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Three College of Education Doctoral Students Receive Outstanding Dissertation Award

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Three NC State College of Education graduates were recognized for their research efforts when they were selected to receive the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Awards during the college’s May 2022 Graduation Ceremony.

Vance Kite ’21PHD won for the Department of STEM Education, Samira Syal ’22PHD for the Department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences and Sarah Hammond ’22PHD for the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development.

You can read more about these students and their award-winning dissertations in the pieces below.

Vance Kite

Dissertation Title: Pulling the Plug on Computational Thinking: Preparing Inservice Science Teachers to Bring CT to Their Classrooms

As the husband of a woman who has spent her career in computer science, Vance Kite ’21PHD, a graduate of the Ph.D. in Learning and Teaching in STEM science education program area of study, has witnessed the value of the skill set required for that career. Through her experiences, he has also seen the difficulties of being part of a marginalized group in the field. 

His wife’s experiences, combined with his own as a science teacher, helped him to understand that students need computational thinking skills in order to prepare for the jobs of the future. However, too many students don’t have the opportunity to take these courses. 

“Historically, we have seen that there’s pretty inequitable access to opportunities for K-12 students to build computational thinking skills because they’re either not taking computer science classes or computer science courses aren’t offered at their school,” he said. “One of the ways that we can ensure that we offer this access to all students is by embedding it in their science classes.” 

Most computational thinking that gets embedded into science curricula, Kite said, involves using technology like coding applications or game-based learning. For his dissertation, he conducted three studies that focused on the integration of computational thinking without using technology. 

The first study involved a statewide survey of middle and high school science teachers to better understand what they know about computational thinking, what barriers they faced in integrating computational thinking into their classrooms and what they would like to see in a professional development program about computational thinking. 

Using insights from that survey, Kite then designed a week-long professional development session and focused his second study on its design and implementation. The third study followed up with teachers three months after attending the professional development program to understand how they used what they learned and to watch select teachers implement the lessons they had developed as a result of the professional development. 

“My advisor, Dr. Soonhye Park, had said this was a very strong study, but she’s my advisor so I took it with a grain of salt. So, to have won the College of Education’s Outstanding Dissertation Award is a stamp of validation. It feels good,” Kite said.  

Kite, who graduated in December 2021, said Park was instrumental in helping him dive into the research process from his first semester as a graduate student. She allowed him to learn about research by doing it, which allowed him to both gain valuable experience as well as graduate with a significant number of academic publications and presentations.

“She threw me in and then supported me in bringing various lines of work to fruition,” he said. “I can’t say enough about my time with the College of Education.”

Samira Syal 

Dissertation title: Examining the effects of a game-based learning environment on fifth graders’ motivation and reading comprehension

As an English as a second language teacher in India, Samira Syal ’22PHD taught 80 fifth grade students who did not speak English but were expected to read and understand science and social studies textbooks in the language. 

While she would use drills and lessons to help students learn to read and write in English, she noticed students would often struggle with engagement. 

“The more kids are engaged, the more they’re willing to comprehend difficult texts. That piece is somehow overlooked in a lot of reading comprehension interventions,” she said. “I’m quite interested in how to bring this piece in to help kids be engaged, and I feel like game-based learning methods that use self-regulated approaches help with engagement because you give children a choice, and you provide them opportunities for agency and perhaps this might help with reading more complex texts.” 

To learn more about how to engage children in reading comprehension, Syal enrolled in the College of Education’s Ph.D in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences educational psychology program area of study, where her dissertation focused on how self-regulated processes for reading comprehension in authentic learning environments, like that of game-based learning environments and classroom instruction. 

As she prepares to continue to work with early literacy efforts and apply research to practice in her new role in research and evaluation, Syal is humbled to have her research recognized with the Outstanding Dissertation Award. 

“There are so many doctoral candidates doing groundbreaking work, looking at so many issues that need to be talked about. It’s very validating to have been chosen for this award, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work in this space,” she said. “I want to continue doing work in this area to see how we can look at motivation and self-regulated learning as a bridge to driving more equitable educational outcomes.” 

Learning more about issues of equity and inclusion in education, Syal said, was one of the most eye opening experiences of her doctoral journey. As an international student, the College of Education’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion allowed her to understand more about the educational landscape in the United States and issues of inequity that exist. 

“I looked at inclusion in special education in my master’s program, but I hadn’t looked at equity at the intersection of deiversy, equity and inclusion,” she said. “The way the doctoral program looked at equity issues at the intersection of DEI was eye opening. It’s something that I learned so much about, and I’m hoping to practice a lot more.”

Sarah Hammond

Dissertation title: Nudging towards diversity: A randomized controlled trial involving veterinary college applicants

Sarah Hammond ’22PHD knows a lot of young students dream of one day becoming doctors or veterinarians, but she also knows the path to becoming a veterinarian is more difficult for some students than others. 

During one of the College of Education’s scholar leader courses, taught by Professor Marc Grimmett, Hammond was tasked with creating a documentary centered around issues of equity. Because she was also employed at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she chose to look at the experiences of underrepresented students in the field, where more than 90% of practicing veterinarians are white. 

“That experience changed the way I looked at issues of diversity. It deepened my commitment to equity and to supporting positive outcomes for all students,” she said. “I also wanted to find a way to give back to the veterinary community here at NC State for all the years of support and encouragement they have provided me throughout my career.” 

As she earned her Ph.D. in the Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development educational evaluation and policy analysis program area of study, Hammond decided to focus her dissertation research on the effect of text-based nudging on application completion for students interested in applying to veterinary colleges across the country. Specifically, she looked at the 2021 admissions cycle with the goal of increasing the number of historically underrepresented students considered for admission. 

The study was the first of its kind to examine applicant behavior within the health profession and one of a handful examining nudging techniques as a tool to increase diversity among applicants.

Hammond’s study evaluated both the effect of basic text-based nudges, such as timely reminders to complete application tasks, as well as the effect of nudges that included messaging designed to create a sense of belonging and highlight the profession’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Results showed that the nudges had no effect on application completion, indicating that more needs to be done to successfully diversify the profession. 

“The findings of this study suggest that advancing diversity will require more than just a nudge. This study has important implications for strategic diversity initiatives in veterinary medical education, drawing attention to the increased barriers for underrepresented individuals,” she said. “The results of this study may help us better understand the contexts in which nudging is unlikely to be effective.”

As she prepares to take on her next role as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this summer, Hammond said she believes her time in the College of Education has provided her with the necessary skills to continue to conduct thoughtful and rigorous research, and she feels honored to know that her work is already making an impact.

“I am honored to have my dissertation recognized with the Outstanding Dissertation Award. I am so proud of this work and the community involved,” she said. “They say, ‘it takes a village’ and, in this case, two colleges came together to support me in making a difference. I know firsthand the value this university places on diversity, equity and inclusion work.”