Fine Grain Data is a series of interviews with our senior research scientists conducted by our communications intern, Megan Ciszek. The aim of the series is to get to know the people who make up ACTNext, and explore some of the motivations and thoughts driving their work on developing the next generation of tools for learning and assessment. We invite you to check back frequently over the coming weeks as we post the rest of the Fine Grain Data Interviews. This week, Vanessa Simmering shares her thoughts about childhood development and the important role teachers play in the lives of students.
What brought you to ACTNext?
I have always loved conducting research, but all of my previous experience was in academic research and I wanted to try a different avenue. I see the value of basic research done at universities, but for me it felt very disconnected from the issues I really care about. ACT’s mission resonated with me, and I was excited to see how ACTNext was combining different disciplines to come up with new ways to support education directly.
What do you do at ACTNext?
I’m a Senior Research Scientist, and my background is in developmental psychology, so I have been working to connect developmental research to the work we are doing. One of our goals is to develop tools that can be helpful across a student’s entire school experience, from preschool to high school and beyond. The amount of change children undergo even from preschool to elementary school is remarkable, so we have to find ways to adapt our approach in order to meet children where they are at these different ages. I also have 10 years of university teaching experience, which helps me put myself in a teacher’s shoes when thinking about how to support students.
What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
One project we are developing that I’m excited about is leveraging technology and analytics to support teachers better. When coming up with new educational technology, the focus has understandably been on students, but if we want to make something that can really work at scale, we need teachers to be part of the equation. Teachers already know how to get students interested and motivated, and how to determine what their students need help with, but their time and resources are limited. If we can find ways maximize their contact with students, reducing the amount of time they need to spend on other tasks, we can build from the strengths they bring to their classrooms to increase their impact.
What is your personal research mission/vision/aspiration? Goals?
Throughout my education, I had a number of teachers who went far beyond what was required of them to be sure I was getting what I needed from my classes. With their extra effort and support, I was able to learn more than I would have through the traditional classroom, and they instilled a life-long love of learning in me. Wouldn’t it be great if every student could have that experience? This is my ultimate goal, to maximize every student’s education to help them reach their potential.
How does this align with ACT and ACTNext’s mission?
For me, the biggest connection is with ACT’s aim to be inclusive. I have already seen first-hand how they strive to develop tools and products that don’t just cater to privileged students. My own experience made me see how education can easily become a “rich get richer” endeavor as teachers work more with students who show promise, and I think we need to be sure we’re giving opportunities to all students.
What are your personal research interests?
I started working with preschool-aged children when I was in graduate school and continue to find this developmental period fascinating. Everything about the child is changing incredibly fast at that point, and you can see how interactive their development is – what they know influences with what they like to do and who they like to be with, but also who they spend time with shapes the types of things they do and what they can learn. I think of development as a system in which many different pieces are working together over time, combining in new ways, and you can see it as it happens when you watch young children.
At this point in your career, what are you most proud of professionally?
I’m most proud of the students I helped while I was on faculty at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most students (including myself when I was an undergrad) have no idea how broad the field of psychology is, how research is really done, and how applicable the findings are to other fields. The most rewarding part of that job was seeing a student make a new connection from what we learned in my class to the rest of their life.
What future trends do you see in your field, and are there any that you are particularly excited or concerned about?
Technology is clearly opening new doors to what is possible, and it’s hard to predict exactly how it will continue to change in the future. My biggest concern, which I think we have seen bits of already in educational technology, is that we will let the technology lead rather than focusing primarily on what educational purpose it needs to serve. Just because we can use technology in a particular way doesn’t mean we should – we need to be sure that we are implementing these new tools in ways that really support learning.
How do you see yourself contributing to these trends?
I love the fact that ACTNext is including people like me, with backgrounds in development and education, as part of their team. We are approaching these problems with insights from students and teachers, to identify areas where technology can have the biggest impact.
What is a fun/interesting fact about you?
I come from a family of Hawkeyes. Both my undergrad and grad degrees are from Iowa; my dad, one of my aunts, all three of my siblings, and one of my cousins all have degrees from there as well. In a few more years I may have a niece attending as a third-generation Hawkeye!