Research Opportunities & Faculty


Research Apprenticeships

Interns will work on an ongoing research project(s) with UVA faculty mentor(s) and a graduate student co-mentor(s).

Internship work may include:

  • reading background literature
  • collecting, coding, and analyzing data
  • writing a section of a paper
  • participating in research meetings
  • presenting on research

Please note that due to the nature of research in the education sciences and the time needed to conduct a full research study, students will not develop an independent research project.  Instead, they will join an existing research team made up of faculty and students, led by their mentor.  Descriptions of research projects and the mentors are shared below.

Summer 2019 Research Opportunities


  • The Role of Play in Children's Cognitive Development

    Project Title: The Role of Play in Children's Cognitive Development

    Project PI(s): Jamie Jirout, PhD.

    Project Description:

    We are interested in how children develop the skills necessary for science learning and general critical thinking. Specifically, we study children's developing spatial reasoning abilities and their broader inquiry skills, including question asking and curiosity. Our spatial projects focus on identifying how spatial skills, which are important for learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, develop during the preschool years. Young children learn from play, and we focus on spatial play as a potential explanation and intervention for spatial learning. Children today engage in much of their play using digital devices and apps. A key question we are currently asking is whether digital and physical versions of spatial play differ in their quality and their impact on spatial skills. Children’s motivation to learn also plays a crucial mediating role in the success of any instructional effort, and one important motivator is children’s natural curiosity. Our curiosity projects focus on how children’s question-asking and other inquisitive behaviors impact their learning. These topics are studied through experimental and correlational work including providing playful experiences, measuring change in spatial skills and curiosity, and coding adult and child behavior during play.

    Interns will collect data from participants, code behavior from videos, design materials and curricula, read relevant literature, and assist in analyzing different data sets. Interns may also have the opportunity to conduct studies in a local children's museum and engage in community outreach. Depending on the intern’s experience and interests, it may be possible to plan, write, and submit a conference abstract related to the work.

    Faculty Bio: 

    Jamie Jirout, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Psychology and Applied Developmental Sciences program. She studies young children’s spatial learning and development, playful learning, science education, and curiosity and question asking. 

    Grad Student Mentor(s): Sierra Eisen, Shoronda Matthews

  • Understanding the Power of Preschool for Kindergarten Success (P2K)

    Project Title: Understanding the Power of Preschool for Kindergarten Success (P2K)

    Project PI(s): Jason Downer, Ph.D.; Amanda Williford, Ph.D. (Affiliated Faculty/Project Coordinator: Khara Turnbull, Ph.D.)

    Project Description: 

    Many children enter kindergarten lacking key school readiness skills in domains such as language, literacy, social competence, and math. Children from low-income backgrounds are at particular risk for not being ready. There is an assumption that high-quality early education programs can mitigate this readiness gap. However, without an understanding of what it means to be high-quality, and how high-quality programs enhance children’s early learning, preschool programs are unlikely to yield the large, sustained benefits that policy-makers, advocates, and families seek.

    The P2K project is working closely with preschool programs to measure and observe three critical contributors to school readiness:

    • Children's executive function skills (e.g., self-control, working memory, mental flexibility),
    • Children's individual engagement with teachers, peers, and learning tasks, and
    • The quality of children's experiences and interactions in the classroom

    P2K will provide a better understanding of what high-quality preschool education means, and will inform the specific classroom experiences that increase kindergarten success for children.

    P2K Project interns will gain experience coding a standardized measure of young children’s narrative language abilities (Narrative Assessment Protocol; NAP), one of the P2K Project’s measures of school readiness. Interns will complete a comprehensive training program to establish reliability on the NAP before coding preschool-age children’s narrative language samples from video. Interns will also gain experience performing data entry and data entry verification associated with NAP, as well as analyzing P2K data and conducting literature reviews to support research and dissemination efforts.

    Faculty Bios: 

    Jason Downer, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Education, Director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and Program Area Director for Clinical and School Psychology. His primary research interests concern the identification and understanding of contextual and relational contributors to children’s early achievement and social-emotional learning from preschool-elementary. 

    Amanda Williford, Ph.D. is a Research Associate Professor for the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and the Clinical and School Psychology Program. Her primary research interests concern how young children best develop school readiness skills, with special emphasis on the development of social-emotional skills.

    Khara Turnbull, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Education, Research Faculty for the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and the Department of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Public Policy. Her primary research interests concern examining children’s language development trajectories (including language semantics, syntax, and pragmatics) to better understand the shared cognitive underpinnings of key foundational early school readiness skills (e.g., executive function, literacy, math, social and behavioral skills). She also conducts research to explore the role of classroom discourse as a primary mechanism for supporting student outcomes, and examines the overlap between families’ role in regulating children’s sleep routines and schedules and school readiness.

    Grad Student Mentors: Katie Smith, Nicole Capobianco, Renee Gallo, Sarah Wymer

  • Exploring the Influence of a Community Summer Reading Program on Reading Outcomes for At-Risk Youth

    Project Title: Exploring the Influence of a Community Summer Reading Program on Reading Outcomes for At-Risk Youth

    Project PI(s): Anita McGinty, Ph.D., Director of PALS

    Project Description:

    The rate of 3rd grade reading failure in Virginia is approximately 25% (datacenter.kidscount.org). Yet, the burden of reading failure is not borne equally among all children, with minority and economically disadvantaged children showing – at a national level- significantly higher levels of reading failure rates, compared to non-minority and more economically-advantaged peers (NAEP; Reardon & Pardilla, 2016). These sobering statistics are evident in Virginia as well. For example, recent data show that 79% of black fourth graders in VA scored below “proficient” in fourth grade reading (datacenter.kiddscount.org); about twice that of their white peers.

    The social and economic gaps in reading success begin early- far earlier than the time of high-stakes testing which fuel these statistics (i.e., 3rd and 4th grade reading). Thus, communities that seek to prevent these negative trends of educational inequality must begin early and far before there is evidence of reading failure. Localities must consider that the full solution to supporting all children’s reading success by 3rd grade and often these solutions are multi-pronged. State and school initiatives must be supplemented with innovative local solutions at the community level. In the Charlottesville-Albemarle area we have a unique situation to better understand how one such program- the Boys and Girls Club summer reading program- is organizing to support the reading success of young children in the Charlottesville/Albemarle community. This is an innovative program to consider as it reflects an effort to supplement the provision of intervention support during school with approaches to preventative support outside of school.

    Interns will support efforts to create descriptive analytical plots of data on children’s literacy learning and participation in the summer reading program and will support the preparation of a community report on this effort. Interns will also have a chance to visit the summer reading program ‘in action’ and may help to support the development of a questionnaire for families in relation to their literacy experiences at home.

    Faculty Bio: 

    Anita McGinty, Ph.D. is a Research Associate Professor in CISE with a primary affiliation in PALS. She comes to us having spent the past 5 years in the non-profit and philanthropic sector and is the founder of a consulting practice, ASEC Advisory. Prior to that she was a Research Assistant professor within CASTL, and completed her Ph.D. at UVA in Risk and Prevention (now Educational Psychology- Applied Developmental Science) as an IES-funded fellow and IES Fellow of the year in 2009. Her research explores the importance of quality environments for children’s language and literacy development and examines how research-based programs translate within applied practice, particularly in programs serving low-income children. At a community level,Dr. Mcginty advises the Blue Ridge Boys and Girls Club, serves as a reader and grant advisee for the Ron Brown Scholar Program, and is a Board Member of the Virginia Mentoring Partnership and works as a research adviser to Communitas Consulting to support  regional non-profit and philanthropic organizations in program design and evaluation.

  • Preschooler’s Concentration on Independently Chosen Work

    Project Title: Preschooler’s Concentration on Independently Chosen Work

    Project PI(s): Angeline Lillard, Ph.D.

    Project Description:

    Montessori education offers a uniquely independent learning environment for students. Montessori classrooms are traditionally built around three-hour work periods where students are given the freedom to work with whatever academic material they are most interested in. The pedagogical implication of this interest is that students are able to advance at their own rate and that they will be more likely to concentrate deeply on their work and thus gain more from it. Montessori materials are thus designed to capture students’ interest and the materials in the classroom are specifically selected to be those that students concentrate most readily with. Our research focuses on better understanding Montessori education, seeking to understand how the unique environment of Montessori influences children’s development and what possible benefits this education system may have. One particular line of research focuses on concentration, namely looking at how children concentrate on independently chosen work. This research covers patterns of concentration children display when focusing on independent work, how deep their concentration is, and correlates of concentration. Our research is done both by bringing students into the laboratory and directly observing Montessori classrooms.

    Interns will collect data from child participants, read relevant literature, and assist in analyzing different data sets. Interns may also have the opportunity to conduct studies in a local children's museum and engage in community outreach. 

    Faculty Bio: 

    Dr. Angeline Lillard is a professor of Developmental Psychology. She has been studying Montessori for over two decades. She is author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.Her other research interests include pretend play and the influences of engaging in fictional worlds.

    Graduate Student Mentors: Ian Becker, Abha Basargekar

  • Measuring Cultural Responsivity in the Double Check Teacher Coaching and Professional Development Project

    Project Title: Measuring Cultural Responsivity in the Double Check Teacher Coaching and Professional Development Project

    Project PI(s): Catherine Bradshaw, Ph.D., Jessika Bottiani, Ph.D., Katrina Debnam, Ph.D., Amanda Nguyen, Ph.D.

    Project Description:

    The Double Check Student Engagement and Cultural Responsiveness Program was developed through a U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences grant to promote equitable school climate experiences among students of color by improving teachers’ use of culturally responsive school and classroom practices, thereby also reducing teachers’ disparate discipline referrals for Black and Latinx youth (PI: Bradshaw). In particular, our research focuses on a model of cultural responsiveness with five core components: Connection to Curriculum, Authentic Relationships, Reflective Thinking, Effective Communication, and Sensitivity to Students’ Culture (i.e., CARES). Key questions of interest have to do with how we define, operationalize, and measure these five core components of culturally responsive practices. Despite the widespread interest in culturally responsive practices for teachers, few rigorous trials have evaluated these recommended practices because of a key limitation in operationalizing them for measurement purposes. Objective, dynamic, and formative indicators are needed to provide teachers with ongoing, accurate feedback about their performance in implementing culturally responsive practices. To identify these indicators, we have collected teacher and student survey data and classroom observational data.

    Interns will gain statistical experience by working with quantitative survey and observational data (teacher and student demographic information, school climate report, report of culturally responsive practices, etc.). Interns will also learn how to code video of classrooms using the ASSIST classroom observational measure. The interns also may have the opportunity to formatively contribute to enhancements to the ASSIST observational measure of culturally responsive practices.

    Faculty Bio: 

    Catherine Bradshaw, Ph.D., M.Ed. is a Professor and the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development. Her primary research interests focus on the development of aggressive behavior and school-based prevention.

    Jessika Bottiani, Ph.D., M.P.H. is an Assistant Professor of Education on the research faculty with Youth-Nex and the Department of Human Services. She studies school discipline policies, practices, and interventions and their effects on Black adolescents’ experiences of psychological safety and wellbeing.

    Amanda Nguyen, Ph.D., M.A. is an Assistant Professor of Education on the research faculty and a faculty affiliate of the Youth-Nex Center. Her primary research interests focus on partnering with community organizations to deliver and evaluate culturally appropriate mental and behavioral health programs for young people in low-resource settings. 

    Katrina Debnam, Ph.D., M.P.H. holds a joint faculty appointment in the Curry School of Education and the School of Nursing at UVA.  Dr. Debnam utilizes qualitative and quantitative approaches to examine programs combating adolescent dating abuse, adolescent violence prevention, school climate initiatives, health disparities, and faith-based programs that aim to improve young people’s lives.

    Graduate Student Mentors: Meredith Powers