEP data indicated that only 30% of 8th graders were at or above the proficient level in reading or math. My first thought when I saw that statistic was, “There must be a way to help these students.”
I pursued a PhD in intelligent tutoring systems at Worcester Polytechnic Institute out of a desire to leverage technology to boost student learning. An intelligent tutoring system (ITS) is a computer system that aims to automatically provide immediate and customized instruction, feedback, or intervention to learners. Building ITSs requires a highly interdisciplinary field, where computer technology intersects with artificial intelligence, data mining, learning sciences, cognitive sciences, and education. As a graduate student, I developed systems and analyzed student learning data. I built upon my prior math knowledge from studying engineering and taught myself statistical modeling and learned about experimental design methods. I was also fortunate to be able to visit classrooms and work directly with educators and students to understand how critical it is for a student to receive needed support and for a computer system to be effectively integrated into an educator’s classroom routine. This experience inspired me to pursue a career in applied education research. Since then, my research career has focused on the development and research of education technologies and conducting rigorous evaluations of their impact on learning or practices in authentic education settings.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?
As a first-generation immigrant, I haven’t directly experienced the U.S. K-12 and college education system and was initially less familiar with U.S. policies and practices. I asked a lot of “naïve” questions—What’s the difference between a public school and a charter school? How does a district decide the adoption of a supplemental program or a core curriculum? Does 5th grade belong to elementary school or middle school? Does a teacher or a school have discretion regarding instructional practices? It was a long and steep learning curve, but I found connecting directly with students, educators, administrators, and policymakers to be beneficial for learning about the education system. Listening to their needs, observing classrooms, and discussing research and findings in a meaningful way with practitioners provided me with the context and inspiration I needed as a researcher. When I saw an exhausted teacher running around to put out fires in the classroom, or a frustrated student staring at the computer screen, I knew there was still a long way for us edtech developers and researchers to go.
I also recognized that my cultural background and resulting perspective on education could be both a challenge and an asset. In many East and Southeast Asian cultures, Confucian ideals such as respect for elders, deferred gratification, and discipline are strong influences. Traditionally, Asian parents teach their children to value educational achievement, respect authority, feel responsibility for relatives, and show self-control. These perspectives were infused in my upbringing and influenced my approach to understanding education in the United States where diverse cultures thrive. I worked to gain perspective-taking skills to understand situations from other positions, to consider other beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
Early exposure to research and opportunities can be quite helpful. My doctoral training expanded my view of career options beyond academia and helped me see the value of applied research and the impact research can have on practices.
Recently, IES has advocated specifically for inclusion of emerging scholars from underrepresented groups in RFAs and during the reviewing process. That’s a great way to support scholars from these groups. Just for fun, I skimmed the list of 1,500 PIs of IES funded grants and found about 50 first or last names resembling Asian names. With acknowledgement of this less-than-rigorous approach, this very rough estimate of 3-4% suggests there are not a whole lot of IES PIs with Asian heritage. Therefore, I really appreciate the increased attention and encouragement IES has given to addressing underrepresentation in the education research community and would love to meet more scholars like me at the PI meetings.
In addition, I’d encourage project directors to think more creatively when considering institutional partnerships, building a staff team, or forming an advisory board. By including collaborators or advisors from underrepresented groups, the team benefits from the breadth of talent, perspectives, and skills that arise from diversity.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
My first piece of advice is to be confident and brave. Believe in yourself and in the value you bring to the table. Sometimes, this means stretching outside your comfort zone or persevering towards a goal you are passionate about. In Chinese culture, modesty is viewed as a virtue. I’ve always been told “modesty helps one go forward” and “silence is golden.” Yet, I’d encourage emerging scholars from minoritized groups to put their best selves forward and display their pride.
My second piece of advice is to find someone you trust, a mentor or an advisor, who will show you how to navigate the field and provide guidance for your academic and career advancement. A great mentor can show you your strengths and weaknesses, encourage and advocate for you, and support your growth by creating opportunities and connecting you with collaborators. For someone from underrepresented groups, I found it is best to have someone who can speak up for you when you are not present in the room.
Mingyu Feng is a senior research associate with WestEd’s Learning and Technology team. She leads large-scale grants focused on leveraging education technologies to transform science and mathematics instruction to improve student learning.
Produced by Wai Chow (Wai-Ying.Chow@ed.gov), program officer for the Effective Instruction grant program within the National Center for Education Research.