By Tom Ballard
Jennifer Liang, a senior early childhood education and psychology double major at the College, recently presented a poster at the 17th annual Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN) conference held at the U.N. Headquarters in New York on Friday, Jan. 22.
“I presented a poster based on the research project I worked on during (the Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience [MUSE] program) 2015 with my professor,” Liang said.
Her professor, Assistant Professor of elementary and early childhood education Lauren Madden, focuses on environmental and sustainability education, according to Liang.
This year’s conference was titled “Stewardship for a Sustainable World: Education in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” and focused around the U.N.’s SDGs, which range from tackling poverty to bettering the environment, according to the conference’s website.
“(The) project was focused on better describing young children’s understandings and perceptions of environmental sustainability education,” Liang said. “We worked with preschool-aged children from three different early childhood settings in focus group interviews before a brief lesson about the environment (a week later).”
According to Liang, the three different settings served a variety of demographics in regards to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and student ability. Of the three preschools in the study, two were private and one was public. Of the two private schools, one was a traditional all-day childcare center with children ranging from infancy to pre-kindergarten and the other was a part-time, Christian-based private school that typically accommodated wealthier, more affluent families. The public school was a full-day program based on a lottery system that placed students with special needs and low income at a priority.
Liang said that their findings show that more research in early childhood environmental sustainability education might prove beneficial for the field.
“In the end, we found that the children (in the study) were able to describe nature in more sophisticated ways after the intervention than before, suggesting that research in early childhood environmental sustainability education is possible and fruitful,” Liang said.
This was the first CTAUN conference that Liang has attended and she said that she found it to be an informative opportunity.
“Needless to say, (the conference) was a fantastic experience,” Liang said. “I was able to hear really great keynote speakers discuss controversial yet moving and incredibly important topics. I had the opportunity to interact with professors and students from different schools around the country and even different parts of the world. The only other conference I attended before CTAUN was a strictly education conference, but this conference included research and topics not just related to education. I spoke with different people about a variety of environmental issues all around the world.”
According to Liang, Madden and she worked on the project for eight weeks during this past summer and each put in approximately 35 hours of work per week into the project.
“When I initially approached Dr. Madden to do MUSE with her, we sat down and had a conversation about our different research interests. Dr. Madden’s main research focus is in environmental and sustainability education, and as an early childhood education and psychology double major, I am very interested in young children and their development,” Liang said. “So we just combined both our interests and came up with this awesome project.”
In addition to working with Madden on the project, Liang received encouragement from Blythe Hinitz, distinguished professor of elementary and early childhood education, to apply for the chance to present at the U.N.
“Dr. Hinitz… is involved with CTAUN and has attended the conference numerous times,” Liang said. “Dr. Hinitz noticed that the research Dr. Madden and I had done was very closely related to this year’s CTAUN Conference theme, so she encouraged me to apply for the poster presentation.”
According to the conference’s website, the conference was attended by more than 500 educators and student participants at the daylong event.
“Dr. Madden just finished putting together our research in a journal article,” Liang said, noting that they also recently submitted the manuscript of their project to Environmental Education Research, an academic journal that focuses primarily on how environmental issues are taught in classrooms.
“Through my experience, I really fell in love with the process of research and the idea of continuously learning. When I first came to (the) College, I was confident that I wanted to be a teacher, but after doing all this research, I am definitely considering going to graduate school and pursuing a career in education research.”
Liang said that she hopes her research and presentation at CTAUN will help encourage students in the School of Education to pursue research opportunities.
“I think in general, most people associate research with the sciences and social sciences,” Liang said. “Students rarely think about the kind of research that comes (out) of our education department. Even most education majors do not realize that it is possible to do research with a professor in the education department… There are so many questions and concerns in the field of education and I believe that research really helps us understand more about the development of children and learning.”
Last year, CTAUN also held three other conferences, one at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, and one each in Atlanta and Houston. The conferences ranged from celebrating the U.N.’s 70th anniversary with a reflection of the progress the body has made to exploring a global view of how using technology in the classroom is helping students better their skills and connecting classrooms to a larger global viewpoint with cultural awareness.