Personalizing Education: Empowering Student Experiences One Grant at a Time

Personalizing education “is a culture and a way of life,” Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd told the recipients of this year’s Personalized Education Grants at a March 19 reception honoring them.

“It’s a commitment to our students that says we’ll do our best to understand you and to offer the best opportunities to you and to help you achieve your goals and your dreams,” said Cudd.

Initiated in 2018 by the Office of the Provost to engage the campus and support efforts to personalize students’ experiences, the grants this year were awarded to 17 proposals; three of those were projects that had been funded last year and will receive continued support.

“This year’s award-winning proposals came from all corners of this campus and our regional campuses,” said Cudd, who called the scope and breadth of ideas “truly inspiring. … All have aligned their goals with our goal of doing everything within our power to make sure that students are best positioned to thrive and to live lives of impact.”

Civic engagement driving student experiences

Linda DeAngelo, associate professor of higher education in the Department of Administrative and Policy Studies and a Center for Urban Education fellow in the School of Education, and Lina Dostilio, associate vice chancellor for community engagement in the Office of Community and Government Relations, provided reception attendees with an update on their project Pathways for Civic Growth. Theirs was one of three projects that was awarded funding last year and received additional funding to continue this year.

“We’re really looking to see how participating through civic engagement and through personalized education can improve students’ commitment to the institution and sense of belonging to the institution, and also their civic mindedness and civic growth,” said DeAngelo.

With Classroom to Community, Joseph Samosky, assistant professor of bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, aims to provide space, resources and mentorship for teams of students designing solutions for human-centered, real-world problems. The pilot program intends to provide support to student projects beyond the course in which the designs originated and to be able to provide real-world impact.

Cassie Quigley, associate professor of science education in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the School of Education Center for Instruction and Learning, hopes to address the lack of formal, professional STEAM learning and training experiences for teachers by providing a framework for education. STEAM Education Endorsement will ultimately introduce a micro-credential for K-12 teachers, educational technologists, artists and museum educators that will train teachers in practical ways to integrate content, teach productive collaboration skills and use inquiry-based approaches to solve problems.

In the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Denise Chisholm, professor and vice chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy and director of the master and doctor of occupational therapy programs, was awarded funding for Skills2Care, an innovative and evidence-based program designed to provide occupational therapy students more advanced and in-depth knowledge with increased clinical exposure and training in geriatric care. The project’s objective is to establish a personalized education experience for students to have direct community impact by helping to increase independent living for older adults that experience physical and cognitive changes, as well as helping their families.

Improving students’ first-year experiences at regional campuses

At Pitt–Bradford, Stephen Robar, associate professor of political science and associate dean of academic affairs, will create a personalized freshman seminar course directly paired with a gateway course. The project, Advancing Intentional Student-Faculty Interaction: Freshman Seminar and Gateway Course Synthesis, is designed to increase first-year student success and engagement, especially for first-generation and underserved students.

At Pitt–Greensburg, Kayla Heffernan, associate professor of mathematics, and a team of five additional professors will design and offer two First-Year Learning Communities at Pitt–Greensburg for incoming freshman students.

“It’ll be three courses that are interlinked, and a cohort of students that we’re sharing, and the faculty are going to try to do our syllabi together so we’ll link the coursework,” said Frank Wilson, associate professor of sociology at Pitt–Greensburg and a project co-participant. “I think we’re off to a good start. The people involved all want to be doing it. It’s going to be good for the students and good for the faculty.”

Recognizing student needs and learning styles

Ann Sinsheimer, professor of legal writing at Pitt Law, and her colleagues intend to measure to what extent legal education affects students’ perceptions of their unique identities and help encourage a positive growth mindset with Persistence, Performance, and Law School: Implementing Interventions to Encourage Growth Mindset, Maximize Education, and Ensure Practice Ready Professionals.

“Based on our findings, we will design interventions tailored to individual students’ needs, which encourage adaptive behaviors,” Sinsheimer said.

Shelby Dawkins-Law and Emily Koren, graduate students at the School of Education, received support for their project Students Pursuing (Invisible) Dis/ability Justice through Intervention, Investigation and Innovation. They highlighted the importance of having support from University leadership.

“One thing that has really helped us has been having the support of the dean of the School of Education [Valerie Kinloch] and the associate dean of equity and justice [Leigh Patel],” Koren said. “They have been really supportive of us, looking at drafts of our grant and giving us ideas.”

At the Swanson School of Engineering, Jenette Phillips and Kent Harries, professor of civil and environmental engineering, will study the interaction between the learning styles of neurodiverse STEM students (that is, individuals from different neurological backgrounds, including but not limited to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, etc.) and pedagogical practices in STEM courses. The ultimate goal of their project, Interaction Between Engineering Education Pedagogies and Neurodiverse Learning Styles, is to refine classrooms to provide the best education possible for the broadest spectra of individuals.

Hands-on media production

In the Film and Media Studies Program, techniques including experiential learning and mentorship will be used to help a student crew gain the professional skills necessary to develop a student short-film project, “Thanks to Her,” from script to first screening.

From live broadcasts on the ESPN ACC Network to studio-based original programming, Kelly Hammonds, assistant athletic director for broadcast and video production, and Pitt Studios envision enabling students to have hands-on opportunities to learn and network in the field of live broadcasts through their project, Personalized Education Opportunities Within Pitt Studios. Funding for this project will help provide more students access to the Pitt Studios resources and professionals that produce a variety of original programming.

In the Department of Theatre Arts, Department Chair Annmarie Duggan and Gianni Downs, lecturer in design and technology, will implement a Creative Skills Studio and Mentoring App in which mentors and mentees can use both traditional and digital tools — including CAD, 3D printing, sound editing and more — to look at designs and design approaches. The app will allow  student to see notes while rehearsal is in progress, but delivers the mentorship in a private format. 

Applications of technology

At the Institute for Clinical Research Education in the Department of Medicine, Marie Norman, associate professor of medicine and clinical and translational science and director of the Innovative Design for Education and Assessment Lab, will develop a toolkit that makes it easy for faculty to use Twine, an open-source game-development platform that uses narrative-based branching activities to simulate key decisions and their consequences. Knowing that faculty can resist the adoption of even very promising educational technologies because they lack the time, training and support required to integrate new tools successfully, the project, A Twine Tool-Kit for Creating Personalized Learning, will build the toolkit in Twine so that they experience learning the platform while actually using it to build personalized learning material for their students.

Daqing He, professor of information sciences in the School of Computing and Information, will work with Peter Brusilovsky, professor of information science and intelligent systems, on IRIS: Intelligent Recommender for Instructors and Students -- Completing Personalized Assessment Loop. IRIS will recommend to students in two high-enrollment classes learning materials that are specific to their results on exams and other assessments. He and Brusilovsky say that IRIS is generic enough to be used in any undergraduate and graduate courses.

In a separate project, Brusilovsky worked with a team to improve graduates’ satisfaction with their academic choices using The Pitt Grapevine: An Advisor-in-the-Loop Academic Recommender System. Grapevine will give educators conversational support during advising sessions, the powerful analytics about social “knowledge” networks and add their insights and expertise to the system’s database of recommendations.

Mental wellness

Cheryl Paul, director of engineering student services, will map out the initial stages of a comprehensive plan for the Swanson School to begin inviting conversation and training among students, faculty and staff around mental wellness through her proposal Inclusive Dialogue: Inviting Mental Wellness Understanding & Planning into Everyday Academics. Through implementing three interventions, Paul said that the goal of the project is to propel students to experience unprecedented support, success in their studies and prepare for life beyond the University.

In the Division of Nursing and Health Sciences at Pitt–Johnstown, Elizabeth Katrancha, assistant professor of nursing, will incorporate mindfulness techniques in both classroom and clinical settings through The Meditative Individualized Nursing-student De-stress (MIND) Initiative. The proposal addresses research that shows that occupational stress often begins in undergraduate nursing programs, where high-stakes performance, long clinical hours and heavy course loads combine in a perfect storm of stress and anxiety, which in turn leads to poor performance, test anxiety and difficulty recalling information. The hope is that these individualized techniques can be carried with the student into their career and personal life. 

  • “This event is solely to honor everyone in the room who put forth some amazing ideas around different projects that will help you innovate in the work that you do every day for faculty, staff and students,” said Julia Spears, associate vice provost for academic innovation, at the reception. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • “You’re demonstrating that the sky is the limit and you’re helping us to move even further from mass produced education and campus experiences to a more individualized and personalized experience,” Provost Ann E. Cudd told recipients of this year’s Personalized Education Grants. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are Lina Dostilio and Linda DeAngelo, who provided an update on their Pathways for Civic Growth project, which received funding in 2018 and again in 2019. “If you’re somebody that’s motivated by civic engagement and being involved in the community and you have meaningful experiences that you’ve selected with the help of trusted advisors, you have this growth in your sense of belonging to the institution and a growth in your civic mindedness,” said Dostilio. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are Frank Wilson, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, and Kayla Heffernan, assistant professor of mathematics, both at Pitt–Greensburg. Heffernan and Wilson are part of a team of six professors at Pitt–Greensburg designing and offering two new first-year learning communities for incoming freshman students. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Daniel Mosse and Daqing He, professors in the School of Computing and Information, discussed ways findings from He’s proposal might inform Mosse’s work. He is collaborating with Peter Brusilovsky on the IRIS: Intelligent Recommender for Instructors and Students project, which is designed to support students after they complete assessments like quizzes or exams, automating a process for recommendations for further study or other learning resources. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)