Provost Postdoctoral Scholar Aguilar finds groove at Rossier

February 17, 2017

Stephen Aguilar has had a banner year for grants

By Ross Brenneman

Stephen Aguilar has been on a roll: Since December 1, the USC Provost Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge has pulled in five research grants totaling more than $125,000.

It’s a great opening to his first year as a USC Provost Postdoc. Aguilar is only the fourth person to earn that designation since the program was launched in 2013, and the second from USC Rossier. The program is intended to grow the pool of future faculty of color.

Aguilar’s research sits at the nexus of educational technology, students’ non-cognitive processes (such as motivation) and issues of equity and access among students of color.

After receiving his PhD from the University of Michigan, Aguilar took the unorthodox step of beginning a postdoc at USC rather than start a tenure-track position elsewhere.

“Most newly minted PhDs wouldn’t choose a postdoc over a tenure-track position, but most postdocs don’t offer the flexibility and funding to pursue one’s own research agenda, unencumbered, for two years. That’s what made the offer from Rossier special,” Aguilar said. “I have the resources to carve out my niche and have also benefited by collaborating with great faculty,” he added, citing professors Gale Sinatra, Brendesha Tynes and Morgan Polikoff as collaborators. “They are very good at what they do.”

New grants

Aguilar will be the principal investigator on three of the new grants he’s helped pull in. The first, a $20,000 grant from the American Educational Research Association and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research, examines Hispanic students’ sense of control in navigating academic experiences.

“Hispanic students’ capability to enroll in—and persist through—college in the face of personal, academic and financial challenges is likely predicated on their belief that they are in control of their academic futures,” Aguilar said. “If they do not believe they are in control, they cannot be expected to persist.”

Aguilar’s study will be one of the first to examine that relationship between control and persistence, using an entirely Hispanic sample of students for longitudinal research that begins in their high school years and ends in their first year of college.

“I am examining how important having a sense of control is. Does it, for example, predict academic success after accounting for other measures, like having supportive teachers? Do Hispanic students who feel that they are in more control of their academic futures enroll in college more often than those who don’t? These are two questions my study will help answer.”

Meanwhile, a $25,000 grant from 2U Inc., announced Wednesday, will allow Aguilar to use natural language processing techniques to better understand how students learn together online. Associate Professor of Clinical Education John Pascarella will be the co-principal investigator on a separate $25,000 2U grant that explores the role of course materials (like course readings) in online learning, for which Aguilar will serve as the co-PI.

Aguilar is also the principal investigator on a $30,000 grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). In collaboration with Gully Burns, a supervising computer scientist at USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute, Aguilar will help evaluate “TechKnAcq,” a tool designed to facilitate the acquisition of technical knowledge.

And to round things out, together with Professor of Psychology and Education Gale Sinatra (the PI on the project), Aguilar will also be a co-investigator on a $25,000 USC Price grant aimed at exploring the impact of a new facility run by the Ocean Discovery Institute. The project aims to evaluate the cutting edge science facility’s impact on urban students’ STEM aspirations in City Heights, San Diego.

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