Alumna Shares Long-Term Value of Fenwick Scholar Project

Kate McLaughlin ‘21

Staff Writer

On Thursday, February 15, Shayne Piasta ‘04 gave a presentation in which she discussed the influence of her Fenwick Scholar Project on her current research in education. According to its webpage, the Fenwick Scholar Program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, allows one senior per class to pursue independent research in the “most challenging, creative, and meaningful way” possible. Fenwick Scholars are allowed to waive any remaining core requirements in order to spend their senior year engaged in a research topic of their choice and are required to give a public presentation of their project to the College community upon its completion.

A self-described nerd, Piasta has had a long-standing interest in psychology and education. Throughout her time at Holy Cross, she sought opportunities to blend these interests through different classes, internships, and independent research. Her Fenwick Scholar Project analyzed how research on the best approaches to teaching reading acquisition and instruction translated into educational policies and classroom practices in Massachusetts public schools.

In researching her project, she conducted a mixed-methods study in which she interviewed 58 policymakers, school administrators, and teachers. Piasta asked interviewees how much they knew about current research findings and about what most influenced their approaches to classroom reading instruction.

She also determined the extent to which these educators demonstrated what research shows is required knowledge for effective reading instruction. She found that teachers often lacked access to new research findings, that they tended to overestimate their own knowledge of the research, and that they often devalued the worth of the research for guiding classroom instruction.

Now an associate professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology, Piasta accredits her love of the research enterprise to her Fenwick Scholar Project. She continues to study how literacy development is best supported during the preschool and early elementary school years and she identifies educational practices that support children’s academic development and education outcomes.

Most recently, Piasta and others in the Language Reading and Research Consortium developed a 25-week curriculum and tested its effects on students’ literacy and comprehension. The team found that students who were taught the consortium’s “Let’s Know!” curriculum showed significantly higher levels of vocabulary learning and comprehension of text than students who were taught the “business as usual” control curriculum.

In January of 2017, Piasta won the 2017 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor for early career research. She was one of only two U.S. education researchers to receive this outstanding distinction and was given the award by President Obama.

Piasta says that her work “isn’t happening in a vacuum,” but rather, “there’s a complex context in which all of this is happening.” She recognizes that education research has profound implications for educators’ knowledge and beliefs, classroom practices and children’s learning, as well as community and federal policy. She hopes that her work and her colleagues’ work will be taken into account when states revise their education standards for better literacy outcomes and long-term educational success.

Above photo by Emma Possenriede

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