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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.

The Importance of Collaboration and Support to Improve Working Conditions for Special Education Teachers

Two teachers, one on a tablet and one with a notepad, smile while working together

In February 2023, NCSER hosted a technical working group (TWG) on the Special Education Teacher Workforce to help identify ways research can be used to better prepare, support, and retain an effective K-12 special education teacher workforce. During this meeting, a group of experts on the K-12 special education teacher workforce identified critical problems facing the special education teacher workforce, discussed areas where more research is needed, and highlighted existing data that could be leveraged to better understand the dynamics of and potential solutions to these problems.

TWG members highlighted the lack of collegial and leadership support as one contributing factor to burnout and attrition. Special education teachers often report feeling like they are the only ones in the school taking responsibility and advocating for students with disabilities. This is compounded by the fact that general education teachers and administrators often receive very little training on how to support these students. As such, TWG members highlighted the importance of supportive and collaborative relationships with paraprofessionals, other teachers, and leaders. Several NCSER-funded studies have explored these types of collaborative relationships or developed programs to foster them through mentoring or co-teaching. We summarize some examples of this type of NCSER-funded research below.

To better understand how working conditions, including support from colleagues, affect special education teacher instruction and student reading outcomes, Elizabeth Bettini from Boston University led a research project comprised of several mixed-methods studies. A key finding was that special education teachers who had teaching partners were better able to provide effective instruction because partners can manage significant behavior, which allows teachers to focus on instruction. This type of support was also found to be essential for inclusion, as special educators without sufficient paraprofessional staff struggle to move students who need behavioral supports into general education classes. The PI is currently building upon this research in a new project that is developing a measure, ReSpECT (Revealing Special Educators' Conditions for Teaching), of special education teacher working conditions.

To promote positive outcomes and retention among new special education teachers, Kristi Morin at Lehigh University is leading Project STAY. The purpose of this project is to develop an induction program for teachers of students with autism who are in the first 3 years of their career. In addition to ongoing training, the program includes mentorship from experienced teachers and participation in a network of novice teachers as ways to provide new teachers with instructional and social/emotional support. While this is an ongoing project, IES looks forward to the impact this research will have on new special educators.

To improve collaboration between special education teachers and content-area teachers in addressing literacy needs, Jade Wexler from the University of Maryland, College Park developed CALI (Content-Area Literacy Instruction) professional development. The program is designed to improve literacy instruction in co-taught content area classes by providing teachers with an instructional framework, a planning process to clarify teacher roles, and technical assistance for applying the framework and planning process to their practice. Results of the pilot study revealed that the program led to beneficial outcomes for teachers and students. The project also resulted in resources for teachers, including downloadable CALI materials and a special issue of Intervention in School and Clinic with guidance on how to implement evidence-based literacy practices in content-area classes.

While IES-funded researchers have been hard at work investigating ways to foster productive collaboration and studying its outcomes, there are still many issues affecting the special education teacher workforce that need further study. To address this, the Special Education Research and Development Center Program is accepting grant applications to establish a new K-12 Special Education Teacher Workforce Center, with a deadline of January 11, 2024. The new R&D Center will (1) conduct research on the special education teacher pipeline and the role of specific programs and policies in shaping the special education teacher workforce; (2) provide national leadership to build researcher capacity, improve data collection on the special education teacher workforce, and disseminate findings; and (3) engage in supplemental, just-in-time research and/or national leadership activities based on emerging needs in the field.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at  NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University, and Katherine Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed,gov), program officer for the projects featured in this article and the contact for the FY 2024 Special Education Research and Development Center Program.

Counting and Listening to Native American Students: Reflections on NIES and its Potential

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, IES is highlighting the National Indian Education Study (NIES) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in partnership with the Office of Indian Education (OIE). Dr. Meredith Larson, who has been with the National Center for Education Research (NCER) since 2010 interviewed Dr. Jamie Deaton about NIES. Dr. Deaton has worked at NCES since 2009 and became the NIES Project Director in April 2010.

What is NIES, and how is it similar or different from other NAEP studies?

NIES describes the condition of education for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students in the United States. Since 2005, NCES has administered it in conjunction with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) state-level assessments in mathematics and reading at grades 4 and 8. The very large NAEP sample allows us to report data for AI/AN students nationally and for various subgroups of AI/AN students. In NIES, students first take either the NAEP mathematics or reading assessment, followed by a NAEP survey questionnaire, and then an NIES survey questionnaire (which emphasizes Native language and culture). Both NAEP and NIES survey questionnaires are also administered to the teachers and school administrators of AI/AN students. You can learn more about the survey design here.

 

 

What are some examples of how have policymakers, practitioners, or researchers used it?

NIES data has been used in Congressional testimony and at the state level. For example, NIES data has been included in past testimonies to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies; the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education; and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. At the state level, Oregon used NIES data to support a successful request to its state legislature to approve a full-time Indian Education Specialist within the Oregon Department of Education.

We also want to ensure that a variety of educational leaders—especially Native leaders—are aware of the study and can access the results and products. In addition to the online reports, we also produce hard copies to ensure results get to those without easy access to online documents. We help distribute these widely via a Native-owned NIES contractor (currently Tribal Tech, LLC) to Tribal colleges and universities, AI/AN studies programs at colleges and universities, all federal and state recognized tribes, AI/AN focused media, research centers, and other related AI/AN non-profits.

In addition, we want to get the results in the hands of school leaders. For example, all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools serving grades 4 and 8 are in the NIES sample, and all of these schools receive hard copies of NIES reports.

What makes working on NIES study interesting to you?

Building partnerships with Native leaders both within and outside the federal government has been really rewarding. We administer NIES on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education (OIE) which provides funding for the study; integrates NIES data collection with its work when possible; and serves as a strong partner, advocate, and disseminator for NIES results. NIES is not only conducted in conjunction with the NAEP program but also conducted in conjunction with OIE’s work. Over the years, I have regularly presented to OIE grantees, and this has been a wonderful forum to share more about the study and also draw connections to and learn more about grantee-related work.

For NIES to be successful, it needs to be guided not just by assessment experts, but by Native experts. To this end, NCES established the NIES Technical Review Panel (TRP) made up of individuals with expertise in matters related to the education of AI/AN students. Members oversee the development of the NIES survey questionnaires and guide the planning, drafting, and revision of NIES publications with their ongoing expert consultation. In conjunction with the release of the last two NIES reports, the TRP has also authored a companion document, called  Setting the Context, that provides perspective on how this study fits into the larger sphere of education for AI/AN students. Tribal Tech recruits BIE schools for the study, disseminates study results at conferences focused on AI/AN education (for example, National Indian Education Association Annual Convention & Trade Show), and has established a long-term partnership with a Native-owned printing company (Sault Printing Company Inc.) that helps produce and disseminate NIES-related documents.

What excites you about NIES?

I’m very excited about last year’s release of the 2019 NIES Qualitative Data Companion as a public use data file (available in Excel files on the NIES main page). The data release marked the first time in NIES program history that qualitative survey questions, collected since 2005, became publicly available. Prior to the release, we ensured that all student and teacher responses were reviewed and edited to remove the presence of names or addresses and any other Personal Identifiable Information (PII). My hope is that having an established process for releasing this type of data will be beneficial to other IES data collections. Members of the TRP deserve a lot of credit for continuously advocating for this data. Had the TRP not done so, there was a real possibility that we would have dropped these qualitative questions from future data collections. Instead, we now have a model to follow for getting this data out to the public. We are also working on releasing previous NIES Qualitative Data Companions from earlier NIES administrations too.

From a research perspective, what do these qualitative data provide?

Researchers without a restricted-use data (RUD) license now can access this robust dataset. We recognize that many of our stakeholders live in remote areas and/or have other barriers to accessing the RUD (for example, those not affiliated with an institution). I think for doctoral candidates these data provide an opportunity for a dissertation with data already gathered and accessible for analysis.

There are many different angles to approach this open-ended data. For example, the final question on the NIES student survey is “What else would you like to say about yourself, your school, or about American Indian or Alaska Native people?” I’m curious what researchers would find as key differences when comparing grade 4 responses to grade 8. What are some themes and patterns in student respondents? What is the breakdown between responses that pertain to Native language and culture, and how does this differ across school types, such as public schools run by the states and schools operated through funding from the Bureau of Indian Education?  

Are there other resources for researchers interested in NIES data?

Another public use tool is the NIES Data Explorer available at NDE Core Web (nationsreportcard.gov). This explorer includes a wealth of data from all previous NIES administrations. If you go to the NDE Core Web page, you will find other relevant data explorers available including the Main NAEP, High School Transcript Study, and Long-Term Trend.


This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education, NCER. Individuals or organizations interested in learning about field-initiated research or training grant opportunities to conduct work relevant to Native American/Alaska Native prekindergarten through postsecondary and adult education may contact her for initial technical assistance.

Introducing the 2023-24 NCSER Interns from the Virtual Student Federal Service Program

NCSER is grateful for our student interns, who come to us through the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Federal Service Program. These interns are volunteering their time to support NCSER in data science and open science. Data science interns mine data from IES grants and related publications and create visualizations to represent what IES has funded and learned. Open science interns use their talents to help us understand and communicate about research in special education. We are pleased to introduce each of the 2023-24 academic-year interns here.

Data Science Interns

Diamond Andress

Headshot of Diamond Andress

I am a PhD student at George Mason University, deeply committed to informing education policy and addressing gaps in the field, particularly concerning individuals with learning disabilities. My academic journey has been profoundly influenced by extensive research experiences at George Mason University and the International Leadership of Texas charter school, where I delved into critical aspects of education policy, including ethnicity, race, bilingual status, SPED/504 status, and student achievement.

My ultimate career aspiration is to become an educational researcher specializing in enhancing student achievement and advocating for policy reforms. I am particularly drawn to this internship opportunity with NSCER/IES due to my unyielding passion for data-driven solutions in education. This internship provides a unique platform for me to gain hands-on experience in analyzing data and collaborating with experts, which are instrumental in uncovering systematic educational gaps and contributing to policy enrichment.

Fun Fact: I find solace in the art of photography and the enrichment of travel experiences. My collection of SD cards holds cherished moments from my international teaching endeavors in Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Guinea, underscoring my broader commitment to fostering inclusive and equitable education for all.

Kevin Navarrete-Parra

Headshot of Kevin Navarrete-Parra

I am a PhD student studying political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I take part in rewarding research methods and data science education every semester. My exposure to quantitative research began long before graduate school. I started this journey by taking my first research methods class and working as a research assistant as an undergraduate student. Once I officially enrolled in graduate school, the data science bug bit me—I felt compelled to learn as much as possible about the fascinating world of data and research! This passion and my cumulative experience handling data prepared me for the NCSER data science internship.

My goal for the future is to refine my data science skills so I can work with data that make tangible impacts on the world around me—a plan I am one step closer to achieving thanks to this fantastic opportunity with NCSER. Indeed, this is precisely why I applied to this program: I know that by supporting NCSER's rigorous research program, I can make a difference in something that is pressing and important.

Fun Fact: I love watches. I recently began collecting watches, but my horological passion started years ago when I got my first Timex in high school.

Marissa Kuehn

Headshot of Marissa Kuehn

I am a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Toledo. I am pursuing bachelor’s degrees in disability studies and data science, with a minor in computer science. Previously I have conducted and presented research on understanding the neurodiversity paradigm and movement. I was the recipient of the Patricia Murphy Scholarship from the disability studies department, and I am the co-founder and president of the university’s Disability Student Union. My past work experience as a research assistant on the Plain Truth Project, coursework in data science, lived experience of disability, and long-time passion for disability justice led me to this internship.

I am excited to apply my developing data science skills and passion to learn more about disability research and improve my research skills throughout this internship. I am interested in improving the representation of the disability community in data science and making data more accessible. This internship will allow me to synthesize my data science and disability studies skills and enabling me to seek out more opportunities to do so in the future.

Fun Fact: I am a Trekkie! My favorite characters are Seven of Nine and Data.

Open Science/Communication Interns

Shanna Bodenhamer

Headshot of Shanna Bodenhamer

Howdy! I am finishing up my last year as a PhD student in educational psychology with an emphasis in special education at Texas A&M University (whoop!). Prior to starting my PhD program, I had various roles in the public school system, working as a special education teacher, a board-certified behavior analyst providing behavioral training and support to teachers, and a program facilitator overseeing the implementation of a state-funded autism grant for an early childhood intervention program. After graduation, I would like to be a faculty member in higher education. 

I’m returning as a second-year virtual intern with NCSER because I learned so much during my previous internship. It gave me the opportunity to speak with researchers across the nation about their research projects and how this work can improve the experiences of students with disabilities. I was able to share this research through social media and blog posts, ensuring that evidence-based practices are accessible to everyone, especially key stakeholders. I’m excited to be part of all the great things happening at NCSER and look forward to another year!

Fun Fact: I like to spend time at the lake with my family. Sometimes we wakesurf, but mostly, we just relax and float around. Luke, our Labrador, loves to swim in the water, but our puggle, Leia, prefers to sunbathe on the boat!

Skyler Fesagaiga

Headshot of Skyler Fesagaiga

I am pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the University of California, San Diego, where I plan to develop my quantitative research skills to participate in special education policy analysis. Before attending graduate school, I worked as a licensed behavioral therapist and as a research assistant at Southern Utah University on a project that evaluated parental empowerment with children with disabilities before and after the introduction of elementary school.

With my research interests, IES was a perfect fit for me. Through this internship I hope to develop refined verbal and written communication skills that support my future goals and learn as much as possible about special education research through exposure to IES-funded projects. I plan to further my education as a doctoral student to reach my long-term goal of becoming an expert in inequality and social policy in education. 

Fun Fact: I enjoy collecting rings with different types of gemstones from antique stores! 

Sarah Brasiel, NCSER program officer and primary mentor for the data science interns, and Amy Sussman, NCSER program officer and primary mentor for the open science interns, produced this blog.

Daily Report Cards to Enhance Individual Education Plans for Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

In honor of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with Dr. Gregory Fabiano, who has been investigating the enhancement of Individual Education Programs (IEPs) for children with ADHD using daily report cards (DRC). The DRC provides a way to provide feedback to students, parents, and teachers on behavioral and social IEP goals on a daily basis. In the interview below, Dr. Fabiano shares how ADHD impacts student outcomes and how linking the DRC to IEP goals can improve social and academic outcomes above and beyond what an IEP alone can do.

What do we already know about how ADHD impacts academic and social outcomes in children in elementary school? How does this motivate your own research?

Like all people, individuals with ADHD have areas of strengths and weaknesses. If you wanted to create a situation where a person with ADHD is more likely to demonstrate weaknesses, you would likely construct a situation like an academic classroom—long periods of time where individuals are asked to complete rote tasks, attend to lectures, and follow strict rules about where they should be, what they can say, and when they can say it. The situation is highly likely to exacerbate challenges with staying on task and being productive. Through our team’s work with so many children with ADHD, we have seen first-hand how hard their caregivers and teachers work to support them and the good they can do when they are successful. That is why we are motivated to develop approaches to help every child with ADHD who may struggle in school.

The DRC has been used with students with ADHD for a while now. What can you tell us of the history of this intervention?

The DRC has been around since the 1960s when it was used by scholars such as Jon Bailey and colleagues at the University at Kansas and then by Dan and Sue O’Leary and their graduate student Bill Pelham at Stony Brook University. Since that time, the DRC has been disseminated to schools. It has the advantage of being practical and easy to understand across caregivers, educators, and the child. Throughout its use over the past 50 years, it has always included the same active ingredients: (1) clearly specified behavioral goals with objective criteria for meeting goals (for example, completes assigned work within time given, has no more than three instances of interruptions during the science lesson); (2) provision of progress feedback throughout the day; (3) daily communication between the teacher, caregiver, and child by sending the report home; and (4) contingent rewards provided at home for goals achieved.

What does a DRC introduce to a child’s IEP that can improve academic and social outcomes relative to an IEP without a DRC? 

Research, including our own work, has suggested that IEPs for children with ADHD may under-represent social/behavioral goals and objectives. They are even less effective at providing specific, ongoing evidence-based interventions for a student with ADHD. When the DRC is linked to IEP goals and objectives on a daily basis, educators and others are better able to focus their own attention on the most important areas of need. Further, it is flexible enough to quickly add worthy goals that may not have been on the IEP.

We think that the DRC is especially important at the elementary school level, where school is a particularly formative educational experience. We emphasize positive daily goals and contingent rewards for meeting goals. And because the DRC is implemented just for the one day, students start with a clean slate at the onset of each school day.

What impact do you hope that your study of the DRC intervention will have on the field, and for students with ADHD and their IEPs in particular?

One of the sobering findings of our IES-funded study was that the comparison group, which included special education as usual, did not improve in the main outcomes assessed at the end of the year. This leads our team to believe that we need to do much more to support students with ADHD on a daily and ongoing basis, beyond simply drafting an IEP. Because most students with ADHD spend the majority of their day in general education settings, even if they have an IEP, the DRC serves as a bridge to promote continuity and consistency of behavioral support across school personnel and across school days.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your project? 

It is important to note that some children with ADHD progress through school and find their footing successfully in college and/or career. Yet, we know from long-term follow-up studies that the educational outcomes for many with ADHD are poor. These outcomes do not occur suddenly, but instead are caused by the accumulation of negative school experiences. It is important to acknowledge that establishing an IEP alone is unlikely to influence these negative outcomes. It is the everyday support and intervention received by the child with ADHD in the classroom that makes the difference. Caregivers, educators, and the child must work together daily to make progress, celebrate successes, and problem solve to address any continued areas of need. The DRC is one way to do this and we are hopeful the field will continue to develop innovative ways to support individuals with ADHD using a competency-building approach.

This blog was authored by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Jackie Buckley, NCSER program officer, manages this grant.