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School of Education STAR Scholars Explore Corruption and Education Neuroscience

STAR Scholar Drexel University School of Education John Fry

September 24, 2018

For a pair of rising sophomores in the School of Education, the summer granted them an special opportunity few students their age ever get to do, and for one student, the chance to travel halfway around the world for a “once in a lifetime experience.”

Liz Pham and Elle Griffiths, both BS in Secondary Education students, were chosen as STAR Scholars by the Office of Undergraduate Research. STAR Scholars, short for Students Tackling Advanced Research, conduct faculty-mentored research, scholarship, or creative work during the summer of their freshman year. Students earn a $3,500 stiped while working full-time during the summer term. The program provides an opportunity for students to get to know faculty, explore a major area of research, and gain practical skills and valuable research experience.

For Pham, her research took her all the way to Vietnam, the nation where her parents were born, and a place she only could imagine through stories told by her family. It was there she met Dr. Kristy Kelly, Assistant Clinical Professor in the School of Education. Dr. Kelly is in Vietnam this year conducting research on corruption in Vietnam’s education system. Pham was became strongly interested in Dr. Kelly’s research after hearing about it from her academic advisor. After meeting Dr. Kelly over email and learning more about the project, Pham was able to make arrangements with Drexel’s Office of International Programs to travel to Vietnam last July and spend two weeks conducting research side-by-side with Dr. Kelly.

Now in Vietnam, Pham had a unique opportunity to observe classes and interview teachers, parents, and students about corruption and their perceptions about bribery, cheating, and score-fixing in the education system. What she found was fascinating. In her report titled “Schooled in Corruption in Vietnam,” Pham says that corruption is considered the norm in Vietnam and is openly talked about. For families in Vietnam, Pham’s research shows that perception and reputation is very important. Parents will go to great lengths to ensure their child is accepted into Vietnam’s most prestigious schools. Bribes, or “gifts” as they are referred to, are expected to be given in order to gain enrollment in the best schools or ensure their child receives special attention or treatment by their teachers. Pham’s preliminary findings suggest this practice leads to a system of haves and have-nots in education with children from wealthy families receiving a high-quality education, while children from poorer families must make greater sacrifices or be left with no choice but to send their child to a lesser school. In the end, parents told Pham they believe rampant corruption has a negative effect on society as students who graduate from Vietnam’s best schools often leave the country to attend college and live abroad.

For Elle Griffiths, her research kept her on-campus at Drexel, but nevertheless had just as rewarding experience learning about Educational Neuroscience and how to use knowledge about how the brain works to better teach high school students in language arts classrooms. For her project, Griffiths was paired with her Dr. Deidre McMahon, Associate Teaching Professor, in Drexel’s department of English and Philosophy. Griffiths met Dr. McMahon through her English class and the two have since formed a strong bond. Dr. McMahon’s research looks deeper into the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education Science (MBE). Griffith’s report states that “many US educators lack knowledge of how the brain reacts to information, stress, emotions, and sleep, and how neuroplasticity affects learning in the short and long term.”

To apply principles of MBE to high school language arts lesson plans, Elle choose the critically acclaimed and award winning young adult novel “Brown Girl Dreaming.” The novel by Jacqueline Woodson uses poetry to the story of the author’s childhood as an African-American growing up in the 1960’s in South Carolina and New York. The novel explores segregation, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement. It was won numerous awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and the Coretta Scott King Award.

Griffiths developed sample lesson plans that include MBE principles, as well as best practices in teaching, including reciprocal teaching, and collaborative small group discussion to place the poetry of the novel into its historical context and work together to discuss the author’s voice and form.

Griffiths’ next steps for the project would include building a unit of curriculum for high school English that incorporates MBE principles.

Pham and Griffiths got to share their research with their fellow classmates, professors, family members, and even Drexel University President John Fry at the STAR Scholars Summer Showcase. They were part of a 3 poster sessions throughout the day where other STAR Scholars presented their research.

Both Pham and Griffiths agree that the STAR Scholars program was a very worthwhile and interesting experience that has made a tremendous impact on them as students. To learn more about STAR Scholars and Drexel’s Department of Undergraduate Research, visit