Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Updates from the CTE Research Network!

“Does Career and Technical Education (CTE) work?” and “For whom does CTE work and how?” are questions on many policymakers’ and education leaders’ minds and ones that the CTE Research Network aims to answer. The mission of the Network, as described in a previous blog post, is to increase the amount of causal evidence in CTE that can inform practice and policy. The Network’s members, who are researchers funded by IES to examine the impact of CTE, have been busy trying to answer all of these questions.

This blog describes three Network updates:

  • Shaun Dougherty, of Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have been studying the effects of attending a CTE-focused high school among 60,000 students in Connecticut as part of their Network project. They recently reported that:
    • When compared to males attending traditional high schools, males who attended CTE schools were 10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and were earning 31 percent more by age 23. The authors noted that the more CTE courses that are available at the regular high school, the less attendance at a CTE high school makes a difference.
    • Analyses of potential mechanisms behind these findings reveal that male students attending a technical high school have higher 9th grade attendance rates and higher 10th grade test scores. However, they are 8 percentage points less likely to attend college (though some evidence indicates that the negative impact on college attendance fades over time).
    • Attending a CTE high school had no impacts on female students. Further, the effects did not differ over student attributes like race and ethnicity, free lunch eligibility or residence in a poor, central city school district.

The study results are being disseminated widely in the media, including via the Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard, The Conversation, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  • In other news, the CTE Research Network has welcomed a fourth IES-funded project, led by Julie Edmunds. Edmunds’ team is studying dual enrollment pathways in North Carolina, and one of the pathways focuses on CTE.
  • Finally, the two co-PIs for the Network Lead, Kathy Hughes and Shaun Dougherty, recently participated in a Q&A in Techniques magazine about the purpose of the CTE Network, how the Network will help the field of CTE, and how each of their careers has led them to this work.

The Network Lead has launched a new website where you can get new information about ongoing work and sign up to receive their newsletter.

This post was written by Corinne Alfeld, the NCER-IES program officer responsible for the CTE research topic and the CTE Research Network. Contact her at Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov with questions.

Calling All Students to the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” Contest

On August 27, 2019, NASA launched a national contest for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students to name the Mars 2020 rover, the newest robotic scientist to be sent to Mars.  Scheduled to launch aboard a rocket in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and touch down on Mars in February 2021, the to-be-named rover weighs more than 2,300 pounds (1,000 kilograms) and will search for astrobiological signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

By focusing the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest on K to 12 students, NASA seeks to engage U.S. students in the engineering and scientific work that makes Mars exploration possible. The contest also supports national goals to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and help create the next generation of STEM leaders.

Students can sign up and submit their entries for the competition at https://www.futureengineers.org/nametherover. Entries must include a proposed name for the rover and a short essay of 150 words or less explaining the reasons for the name. NASA will select 156 state winners (one from each state and age group), before narrowing down to the top 9 entries that will be part of a public poll. The grand prize winner who will name the rover will be selected and announced in spring of 2020.

Even if you are not a student you can still participate. US residents over the age of 18 can apply to be judges for the contest to help NASA make their selection.

The Mars 2020 Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages rover development for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

NASA Partners with an ED/IES SBIR Awardee to Run the Contest

The education technology firm that NASA selected to help run the competition is Burbank, California-based, Future Engineers.  The “Name the Rover” contest leverages Future Engineers’ online challenge platform, which was developed with the support of a 2017 award from the US Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences’ Small Business Innovation Research program (ED/IES SBIR).  The platform will receive, manage, display, and judge what is anticipated to be tens of thousands or more student submissions from around the country.

Future Engineers has a history of collaborating on space-themed student challenges. The company previously ran a national competition series in 2018 for the ASME Foundation with technical assistance from NASA, where K-12 students submitted digital designs of useful objects that could be 3D printed on the International Space Station, resulting in the first student-designed 3D print in space.

Future Engineers developed its platform to be an online hub for classrooms and educators to access free, project-based STEM activities, and to provide a portal where students submit and compete in different kinds of maker and innovation challenges across the country. The Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest will be the first naming challenge issued on its platform.

We look forward to the results of the competition!

Originally posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Homeroom blog.


Edward Metz is a research scientist at the Institute of Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.

Bob Collom is an integration lead in the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.


About ED/IES SBIR

The U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds projects to develop education technology products designed to support students, teachers, or administrators in general or special education. The program emphasizes rigorous and relevant research to inform iterative development and to evaluate whether fully-developed products show promise for leading to the intended outcomes. The program also focuses on commercialization once the award period ends so that products can reach students and teachers and be sustained over time. ED/IES SBIR-supported products are currently used by millions of students in thousands of schools around the country.

About NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP)

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) in the Planetary Science Division is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today. To that end, all of our future missions will be driven by rigorous scientific questions that will continuously evolve as we make new discoveries. MEP continues to explore Mars and to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network.

IES at the Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies

Over the summer, researchers, technologists, and policymakers gathered in Accra, Ghana for the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies (ACM COMPASS) to discuss the role of information technologies in international development.

Two IES-funded researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research, Michael Madaio and Dr. Amy Ogan, shared their research on developing voice-based early literacy technologies and evaluating their efficacy with low-literate, bilingual families in the Ivory Coast. 

Their research draws on methods from human-computer interaction, the learning sciences, and information-communication technology for development, to design educational technologies that are culturally and contextually appropriate.

Although the COMPASS conference focused on cross-cultural applications and technology for development, the research presented has implications for U.S. based education researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

For instance, while research provides evidence for the importance of parental involvement in early literacy, parents with low literacy in the target language – as in many bilingual immigrant communities in the U.S. – may not be able to support their children with the explicit, instrumental help suggested by prior research (for example, letter naming or bookreading). This suggests that there may be opportunities for technology to scaffold low-literate or English Learners (EL) parental support in other ways.

At the conference, researchers described interactive voice-based systems (known as “IVR”) that help low-literate users find out about crop yields, understand local government policies, and engage on social media.  

This body of work has implications for designers of learning technologies in the U.S. Many families may not have a smartphone, but basic feature phones are ubiquitous worldwide, including in low-income, immigrant communities in the U.S. Thus, designers of learning technologies may consider designing SMS- or voice-based (such as IVR) systems, while schools or school districts may consider how to use voice-based systems to engage low-literate or EL families who may not have a smartphone or who may not be able to read SMS information messages.

In a rapidly changing, increasingly globalized world, research at IES may benefit from increased international engagement with international research, both focusing specifically on education, as well as information technology research that has implications for educational research, practice, and policy.

This guest blog was written by Michael Madaio. He is an IES Predoctoral Fellow in the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research at Carnegie Mellon University. He is placed in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Building Partnerships to Support Mental Health Needs in Diverse Rural Schools: The National Center for Rural School Mental Health

About 1 in 5 school-age children experience serious mental health issues yet few receive services. In rural schools, geographic isolation and limited resources make receiving services even more difficult. The IES-funded National Center for Rural School Mental Health is addressing this challenge.

The 5 year, $10 million National R&D Center is supporting partnerships with a wide variety of rural school districts in three states (Missouri, Virginia, and Montana) to develop and test ways to support the mental health needs of their students. I recently spoke with Dr. Wendy Reinke, the Center’s director, about the unique mental health needs in the rural settings where the center is working and how she and her colleagues are approaching this work.  

Tell us a little bit about the rural communities you are partnering with in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana.

Each state provides a unique geological context that we anticipate will inform the tools and interventions we are developing for wide use in rural schools. For instance, Missouri sits in the middle of the country where half of the school districts are considered rural and another third or so are considered small towns. Virginia encompasses central Appalachia which struggles with issues of under-employment, mental health, and school dropout. In the northwest, rural residents are scattered across Montana’s 56 counties, 30 of which are classified as “frontier” counties with three or fewer persons per square mile.  The tools and interventions we develop will need to be feasible and effective across these very different contexts.

What are the most common mental health challenges being faced in the different rural communities you are partnering with?

Part of the work of the Rural Mental Health Center will be learning more about the types of  mental health challenges faced by rural communities. From my current work in Missouri’s rural schools, common areas of concern include youth with depression, anxiety, conduct problems, substance abuse, and suicidality.  Identifying youth early can help to prevent or reduce the burden of these problems.  Accordingly, we plan to not only offer interventions for youth facing mental health challenges but work with schools to prevent and identify early, youth who would benefit from supports.

The work you have planned for the center builds on prior IES-funded work. Tell us more about how this work provides a foundation for launching the work of the center.

A cornerstone of the Center is the use of an assessment tool that will allow schools to gather data to determine their needs for school-level prevention, group-based interventions, and individualized interventions.  This tool was developed in partnership with six school districts (five of which are rural) and University of Missouri researchers.  Through the IES partnership grant we were able to validate the measure and gather stakeholder input to improve the tool and the overall intervention model.  These data collected using this tool will be linked to evidence-based interventions, several of which have been developed and evaluated through IES funding.  It is very exciting to have the opportunity to pull all of these projects together to support our rural schools.

Much of your earlier research has been done in urban school districts. How did you become interested in research with rural schools? What would you recommend to other researchers interested in doing research with rural schools?

I grew up and attended school in a rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Missouri, I had access and opportunity in working alongside rural school districts.  One recommendation, which I think goes for research in any schools, is to operate as a partner with them. For instance, the six school districts we worked with formed a Coalition, and we include the Coalition as co-authors on any publication or presentation that comes from this work.  Further, we present with partners at conferences and report back findings to the community.  I think an open and collaborative relationship gains trust, allowing for additional opportunities to conduct research alongside our school partners. Additionally, our ideas for studies are nearly always driven by the needs expressed by our schools based on the pressing challenges they report to us.

The Center also has a policy focus with work that will be led by your Montana partners. Tell us more about this aspect of the Center’s work and the types of policy issues the Center will address.

We will be working with rural school district partners across the three states to identify important issues facing rural schools.  Dr. Ryan Tolleson-Knee from the University of Montana will be leading this initiative.  At the Center kick-off meeting held in June, a subgroup of rural school partners interested in policy was formed.  The plan is for this subgroup to develop a toolkit that can be readily used by public school personnel and state and national policymakers to improve outcomes for youth.  One topic of interest is how might rural school districts partner with one another (similar to the Coalition described earlier) to maximize and share resources across the communities.  Over the next five years, the toolkit will expand and connect to issues faced by our rural schools.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Are You What You Eat? Understanding the Links Between Diet, Behavior, and Achievement During Middle School

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what exactly does it mean for student learning and achievement in middle school? In 2018, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham received an IES Exploration grant to investigate the direction and nature of the relationships between middle school students’ diet, behavior, and academic achievement. These relationships have not been fully studied in the United States, nor have longitudinal designs been used (most existing studies are cross-sectional) making it hard to determine the precise nature of the links between what adolescents eat and potential implications for learning and achievement.  

Because children in the United States consume about half of their nutrients at school, the need to identify school nutrition policies and practices that benefit student behavior and achievement is great, especially given newly published findings that motivated this IES research and that have attracted lots of media interest in recent days (see this story from CNN and this press release). The Alabama researchers found that specific nutrients (high sodium, low potassium) predicted depression over a year later in a sample of 84 urban, primarily African American adolescents (mean age 13 years). In the IES study, these researchers are expanding their work with a larger and more diverse sample of 300 students. In the first year of this 4-year study, the researchers recruited about two thirds of their sample (186 students across 10 schools) who completed the first of three week-long assessments as 6th graders and who will complete assessments again in the 7th and 8th grades. During each week-long assessment period, each student reports on their own diet and academic functioning, and on their own and their peers’ emotions and behavior. They also complete objective tests of attention and memory. The researchers observe each child’s actual food and beverage consumption at school and behavior during one academic class period. They also collect school records of grades, test scores, attendance, discipline incidents, and information about each school’s nutrition policies and practices. Parents and teachers also report on student diet, behavior, and academic functioning.

This school year the researchers are recruiting the rest of their sample. If their findings suggest a role for school practices and dietary factors in student behavior and achievement, they can guide future efforts to develop school-based programs targeting students’ diet that could be easily implemented under typical school conditions.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research