Faculty News

USC Rossier celebrates four new federal grants this fall

Brendesha Tynes, Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, Erika Patall and Stephen Aguilar each received large grants for their research

By USC Rossier Research Published on

The USC Rossier School of Education already boasts a wealth of extraordinary research. This fall, that research will become even richer, thanks to four recent federal grants totaling more than $15 million. The recipients, Professors Brendesha Tynes, Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, Erika Patall and Stephen Aguilar, will each receive several million dollars over the next few years for their pathbreaking work, accounting for nearly half of the most recent awards to USC Rossier.

The caliber of research that such funding endows, in the words of one of the grantors, is not only innovative but transformative. It has “the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.” Each of the four projects funded by the federal grants aim to do just that.

The researchers at USC Rossier will either employ cutting edge-technologies—artificial intelligence and virtual reality—to bolster student learning and teacher instruction, or they will strengthen such learning and instruction within the sciences and mathematics. They not only intend to change how students learn and how teachers educate, they hope to fortify young people of color against the pervasive racism they daily endure and help them heal.

The grant awarded to Professor Brendesha Tynes—$4.6 million over five years—is not only exceptional but rare. This year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest federal agency supporting basic research, funded more than 58,000 projects across the sciences; Professor Tynes’s was one of only six to receive the Director’s Transformative Research Award, founded to underwrite “exceptionally creative scientists with highly innovative research.” Tynes will use her award to develop an immersive virtual world in conjunction with students of color in grades K–12. The goal is not only to improve their digital and media literacy but to bolster their mental health against the daily torrent of racism and misinformation that experience online. By building the virtual platform, Professor Tynes will transform the way young people become digitally literate, ensuring that all young people thrive both online and off.

With more than $3.2 million in funding for her project from the NIH, Professor Erika Patall will further engage students from underrepresented minorities and create a more hospitable place for them in classrooms. Patall and her collaborators will train Black and Brown college students who are beginning their courses in the biomedical sciences so they can pursue their studies with a malleable mindset. When students believe that their attitudes and actions can improve their experiences inside the classroom, they are more apt to feel they belong. And once they feel they belong, they are more likely to persist, even in disciplines that have long excluded them. The goal is to determine whether more students from underrepresented minorities will pursue a career in the biomedical sciences with just a change of mindset.

Most students, unfortunately, turn away from the study of mathematics long before they reach college, resulting in a dearth of students majoring in the sciences, especially those requiring higher mathematics. Professor Yasemin Copur-Gencturk believes that improving mathematics instruction in middle school is thus vital to increasing the number of students who will later pursue a degree in the sciences. Copur-Gencturk has received a grant of nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation to aid novice math teachers and middle-school students. Even those who are studying to become math teachers struggle to master the difficult concepts that they are meant to impart to young students. To ensure that these future math teachers receive the individualized help that they also need, as they need it, Professor Copur-Gencturk has designed an artificial intelligence program to prepare them online, wherever they are and at any pace they proceed. Helping these would-be teachers with their studies will further address equity in the sciences. The AI system will not only act as if an experienced teacher, mentoring the young educators who most often work with marginalized students, it will also provide culturally diverse examples that future teachers can pass on to their students.

Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of the technologies with the potential to transform education. Implementing and designing thoughtful AI systems, however, requires novel research strategies. Professor Stephen Aguilar has designs to elevate Rossier to the forefront of such innovative research. This fall, in partnership with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and Army University, Aguilar was enlisted in a $4.5 million grant to found the Artificial Intelligence Research Center of Excellence for Education. The Center will focus on using generative AI to help writing instructors and students, while also streamlining the process of document revision. Professor Aguilar’s will focus on developing instructional dashboards augmented by AI. These dashboards aim to predict which students need additional instruction on different lessons and provide “just in time” feedback so that instructors can develop individualized strategies for students to master the necessary material. The resulting dashboards will not only be user-friendly for students and teachers alike, they will be user-uplifting, improving instruction and learning at the same time.

USC Rossier School of Education has always invested in the caliber of research that has the capacity to overhaul education in the United States. As Dean Pedro Noguera remarked: “These grants show that our faculty are engaged in cutting edge research that has the potential to make major contributions to the field of education. We are extremely proud of those who have received these awards.” Dean Noguera and USC Rossier look forward to an even more prosperous future of transformative research thanks to these four federal grants and so many more significant awards to its faculty.

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