With more than 80 alumni across education, economics, sociology, and psychology departments at the University of Virginia, the Virginia Education Sciences Training (VEST) pre-doctoral fellowship program has produced highly trained professionals who now hold positions from postdoctoral scientists to education statisticians to assistant professors.
The VEST program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, has been supporting doctoral students at UVA for over 10 years. The program applies rigorous research methods and analytical techniques in the social sciences field to study school and classroom effects.
In continuing a question-and-answer series with VEST alumni, we sat down with Eileen Merritt, a 2012 graduate from the Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science (EP-ADS) program, to learn more about her experience at the UVA Curry School of Education and Human Development and her professional life after UVA.
Eileen Merritt, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor in elementary sustainability science education at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and a researcher with the Sustainability Science Education initiative at Arizona State University.
Question: Tell us a little bit about your current work
As a tenure-track faculty, my primary role is research and writing. All of my research and teaching is focused on environmental education. I am interested in designing and evaluating research-based practices that connect children to each other and the natural world. I have been collaborating with colleagues at Curry on an IES grant related to environmental service-learning, and also with colleagues her on an NSF grant on garden-based science teaching.
The Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College is enormous, and one of my roles here is course coordinator. There’s a team here led by Novel Laureate Lee Hartwell. He designed a course many years ago, the Sustainability Science for Teachers course, that I was hired to come champion and lead. I have been making course updates, changing assignments, and redesigning some of the course content videos of the hybrid course. Each semester, our team of instructors meets monthly to talk about pedagogy and research related to the course. I’m also part of a larger team of instructors teaching courses in an Environmental Education certificate program for our undergraduate students.
Question: What is most rewarding about your current position?
I would say the students; I love my students at ASU. Arizona, like Virginia, is a challenging place to be a teacher right now. The class sizes are high, and the salaries aren’t very competitive with other states. But they come in with such good energy and commitment to being effective teachers. They’re really curious about some of the sustainability topics like water systems and food systems. They become really interested in where their food and water comes from, and how we can create systems that are more sustainable for future generations. Also, at ASU, it feels like anything’s possible here. Our leaders encourage faculty to take an idea and run with it, and let them know what we need for support. It’s a very fun place to work.
Question: How did the Curry/VEST experience impact your future success?
It was amazing because there were so many different researchers who all had one thing in common: this really strong ethic and focus on trying to improve classroom experiences for students, and providing educators with training in evidence-based practices. Everyone has such different ways of going about that work, but they are all committed to rigorous research that moves the field forward. At Curry, I had opportunities for strong mentoring in writing and research design, which have been so helpful in my work here.
Question: What advice would you give to those interested in education sciences and research?
I would just say follow their heart about the topic or the direction they want to take their research. What I did at Curry is just collect a lot of really useful skills and knowledge and then I applied them to the field I’m most passionate about once I graduated. There doesn’t have to be somebody there that’s doing the exact topic that you’re interested in. It’s more about research methods and approaches to research, and learning how people go about that work. It’s a very expansive field that you can apply to a lot of different contexts. Learn from lovely mentors like Joanna Lee Williams, Nancy Deutsch and Sara Rimm-Kaufman. Take it all in, attend the work-in-progress meetings and lectures at Youth-Nex and CASTL. Many of these experiences and methods will be useful to you later in your career.
Merritt is the twelfth VEST fellow alumni interviewed in this series. Read the other Q & A articles with Wei-Bing Chen, Erin Dunlap, Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, Terri Sabol, Laura Brock, Myles Durkee, Maria Fitzpatrick, Eva Galdo, Anne Cash, Riana Anderson, and Angie Henneberger.