Curry School Undergraduates Gain Hands-on Research Experience

By Rachel Chapdelaine

By working together on a recent research project studying emotion talk in preschool classrooms, a group of Curry School undergrads learned valuable skills for their future careers.

Left to right: Luotong Yao, Sareena Chadha, Pilar Alamos, Gabrielle Lachman and Ciara Leonard

For undergraduate students, conducting research is a powerful method for learning and exploring subjects that matter to them. It enables students to follow their career interests and stay up-to-date with the latest research in their field while expanding their critical thinking, communication and reflection — all marketable skills as they pursue further education or a job in their field.

Students at the Curry School of Education and Human Development have the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience beyond the classroom by collaborating with research faculty and peers on relevant, hands-on research. The Center of Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a research center within the Curry School, works closely with Curry School students on research projects that unpack what happens between teachers and students in the classroom and contribute to the larger education research field.

Pilar Alamos, a 4th-year graduate student at Curry and researcher at CASTL, recently led a team of five undergraduate research assistants — Sareena Chadha, Gabrielle Lachman, Ciara Leonard, Luotong Yao and Deborah Acevedo — in a new research project. Leveraging data from the Preschool Relationships Enhancement Project, the dissertation study explores preschool teachers' emotional talk and its connection to children's engagement in the classroom.

Participating in this research experience gave these undergraduate students a chance to become researchers and learn alongside peers who, despite having different education backgrounds and career focuses, share an interest in early childhood education. 

“I am currently a kinesiology major, but last summer I decided that I wanted to come back to UVA for a master’s in elementary education. I love kids and have been volunteering in Charlottesville public schools for the last four years. I thought this research would be a great way to gain a new type of experience with kids,” said Lachman.

Over the past year, the students worked to design and apply a new coding measure that examines preschool teachers’ and children’s use of emotion talk during a storybook reading. The data will be used to identify a specific teaching practice that supports children’s self-regulatory development.

“As a cognitive science and psychology double major, I love having experiences that take me adjacent to those fields, and I am very interested in how education shapes people, whether it be at the preschool or university level,” said Chadha. “Our research will point out to teachers and other stakeholders of education that the addition of emotion talk, prompted by the teacher during storybook reading, is impactful and easy to facilitate.” 

To conduct the research, the undergraduate students watched videos of teachers reading the same book and coded more than 350 teacher-child interactions. Although coding the videos was time-intensive, requiring a pair of students to independently code each video to ensure the data was trustworthy, it allowed the students to explore their interests and develop analytical skills.

“I benefited from seeing a closer look at what a psychological research assistant is in charge of. This gave me a greater sense of appreciation for coding analysis, since I now know how taxing it can be,” said Chadha.

In addition to learning how to create and accurately apply a coding scheme, the students reported that they deepened their understanding of emotion talk in the classroom and gained knowledge from the perspective of their peers.

“I learned about the value of working with a diverse team in that each of us brought different experiences and opinions to the table,” said Alamos. “This was of tremendous value, especially during the coding development, because each of us was ‘seeing’ very different things in the same video. It required us to discuss, be explicit about our assumptions and beliefs and agree on a decision.”

Using the data collected from coding, the students presented a poster on teacher-child emotion talk in preschool at the Curry Research Conference (CRC) in March. The CRC event provided the opportunity to create a research poster — a first for many of the students — and exercise presentation skills.

“It was rewarding to create an entire poster for a research project, see all of the different components come together after working on it for so long and actually present the project at the end of the year,” said Chadha. “Through this experience, I learned how to concisely present information and interact with the conference attendees.”

Overall, this hands-on research experience helped the students learn in a way that supports content covered in Curry classrooms by expanding the students’ knowledge through personal experience. “Ultimately this research helped me realize how multifaceted teaching is and that every moment with a student is a chance for them to learn something new,” said Lachman.

Participating in this research impacted the six students in both shared and unique ways. While all of the students said they hope to apply the knowledge gained from this experience in future roles, they each plan to use it in different contexts.

For Deborah Acevedo, the project has motivated her to integrate intentional use of speech in a clinical setting. “In my career as a future speech language pathologist, I will take this research into consideration when interacting with young children and will be more intentional in my talk when I approach therapy sessions,” said Acevedo.

For Chadha, the project has solidified her interest in the field of education. “This research experience has opened up an option for me, in terms of my career. Recently, I have begun to think about staying in academia to earn my Ph.D., and one of the fields I am now considering is education,” she said.