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Social scientist provides evidence of the efficacy of early childhood education, influences vote in Texas’ state legislature
by Mary Denny
She has a weakness for dark chocolate. She’s a “political junkie” who turns to NPR and the Washington Post for news updates. She admits to watching “Days of Our Lives”—a fan since childhood—to use as “mind candy for when I need an escape.” Oh, and she’s also a Harvard Ph.D. whose work in the social sciences has significantly benefited Texas school children.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., who moved to Texas at age 7—“quite a culture shock”—Amy Wiseman ’94 says she has “always wanted to know how the brain works and how people think,” an interest sparked by wondering how Helen Keller could think without any visual or aural stimulation. “I’m still not sure I have the answers,” Amy says, “but it has led to a really interesting and varied career.”
At Trinity, Amy benefited from mentoring by psychology professor Paula Hertel and biology professor Jim Shinkle. She found Hertel’s research in understanding how memory works “fascinating in its own right and a decent gateway for starting to understand consciousness.”
Following graduation, Amy honed her research skills in a molecular pathology lab at Baylor College of Medicine for several years before heading to Harvard for a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. Based on her “great experience at Trinity,” Amy originally opted for a career in higher education that focuses on undergraduates. She joined the faculty at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and spent five years teaching cognitive neuroscience, running an undergraduate research lab, and mentoring students. “It was a perfect fit, except for the rural, small town environment,” she says.
Reconciling the “all consuming” demands of teaching with the equally consuming demands of parenthood, Amy and her husband moved to Austin to be closer to family when they decided to start their own. When her son was a year old, Amy joined the education non-profit E3 Alliance (Education Equals Economics) switching her career focus from teaching to research in education. “I think I realized that we weren’t likely to solve consciousness in my lifetime, and I wanted to contribute my research skills to solving current challenges,” she says.
As director of research studies with E3, Amy evaluated the effectiveness of school programs and utilized longitudinal de-identified data on all five million students in Texas public schools to answer research questions that directly impacted school district and state policies. “Thanks to great collaborations with my policy expert colleagues and our relentlessly persistent executive director, we accomplished so much over those seven years,” she says.
Amy’s study on the reasons why students are absent led to a school-based flu immunization program, currently implemented in some 350 Central Texas schools, that has shown a clear decrease in absences. In collaboration with the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Amy demonstrated equity issues in Texas regarding who takes accelerated math in middle school, even among the most prepared students. She notes, “Unless students start their high school math while still in middle school—usually eighth grade—they don’t have enough time to get all the way to college level math in high school.” Her research shows that equitable acceleration has longer term impacts, as students who do get that far in math in high school are more likely to graduate from college. Her data initiated conversations in school districts regarding how they approach math acceleration, and so far several districts in Central Texas have changed their policies vis a vis equity, particularly in regard to students from lower income families and underrepresented minorities.
Perhaps most significant of all, Amy’s research on kindergarten readiness in Central Texas resulted in the recent Texas Legislature’s vote to fund full-day Pre-K. As a result, some 175,000 children statewide can now attend full-day public Pre-K. Because the vast majority of those who attend public Pre-K are on the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, that decision ensures that at this crucial age of development, children will be getting an additional daily meal served at school. Although 25 percent of families eligible for public Pre-K have not enrolled, the expectation is that more parents will enroll their children because a full-day program has made it more feasible for working parents.
In June, Amy joined the UT Austin Education Research Center (ERC) as a research scientist. Currently, she is working on a collaboration between the ERC and Los Alamos National Labs to create a predictive model that follows students from Pre-K through college to understand what steps along the way predict the choice of STEM major and successfully completing a STEM degree in higher education, specifically for women and minorities.
“This has been a natural transition because it uses all of the knowledge and skills I have gained working across the K-12 and higher ed continuum put together in one project,” she says. “Research in the social sciences may not be glamorous, but it is an incredible feeling to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly children who need it most.”
You can contact Amy at alwiseman1 [at] gmail.com