Faculty, Worcester Partnerships Solve Real-World Problems

Woman speaks with children while setting up a science experiment at a museum.
Florencia K. Anggoro, professor of psychology, speaks with children while setting up an exhibit at the EcoTarium.

New approaches to research in the city yields concrete benefits for organizations.

Having a reading research project planned within Worcester Public Schools, faculty member Lauren Capotosto was eager to begin collecting data in early 2020, but was challenged by how she could make a deeper connection with her community partner so the work would benefit them equally.

The answer arrived with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, when she had to abandon a traditional academic research approach.

“When COVID happened, it changed from a research-driven process to a true partnership approach. We learned how to move forward together, collaborating on questions and the research design,” said Capotosto, assistant professor and fellow in education.

Capotosto is one of a group of Holy Cross faculty members who are finding ways to go beyond the traditional academic and scientific research structure, working with community organizations in the city as project partners, not just as places to collect data. With support of the College’s Scholarship in Action Program, which began in 2018, faculty researchers continue to be  encouraged and challenged to create research partnerships within the community, and the invite is producing results.

“Community-engaged scholarship should be understood on its own terms and not compared to more traditional research approaches,” Capotosto said.

During a fall 2023 faculty symposium on strengthening community-engaged scholarship, Worcester Superintendent of Schools Rachel H. Monárrez said that if the school district is able to connect with a college on a problem requiring research, rather than the project originating from a faculty member’s query, this makes for a stronger partnership.

“That starts to create a synergy between the two entities so that it feels like a partnership with the goal of solving problems rather than research one-offs,” she said.

One-time projects have merit, but thinking long term can benefit community partners and researchers, according to Capotosto and Florencia K. Anggoro, professor of psychology.

Community-engaged scholarship should be understood on its own terms.

Lauren Capotosto, assistant professor and fellow in education

Project ownership is key

When Worcester schools returned to the classroom in 2021 after being fully remote, Capotosto worked alongside teachers and school administrators to try and solve one of the district’s primary dilemmas: how to increase students’ access to books. 

“There was a lot of interest in making sure students had very easy access to high-interest books,” Capotosto said. Collectively, Capotosto, the teachers and librarians considered what it would look like to bring the library into a classroom and have the students act as curators. “How would they make decisions on what materials to include, how many copies they needed? We positioned it so students drove the entire process,” she said.

During the classroom library project, Capotosto learned the work will continue even after the researcher leaves when the most important stakeholders are involved — in this case, the students and teachers — and that project ownership matters. This led to teachers incorporating independent reading time as part of their classroom routine, a result of their ownership of the project, Capotosto said.

“We sit down annually and talk about what they’re seeing, what are the dilemmas, what do they want me to know, what they’re curious about and how can we move forward together. It’s a really different approach” she said.

A previous research project funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education in the Worcester Public Schools taught Anggoro to pay closer attention to what schools actually need and then consider what she can provide. Reframing her approach better informed her own research questions. When she began her work with the EcoTarium, a science and nature museum in the city, she connected with the Director of Exhibits at the time, who also loved the science of learning.

“Because of that partnership, we were able to infuse cognitive science principles that have been shown to be effective in the lab and formal educational contexts into an informal context,” Anggoro said. “You’re in a setting where children are exposed to all the background noise and distractions of a museum. While it may not be ‘ideal’ as a researcher to lose some of the control you have in a formal setting, here you get to experience the authenticity of the whole experience, including, for example, the unique ways a caregiver engages with their child at an exhibit. There is an opportunity to cultivate a more genuine investment in the part of the people involved in the child’s learning.”

This spring, Anggoro and her students are again working with the museum and launching a new study with an exhibit about the day/night cycle that her team built with the EcoTarium’s exhibit designers. “It’s a wonderful collaboration. In this new project we’re taking a step back and really thinking of how to bridge between formal and informal learning to see if they can work together,” she said.

Conducting informal learning research in the community also benefits the research students, as well. It allows for greater diversification of the experience—from the “nuts and bolts” of research procedures to authentically engaging with diverse members of the community, Anggoro said.

I would suggest to at least start building the relationship and start small.

Florencia K. Anggoro, professor of psychology

Taking the research risk

Capotosto and Anggoro agreed that the knowledge-base at Holy Cross should be shared with community partners so they are comfortable sharing the challenges they’re experiencing, which faculty researchers can consider when examining how they can help address an issue or answer the question.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Come in; the water is warm,’ and take risks. I understand the faculty hesitancy. I would suggest to at least start building the relationship and start small. Even if the project feels one-off-y, if you come to it with an openness to possibilities and willingness to invest in an idea, it can be a seed to something bigger in the future when you feel more secure,” Anggoro said.

“This type of collaboration — the development of partnership and the intersection of researcher expertise and community expertise and interests — is worth pursuing and needs to be valued in academia,” Capotosto said.

By directly engaging with and working alongside the teachers and librarians, Capotosto was able to use other methodologies and broaden her approach to research, including field notes, interviews and qualitative analysis. This enabled her to bring what she learned back to her classroom at Holy Cross, where she’s educating and training future teachers.  

In the EcoTarium, Anggoro found a mutual curiosity of the science of learning, and a collaborative intellectual partnership and co-ownership of the project.

“Regardless of who came up with the idea for a particular project, if all parties are engaged and encouraged to contribute their expertise, we can have that same chemistry and mutually enjoyable relationship,” Anggoro said. “That connection cannot be taken for granted. You’re making that long-term relationship with the institution a priority. When we see each other as friends, we’re going to be there to help each other achieve our goals in a collaborative relationship that is also sustainable.”