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Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Department of Education Renews PIER Grant for $3.6 Million

Eleven years ago, Carnegie Mellon University received a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to train the next generation of education research leaders. The award established the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER), which implements a scientifically based and rigorous Ph.D. curriculum across several departments, including Psychology, Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction (HCII), Philosophy and Statistics.

Based on PIER’s impressive track record, with respect to training students both in their core disciplines as well as in education research, the DOE’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded CMU’s program for the third time with a grant of $3.67 million.

“Carnegie Mellon is among just a handful of universities whose training grants have been funded continuously since 2004. We have built a vibrant interdisciplinary education research community with a focus on cognition and student learning, math and science education, and education technology,” said David Klahr, PIER director and the Walter van Dyke Bingham Professor of Cognitive Development and Education Sciences in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

From the outset, PIER’s training has gone beyond traditional experimental design and statistics and has emphasized cognitive modeling, process-tracing tools and advanced statistical techniques for complex data sets in real educational and instructional contexts. PIER’s emphasis on powerful analytic tools applied to education laid some of the groundwork for CMU’s Simon Initiative. Named for the late Nobel and Turing Award laureate Herbert Simon, this initiative aims to measurably improve student-learning outcomes by harnessing a learning engineering ecosystem that has developed over several decades.

In Support of PIER’s grant renewal, Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc., wrote how Kaplan is taking an increasingly evidence-based approach to their work, such as collecting evidence about learning and applying results from CMU research to controlled trials to improve the quality of outcomes for their students.

“What we see for the whole industry is a deep need for more people who work at scale on learning to have a strong foundation in the learning sciences,” Saxberg said. “We’ve done a number of visits to CMU to interact with researchers and PIER students — these are precisely the kinds of people the PIER program creates.”

To date, PIER has trained 28 doctoral students who are now working in many different areas of education, from top universities to educational startups, think tanks and curriculum design companies. For example, Leigh Ann Sudol received her Ph.D. in computer science at CMU in 2014 and is now a program manager at CSNYC (NYC Foundation for Computer Science Education). In this role, Sudol has helped to launch two new high schools in New York City and to grow and expand more than 115 programs in different schools around the city. 

“PIER was instrumental in helping me understand research methods and how to ask the right questions,” she said. “Working with PIER, I developed a unique set of skills, such as data mining, statistics and program assessment, that are needed to develop programs at a large scale.” 

Sudol also commented on how the PIER community is an important aspect of the program, especially noting the opportunity to attend talks by invited faculty and other students.

“Hearing about what others are doing — in public policy, second-language acquisition, statistics and other fields — contributed to my knowledge,” Sudol said.

Many PIER alumni have been recognized as some of the very best in their fields. Recently, Nathan VanHoudnos, a 2014 Ph.D. graduate, won the IES’ Outstanding Fellow Award for “academic accomplishments and contributions to education research.” The award was based on his dissertation, which extended a standard statistical correction commonly applied by the What Works Clearinghouse in screening published research for the strength of evidence provided.

Klahr, a world-renowned researcher in educational psychology and a member of the National Academy of Education, leads PIER with Associate Director Sharon Carver. Carver, who also directs CMU’s laboratory school, focuses on building bridges between learning scientists and educators to enhance the quality of theory, research and practice.

The grant renewal will support 18 CMU doctoral students in three cohorts for four years of their training. The total projected costs of the training program are approximately $8 million. In addition to the $3.67 million grant from IES, CMU will contribute approximately $3.56 million toward fellows' stipends and tuition during the award period, and approximately $765,000 in fellowship support to continue to train fellows for up to two years after this grant concludes.

In addition to Klahr and Carver, the PIER steering committee consists of Vincent Aleven (HCII), Dennis Epple (Heinz College and Tepper School of Business), Anna Fisher (Psychology), Brian Junker (Statistics), Ken Koedinger (HCII, Psychology), Marsha Lovett (Psychology, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence), Brian MacWhinney (Psychology), Jack Mostow (Robotics Institute, Language Technologies Institute, HCII), Amy Ogan (HCII) and Robert Siegler (Psychology).

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