Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Experimenting with Science Education to Improve Learner Opportunities and Outcomes

The NAEP science assessment measures science knowledge and ability to engage in scientific inquiry and conduct scientific investigations. According to results from the 2019 NAEP science assessment, only one-third of grade 4 and grade 8 students, and less than one-quarter of grade 12 students scored at or above proficient. In addition, for grade 4 middle-performing and low-performing students, their science performance showed declines from 2015. While IES has a history of investing in high quality science education research to improve science teaching and learning, these data suggest that much more work is needed.

To that end, during the 2022-23 school year, IES held two Learning Acceleration Challenges designed to incentivize innovation to significantly improve learner outcomes in math and science. Under the Challenge for the Science Prize, IES sought interventions to significantly improve science outcomes for middle school students with low performance in science. Unfortunately, the judging panel for the Challenge did not recommend any finalists for the Science Prize (more information about the Math Prize results can be found here). IES recognized this Challenge was an ambitious and rapid effort to improve science achievement. Feedback from potential Science Prize entrants indicated that the rapid cycle for evaluating the intervention along with the lack of resources to implement the intervention were barriers to this competition.

With the knowledge gained from the Science Prize, IES is continuing to design opportunities that encourage transformative, innovative change to improve teaching and learning in science. In our newest opportunity, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES, in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), released a Request for Applications for a National Research and Development Center (R&D Center) on Improving Outcomes in Elementary Science Education. Results from the most recent NAEP science assessment and the lessons learned from the Science Prize suggest opportunities for improving teaching and learning in science education need to begin early in education, and more resources are needed to conduct high quality research in science education. Through this R&D Center, IES and NSF will provide greater resources (grant award of up to $15 million over 5 years) to tackle persistent challenges in elementary science education, including the measurement of elementary science learning outcomes, and generating evidence of the impact of elementary science interventions on learner’s science achievement. In doing so, the new Elementary Science R&D Center will provide national leadership on elementary science education and build capacity in conducting high-quality science education research.


This blog was written by NCER program officer, Christina Chhin. For more information about the Elementary Science R&D Center competition, contact NCER program officers, Jennifer Schellinger or Christina Chhin, take a look at the 84.305C RFA, and/or attend one of our virtual office hours.

Risk and Resilience in Children Experiencing Homelessness

In celebration of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, Dr. Ann Masten, Regents Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, reflects on her research with children in families experiencing homelessness, highlighting what inspired her, key findings, and advice for the future. Her research on homelessness has been supported by IES, NSF, NIH, her university, and local foundations. She underscores the power of a resilience lens for research with high-risk families and the vital role of research-practice partnerships.  

What inspired you to study homelessness?

In 1988, the issue of homelessness among children surged onto the front pages of newspapers and magazines as communities were confronted with rapidly growing numbers of unhoused families. That year, Jonathan Kozol published his book, Rachel and her Children: Homeless Families in America, about the desperate lives of families without homes crowded into hotels in New York City. Kozol gave a compelling talk I attended at the University of Minnesota. At the time, I was doing part-time, pro bono clinical work with children at a mental health clinic run by the Wilder Foundation. The foundation president requested that I help them learn about the needs of children and families experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities.

Digging into the literature as I visited shelters and interviewed school personnel who were faced with the surge of family homelessness, I quickly learned that there was little information to guide educators or service providers. Shelters could barely keep track of the numbers and ages of children in residence each day, and schools were struggling to accommodate the overwhelming needs of kids in emergency shelter.

This search inspired me to launch research that might be helpful. I was deeply moved by the plight of these families who were trying to care for their children without the security of a stable home, income, food, healthcare, or emotional support. I had grown up in a military family, frequently moving and dealing with parental deployment, which was stressful even with adequate resources.

As an early career scholar, I had funding to start new work aligned with my research focus on resilience in child development. In 1989, I initiated my first study of homelessness, surveying parents and their children residing in emergency shelter compared with similar but housed families. Although I knew from the outset that homelessness was not good for children, I also realized it was important to document the risks and resilience of these families.

How has your research on homelessness evolved in the past three decades?

Initially, my research with students and community collaborators was descriptive, focused on discovering the nature of adversities children and parents had faced, variations in how well they were doing, barriers to school access, and what made a positive difference—the protective factors in their lives. Over the years, we learned that children and parents in emergency shelter had much in common with other impoverished families, although they often had faced higher cumulative risk, as well as more acute trauma, and their children had more education issues. Administrative longitudinal data provided strong evidence of academic risk among children identified as homeless, with significantly worse achievement than housed children who qualified for free lunch. Poor attendance was an issue but did not account for the striking range of academic achievement we observed. Importantly, there was ample evidence of resilience: warm, effective parents and sociable, high-achieving children, eager to play and learn.

Research on homelessness aligned with a broader story of risk and resilience in development, revealing the importance of multisystem processes and protections for children as well as the hazards of high adversity in contexts of low resources and structural inequality. Results pointed to three basic intervention strategies: (1) lowering risks and toxic stress exposure, (2) increasing resources for healthy child development, and (3) nurturing resilience at multiple levels in children, their families, schools, and communities.

Given the range of school readiness and achievement of children experiencing homelessness, we focused on malleable protective factors for school success, particularly during the preschool years. Parenting quality and executive function (EF) skills were strong candidates. We tested EF skills that reflect neurocognitive processes involved in goal-directed behavior that are vital to learning. Many of the children in shelters struggled with self-regulation and related learning skills, which predicted how well they did at school, both in the short-term and over time.  

With funding from a local foundation and IES, we developed an intervention to boost EF skills among young highly mobile children. Ready? Set. Go! (RSG) was designed to foster EF skills through practice embedded in routine preschool activities led by teachers, educating parents about brain development and how to encourage EF skills, and training parents and children with games, books, and music. Given family mobility, RSG was intended to be brief, appealing, and easy to implement. Pilot results were promising, indicating appeal to parents and teachers, fidelity of implementation, and encouraging changes in EF skills among the children.

In recent years, I have co-directed the Homework Starts with Home Research Partnership, a “grand challenge” project focused on ending student homelessness with a dedicated group of university, state, and community partners. This project integrates long-term administrative data in order to study effects of housing and other interventions on the educational success of students. Our work has underscored for me the power of collaborative partnerships and integrated data.

What advice do you have for researchers interested in conducting research on homelessness?

Connect with multisystem partners! Homelessness is a complex issue that calls for research-practice partnerships spanning multiple systems and perspectives, including lived experience.  Integrated data systems that include multisystem administrative data are particularly valuable for understanding and following mobile populations. Sign up for updates from Federal and state agencies, as well as NGOs that disseminate research updates about homelessness. And aim for positive goals! Our focus on resilience and positive outcomes as well as risks and adversity was key to engaging families and our collaborators. 


This blog was produced by Haigen Huang (Haigen.Huang@ed.gov), program officer at NCER.

Training the Next Generation of CTE Researchers: A Conversation with the CTE Research Network

IES funded the Expanding the Evidence Base for Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network (CTERN) in FY 2018 in order to increase the quality and rigor of CTE research, specifically by (1) coordinating IES-funded researchers studying CTE using causal designs and (2) training new researchers in causal methods to address CTE-related research questions. In this guest blog, the Network Lead’s PI, Katherine Hughes, and Training Lead, Jill Walston, from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), discuss the evolution of the institute across four years of training supported by the grant and what they learned about the components of effective training, in the hopes of sharing lessons learned for future IES-funded trainings.

About the Summer Training Institute

Each summer since 2020, CTERN has held summer training institute on causal research methods in CTE.  Across four summers, we had 81 trainees, including junior faculty, researchers in state or university research offices or institutes, doctoral students, and researchers in non-profit organizations. During the institutes, we had expert CTE researchers and national and state CTE leaders deliver presentations about CTE history, policies, theories, and recent research.

The major focus of the training was on research designs and statistical methods for conducting research that evaluates the causal impact of CTE policies and practices on student outcomes. The participants learned about conducting randomized controlled trials—considered the gold standard for causal research—as well as two quasi-experimental approaches, regression discontinuity and comparative interrupted time series designs. After presentations about the approaches, students worked with data in small groups to complete data analysis assignments designed to provide practical experience with the kinds of data and analyses common in CTE research. The small groups had dedicated time to meet with one of the instructors to discuss their analyses and interpret findings together. The combination of presentations and practical applications of data analysis with real data, and time in small groups for troubleshooting and discussion with CTE researchers, made for a rich experience that students found engaging and effective. The students received an IES certificate of course completion to mark their accomplishment.

Making Continuous Improvements Based on Lessons Learned

We had a continuous improvement mindset for our summer institute. After each week-long session was completed, the CTE research network director, training coordinator, and instructors met to review their perceptions of the training and most importantly the feedback students provided at the end of the week. We applied the lessons learned to make improvements to the agenda, communications, and student grouping approaches to the plans for the following summer.

Over the course of the four years of the summer institute training, we made a number of adjustments in response to feedback.

  • We continued to offer the institute virtually. The institute was originally intended to be held in person; an earlier blog describes our necessary pivot to the online format. While we could have safely changed to an in-person institute in 2022 and 2023, feedback from our students showed that the virtual institute was more accessible to a geographically diverse group. Many trainees said they would not have even applied to the institute if they would have had to travel, even with a stipend to help cover those costs.
  • We added more time for the students to get to know one another with virtual happy hours. Compared to in-person trainings, virtual trainings lack those natural opportunities for informal communications between students and with instructors that can foster engagement, trust, and joint purpose. While we couldn’t replicate in-person networking opportunities, we were able to improve the experience for the students by being intentional with informal gatherings.
  • We expanded the time for the small groups to meet with their instructors. Students reported that this office hour time was very valuable for their understanding of the material and in interpreting the output of the analyses they ran. We extended this time to optimize opportunities for discussion and problem solving around their data analysis assignments.   
  • We made improvements to the data assignment guidance documents. In the first year, students reported that they spent more time on figuring out initial tasks with the data which left less time for running analyses and interpreting their output. We modified our guidance documents that accompanied the assignments to spell out more explicitly some of the initial steps to shorten the time students spent on set-up and maximize their time doing the important work of coding for the analyses and examining output. We also provided links to resources about the statistical packages used by the students for those that needed time to brush up on their skills before the training began.
  • We doubled down on efforts to stay connected with the trainees and supported ways to have them stay connected to each other. For example, we let them know when CTERN’s researchers are presenting at conferences and invite them to connect with us and each other at these conferences. We’re now organizing a LinkedIn group to try to develop a community for our training alumni.

Our summer training institutes were a great success. We look forward to continuing this opportunity for researchers into the future, with a new version to be offered in the summer of 2025 by the CTE Research Network 2.0.


Jill Walston, Ph.D., is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research with more than 20 years of experience conducting quantitative research, developing assessments and surveys, and providing technical support to researchers and practitioners to apply rigorous research and measurement practices. Dr. Walston is the lead for training initiatives for the IES-funded Career and Technical Education Research Network.

Katherine Hughes, Ph.D., is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research and the principal investigator and director of the CTE Research Network and CTE Research Network 2.0. Dr. Hughes’ work focuses on career and technical education in high schools and community colleges, college readiness, and the high school-to-college transition.

This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), a Program Officer in the National Center for Education Research (NCER).

 

Celebrating National STEM Day on November 8 and Every Day

IES widely supports and disseminates high-quality research focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through NCER and NCSER. To celebrate National STEM Day on November 8 and every day, we highlight some of the work that NCER and NCSER have supported over the years in the various STEM areas, as well as opportunities for funding future work. Additional information about IES’s investment in STEM education can also be found on our STEM topic page.

Science

  • Researchers developed ChemVLab+ an online chemistry intervention that allows high school students to perform experiments and analyze data in a flexible, multimedia virtual chemistry lab environment. The online modules promote conceptual understanding and science inquiry skills aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. The chemistry activities are freely available on the project website.
  • Researchers are developing Words as Tools, an intervention for emergent bilingual adolescents that is designed for use in English as a second language classes to promote development of metalinguistic awareness with science vocabulary. The lessons, being developed with a lens of culturally sustaining pedagogy, are intended to help build knowledge of essential science words as well as how words work in science.
  • Researchers are evaluating the efficacy of an integrated science and literacy curriculum (ISLC) designed to engage first grade students in scientific investigations at a level appropriate for young learners. ISLC addresses the challenges of language and literacy development by ensuring that the language of science is brought forward and explicitly addressed in an integrated approach.
  • Through Project MELVA-S, researchers are developing an online formative assessment that measures the science vocabulary knowledge of Latinx bilingual students with different levels of English and Spanish language proficiencies. Results from the assessment can be used to monitor the progress of individual students, help teachers differentiate language and vocabulary instruction, and provide additional science vocabulary supports.

Technology

  • Using The Foos by codeSpark, researchers are exploring computational thinking processes in grades 1 and 3 through a series of classroom-based studies.
  • Researchers are evaluating the efficacy of the CAL-KIBO curriculum, an educational robotics program designed for use with early elementary school-aged students to examine its impact on computational thinking, fluid reasoning, and math achievement.
  • Researchers are systematically investigating how specific features of immersive virtual reality (IVR) can be used to improve student outcomes in science learning. In particular, the researchers are exploring how visual and auditory IVR design features can enhance affective state and cognitive processing in general and for specific subgroups of learners.
  • Researchers are developing and testing TaylorAI, an artificial intelligence formative feedback and assessment system for hands-on science investigations to help build student competence as they engage in laboratory activities.
  • In partnership with the National Science Foundation, IES is co-funding two National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institutes. Under NCER, the Institute for Inclusive and Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE) is developing artificial intelligence (AI) tools and approaches to support behavioral and affective skills (for example, persistence, academic resilience, and collaboration) to improve learning in STEM education. Under NCSER, the AI Institute for Exceptional Education (AI4ExceptionalEd) is using multiple cutting-edge AI methodologies to create the technology to assist speech-language pathologists with identifying students in need of speech and language services and delivering individualized interventions.

Engineering

  • Researchers are developing an innovative teacher professional learning intervention called Elevating Engineering with Multilingual Learners that is intended to help grade 3-5 teachers develop the knowledge and skills they need to effectively teach engineering to English learners and all students through culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogies and engineering instruction.
  • Product developers and researchers are developing and testing NEWTON-AR, an augmented reality (AR) application-based engineering, computer science, and STEM puzzle game for children in kindergarten to grade 3. Intended for use in classrooms, after-school programs, and at home, NEWTON-AR will combine AR, engineering, simulation, making, and programming into a sandbox game where students create, modify, simulate, prototype, and test contraptions to solve puzzle challenges.

Mathematics

  • Researchers have developed and tested for efficacy of Fusion, a first-grade intervention aimed at developing understanding of whole numbers for students at risk for mathematics learning disabilities. It is designed as a program for schools using a multi-tiered approach to instruction that provides increasingly intense levels of instruction based on the results of frequent progress monitoring of students.
  • Researchers tested for efficacy of Pirate Math Equation Quest, a word problem-solving intervention for third grade students with mathematics difficulties, including students with or at risk for mathematics learning disabilities.
  • Researchers assessed the efficacy of Interleaved mathematics practice, an intervention that rearranges math practice problems so that 1) different kinds of math problems are mixed together, which improves learning, and 2) problems of the same kind are distributed across multiple assignments, which improves retention. A new systematic replication study is also now underway to further examine the efficacy of interleaved mathematics practice.
  • Researchers have conducted several impact studies (one conducted with grade 7 students in Maine and replication study conducted in North Carolina) of ASSISTments, a free web-based program that provides immediate feedback to students and teachers on homework. ASSISTments can be used with any commercial or locally developed math curriculum, and teachers can assign "mastery" problem sets that organize practice to facilitate the achievement of proficiency.  

STEM Education Research Funding Opportunities

Research grant funding opportunities focusing on STEM education can be found across several programs and competitions. Currently, there are several active funding opportunities where training or research with a STEM education focus would fit:  

More information on these fundings opportunities can also be found at: https://ies.ed.gov/funding/


This blog was written by Sarah Brasiel (sarah.brasiel@ed.gov), program officer at NCSER and Christina Chhin (christina.chhin@ed.gov), program officer at NCER.

Inspiring Girls to Pursue STEM careers with the Dear Smart Girl Career Exploration Platform

The Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), which IES administers, funds the research, development, and evaluation of new, commercially viable education technology products. In this guest blog, Abi Olukeye of Smart Girl HQ discusses the inspiration behind her recently completed SBIR project, Dear Smart Girl, and the importance of helping girls envision themselves in STEM Careers.

What is Dear Smart Girl?

Our Dear Smart Girl platform is a learning experience that combines online interactive game-based learning curriculum with offline engaging activity kits and personalized STEM learning recommendations to enable elementary-aged girls achieve STEM career literacy by age 12. Our Dear Smart Girl platform is the only STEM career education platform on the market with an ecosystem of products with a research-driven design featuring age-appropriate, experienced-based informal learning content designed to facilitate STEM discovery, self-efficacy, and fluency for young female-identifying learners.

Through our Dear Smart Girl digital platform, we transform the way girls perceive and engage in STEM learning pathways by providing an innovative multi-stage learning experience.

Learning begins in the whimsical town of Ingenia, where learners are immersed into a digital world that is designed to capture aesthetics and themes that resonate with female-identifying students. Learners begin by selecting a storyline, each of which is associated with a STEM career and features a project-based problem-solving activity. Along the way, students gain new vocabulary and fluency with the subject area being exposed to them. In stage two, learners take their new skills offline and work to complete the real-life version of their game project using our complementary Dear Smart Girl project kit. These two stages of learning combine powerfully to strategically introduce, challenge, and engage young girls in STEM career exploration that builds their confidence and literacy in STEM pathways.

What inspired you to create the Dear Smart Girl platform?

The idea was born out of personal need. I started observing that at about age 3 my daughters were often describing toys and activities as either “boy things” or “girl things.” I was really stunned to see how early biases develop and felt strongly about finding ways to balance out their views. My first instincts were to find more toys and activities that would appeal to them and activities that would expose them broadly. And I fully anticipated that a quick internet search would surface plenty of options. I was so wrong. Not only were there limited options, most of what I found did not appeal to my daughters in terms of type of activity and aesthetics.

Reflecting on my own experience as someone who has a STEM degree and was, at the time, working at a global manufacturing firm leading technical projects, I decided to dive into the research about girls and STEM. I discovered that although women participate equally in the labor force, they only make up 28% of the STEM workforce. In addition, early adolescence tends to be when girls lean away from STEM at a higher rate than their male peers. That inspired me to work with other talented and passionate people to build products and facilitate experiences and help young female-identifying learning achieve STEM career literacy by age 12.

What are the types of STEM careers featured in Dear Smart Girl and why did you choose them?

Our pilot career module is an electrical engineering module, but over the course of the next two years, we are working to add five more game modules featuring chemical science, mechanical engineering, biology, software development and product designer careers. We select careers based on science standards being taught in 4th–7th grade. Our goal is to take topical themes and relate them to their real-world applications while also putting them in the context of the career domains that features the scientific concept and related skills. We also working to align to the National Career Clusters framework, which supports Career Technical Education (CTE) programs. 

What elements of Dear Smart Girl are uniquely tailored to female-identifying students?

We tailor our product to help sustain interest in STEM Career pathways in the following ways.

  • We are intentional about selecting and mapping careers in ways that show real-world relevance. Anecdotally, we find that when learners are excited about what they are building, they are more engaged and motivated to learn the skills needed to accomplish their goal.
  • We optimize our projects to create an experience that is a perfect blend of learning a new technical skill and creative design. According to Microsoft research on closing the STEM gap, 91% of girls describe themselves as creatives. When girls learn about how real-world STEM jobs can be used to help the world, their perception of the creativity and positive impact of STEM careers can more than double.
  • We use beautiful illustrations, colors, and imagery to creative engaging worlds and digital environment rich with representation for diverse female-identifying students.

What advice can you give technology developers who focus on female-identifying students?
For developers working on products designed for female-identifying students, I recommend a collaborative development approach. We co-create every career module we work on with students to get feedback early and often. While it is easy to fall for stereotypical storylines, female-identifying students have diverse needs, interests, and learning styles that should be celebrated with well-designed learning platforms.

What are the next steps for Dear Smart Girl?

We are so excited to have been recently award a phase 2 award to expand and commercialize our career exploration modules. Over next two years, we will develop and launch five additional career modules, expand educator tools, build in extension activities, and launch to CTE programs across the country.


Abi Olukeye is the founder and CEO of Smart Girl HQ, a company dedicated to closing the gender gap for females in the STEM pipeline by increasing the number of positive experiences young girls have with STEM early in their learning journey. Her vision is to create an ecosystem of products that when used together are a powerful catalyst for sustaining long-term engagement in STEM for young girls. Her work has been supported by National Science Foundation and the Department of Education through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Awards, the NC Idea Foundation, and the Vela Education Fund. Abi is the chair of the board of CSEdResearch.org and a past member of the Computer Science K12 Standards Committee for North Carolina. She holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Virginia Tech and MBA from Indiana University. She and her husband live in Charlotte, NC and have two young daughters who greatly inspire her work.

This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.