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In the Classroom, In the Community

In the Classroom, In the Community

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Lorrie Schmid and Jessica SperlingEducation is at the heart of SSRI’s mission, and no team better reflects this than the Education, Research and Evaluation team. With a three-pronged focus, the team is stacked with expertise in the social sciences. 

Comprising data scientists, sociologists and qualitative research experts, their specific academic interests may differ but their work often intertwines. 

Tasked with providing educational opportunities and resources on campus as well as research and evaluation partnerships in the community, the team’s work is dynamic, involving undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and faculty as well as community partners like Voices Together, Kidznotes and Durham Public Schools. 

Alexandra Cooper, who helms the team as associate director, recognized that there are no hard and fast boundaries between these three areas of focus, so it’s a natural fit that they work closely together under one team umbrella. 

“Although distinct, these three activities are inextricably intertwined,” she said. “Bringing them together eliminates the artificial administrative boundaries that, when present, risk reducing our opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another.”

Collaborating on Current Projects

Projects like the team’s recent work with Voices Together exemplify this cooperative spirit. Manager of Data Analytics Lorrie Schmid and Manager of Evaluation and Engagement Jessica Sperling may have different areas of focus on the team, but their work on Voices Together corresponds in many ways. 

For instance, both serve as project leads for the Bass Connections team working with Voices Together, a music therapy program that helps students with autism reach their full potential and is currently working with seven different school districts. 

“A big part of the role that we play is making sense of the results,” Schmid said of their work with Voices Together, though it also applies more broadly to their community partnerships.

“The program’s staff just doesn’t have the time or resources to analyze and answer questions about their program’s success and opportunities for growth. They’re far too busy doing the crucial, everyday work of helping students,” Sperling added. 

Data and Evaluation

While programs like Voices Together and Kidznotes are doing the boots on the ground work with their program participants, the Education, Research and Evaluation team members are strategically formulating ways of building on the program’s strengths. 

Admittedly, evaluations rely on data for their findings and likewise, data demands analysis and context. Schmid and Sperling, as well as Project Associate in Evaluation and Engagement Megan Gray, work closely with a team of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty to provide the program with data-backed insights that can then shape the strategic plan for the program’s future. 

For Voices Together, one of the team’s most interconnected projects, Sperling and Schmid also interface as the research arm to the school system. “There are data, research management, evaluation and communication elements to this partnership that make it really exciting,” Sperling said.

Undergraduate and graduate students are getting a taste for this work as part of the Bass Connections in Education and Human Development Voices Together team. Student backgrounds have been surprisingly diverse, with everything from engineering to art history represented. The appeal, Sperling said, is the applied training and experience. 

“It’s part of the interdisciplinary nature of SSRI,” she continued. “It’s not just about studying within the social sciences, but also giving students a taste of the social sciences through the sort of work that builds on something they’re already interested in, incorporated within this disciplinary context.”

Education, Research and Resources

Outreach and research support is a major aspect of the team’s work. In addition to Bass Connections and student intern opportunities, Cooper’s team runs day-to-day support and training that’s available for researchers at all levels. 

Workshops like Visualizing Qualitative Data, SAS for Data Management and Effective Survey Design for Online, Paper and Mixed-mode Questionnaires offer guided learning for Duke affiliates, whether they are staff, faculty or students. 

The Connection Bar at SSRI also offers one-on-one support for researchers with specific needs. Consultants staff the Connection Bar from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and offer a variety of expertise from research design and ethics to data collection and analysis. 

Consultants can provide guidance with HTML, Javascript, Stata, R, Python, Qualtrics, Excel and countless other programs, codes and skills. 

For Cooper, her team’s work providing training and resources is a vital complement to classroom learning. 

“It’s essential that students learn how to employ within research projects the skills they acquire in the classroom,” she said. 


One of the team’s recent projects, ModU, is an open resource for Duke students and researchers interested in learning particular social science concepts or methods. The site, located at, lets students browse and search for the module they need for their specific interest.

Because students in courses or projects like a Duke Bass Connections team may only need a few minutes of explanation about an idea to be immediately more productive, ModU breaks topics into smaller videos, i.e. modules, which cover a very small topic within a research concept or method. Often, it’s these small, memorable insights that really make a difference and therefore forms the core of the site.

James Speckart, program manager for instructional design, leads the effort with input from Cooper and other staff and faculty around campus. He’s brought together some of Duke’s best researchers and faculty sharing their expert knowledge in one searchable resource. 

It’s the latest in Speckart’s efforts to provide innovative educational resources to the interdisciplinary research community at Duke. 

“Not everything we teach in college requires a full semester course to learn,” he said. “So we created ModU as a flexible and easily accessible way for students to find out about the core methods and techniques of social science in small pieces and at their own pace.”

Users can also view the concepts in the context of increasingly broader collections of modules within a field of study. This way, users can cater their learning to their own needs, whether they are narrow in scope or broadly curious.

“We currently have well over 100 videos on topics from research ethics to experimental design, and we plan to expand that to over 400 in the coming months,” Speckart said.

Strengthening the Research Community

As Cooper noted, Duke is a leader in interdisciplinary collaboration and investigation and her team’s work strongly reflects that interdisciplinary ethos. With partnerships like Voices Together and Kidznotes as well as public resources like ModU, they are helping strengthen the research community, providing the opportunities and resources for students and innovative research projects to succeed.

They exemplify the role that SSRI strives for at Duke and in Durham, providing extensive opportunities for engagement with the social sciences both in and out of the classroom. 


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