Media Mentions

5 obstacles that stop many students from taking an internship

January 24, 2020   |   By Matt Hora

From The Conversation

When her college started requiring students to complete an internship in order to graduate, it created a serious dilemma for Janelle.

“I wouldn’t be able to do classes, do the internship and work to make money – which is kind of important because I’m basically just paying for school as I can,” Janelle said in an interview for a study of internships during her junior year in South Carolina.

Janelle is by no means alone. Of the 1,060 students at five colleges and universities who answered “no” to having taken an internship for our University of Wisconsin–Madison based College Internship Study survey, 676 – or 64% – stated that they had actually hoped to take an internship but could not. The schools were located in Maryland, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

The inability to take internships is a problem because internships serve as an important signal that students are ready to enter the workforce. In a recent study, students who listed an internship on their resume received 14% more offers for an interview than those who did not. And evidence is growing that internships also lead to lower rates of unemployment after graduation, higher wages, and even better grades than students who don’t have an internship. More specifically, students who had an internship have 15% lower unemployment, 6% higher wages five years after graduation, and final year grades that are 3.4% higher than those who did not have an internship.

These impacts on students’ academic success and career prospects are one of the main reasons that internships are being promoted as a “high-impact” practice that colleges and universities should encourage all students to pursue. But our data indicate that such advocacy is problematic. What we found is that access to internships – at least the ones that are unpaid or that pay very little – favor wealthy students who can more easily forego a paycheck in order to get the valuable experience.

We found five significant obstacles that make it difficult for some students to take an internship.

1. The need to work paid jobs

The most commonly reported obstacle that prevented students from taking an internship was the simple fact that they had to continue work their full- or part-time job. Sixty percent, or 405, of the students who wanted to take an internship but could not cited this obstacle.

Among all college students, 43% percent of full-time and 81% of part-time undergraduate students work. These jobs help to pay for the constantly rising cost of tuition, as well as groceries, housing and transportation. And for the growing numbers of older students who support relatives and have bills to pay, it is simply not practical to quit a well-paying and secure job for a short-term internship that would probably pay less.

2. Too many classes

Fifty-six percent – or 376 students – among those who told us they couldn’t work an internship cited a demanding course load as the reason why. This was especially true for students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where courses require laboratory time and lots of homework.

A demanding course load was most frequently reported by full-time students and those who work part-time. Considering that 71% of college students who work part-time jobs actually put in 20 hours or more, time is still scarce for these students. As one student noted, such a life leads to “back-to-back-to-back scheduling” with little time for self-care, much less an internship.

3. Opportunities may be scarce

Students from the social sciences, arts and humanities frequently reported having difficulties locating an internship, much less one that was paid. With research indicating that students in arts and creative disciplines have fewer paid internship opportunities, many students in these fields face the dual obstacle of too few openings and the lack of a decent paycheck.

For 45%, or 301 students, in our study who did not take internships, the lack of internship opportunities in their field or even their place of residence was a major obstacle. But it would be a mistake to think that the challenges of finding an internship were limited to the art history and English majors. One student in a physics and applied math program in Wisconsin explained that he had not taken an internship simply because, “There aren’t any here offered for me in my field.”

4. Unpaid or poorly paid internships

Thirty-three percent, or 224 of the students who could not take internships, cited the lack of pay as the reason why. As Janelle stated, “My biggest struggle is most of them are unpaid - I am 26, getting married in a year, trying to do adult things and not getting paid for several months is just not something I can afford to do right now.” Quite simply, working for free or for a low wage is simply not feasible for many college students.

On top of coming with low or no pay, many internships – particularly those in finance, government, arts and media, or political science – are located in expensive cities that require relocation, big rents and high daily living expenses. While national data on the prevalence of unpaid internships are not available, 34% of the student interns in our study worked without a paycheck. Besides the lack of pay being a deal-breaker for many students, the evidence also indicates that unpaid internships are negatively correlated with students’ future wages and employment outcomes, which highlights the problematic nature of unpaid work for college students.

5. Lack of transportation

Transportation was an obstacle for 19%, or 129 of the non-interns in our study. For these students, not having a car effectively limited their options to on-campus internships or those accessible by public transportation.

When thinking about these obstacles, it’s important to keep in mind that some students face two or more of these intersecting obstacles at once. This in turn leaves students from wealthy, well-connected and privileged families in a better position when it comes to securing internships that could be a critical link to their first job.

As Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, stated in an op-ed about America’s “internship-industrial complex,” the current state of affairs cannot last, because too “many promising young people with limited means are denied the chance to rise as high as their talent will take them.” This is why in the College Internship Study we are also documenting promising strategies that our partner institutions are pursuing to make internships more accessible for all college students, such as course-embedded projects, undergraduate research and even micro-internships, which provide students with short-term projects that employers need completed but also introduce them to the world of precarious “gig” labor.

Until colleges and universities devote more resources to creating support systems for students struggling with these obstacles, the realities of working another shift, demanding coursework and the lack of a car will keep too many students from “opening the door of opportunity” that an internship represents.

African Americans take on more debt for grad school – but the payoff is also bigger

January 23, 2020   |   By Eric Grodsky, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jaymes Pyne, Stanford University

From Alton Telegraph

When seeking graduate and professional degrees, African Americans take on over 50% more debt than white students. On the upside, African Americans also see a bigger payoff to earning such degrees. Whether or not that payoff is enough to make up for the additional debt burden is unclear.

These are some key takeaways from a study we released in January 2020 in the journal Sociology of Education that examined graduate school debt. We are researchers who study issues of inequality and disadvantage in education.

Our findings come at a time when there is an ongoing public debate about whether higher education is worth the cost. We believe these debates represent a paradox for African Americans who are seeking education beyond a bachelor’s degree. On the one hand, graduate school enables African Americans to climb into higher income brackets. But this upward economic mobility comes at a steep upfront financial cost.

Large differences found

For 2016, we estimate that the average white graduate student borrowed about US$28,000 while an average African American graduate student took out $43,000 to pay for their education, even when they had comparable levels of parent income, education and other resources important for educational attainment.

We found that African American graduates with an advanced degree had higher pay increases than their white peers – but not necessarily higher pay.

While a 2016 master’s degree graduate who is white could expect an 18% bump in earnings for their degree, African American master’s degree graduates could expect around a 30% bump in earnings compared to having a bachelor’s degree alone, according to our study.

Among doctoral degree holders, white graduates could expect around a 55% bump compared to a 65% increase in earnings for African Americans with doctoral degrees.

Among those with professional degrees – needed to become, say, an eye doctor or a lawyer – white graduates earned 120% more than their bachelor’s degree counterparts who were also white. By comparison, African American graduates earned 142% more than those with a bachelor’s degree who are African American.

It may be tempting to conclude that African American students should aim for an advanced degree. But the reality is more complicated than that. That extra bump African American advanced degree earners get simply puts their pay close to that of their white peers with the same degree. African American advanced degree holders are not typically making more than their white peers, even though they borrow much more to earn those degrees.

Let’s take the case of average white and African American advance degree graduates with identical incomes and identical monthly student loan payment amounts of $300. Given a constant 6% interest rate compounded monthly, it would take the average white student just over 10 years to pay off the principal and interest of their $28,000 in student loans. By contrast, it would take the average African American student 21 years to pay off the principal and interest of their $43,000 in student loans with the same $300 rate.

For these reasons, taking on large amounts of student debt may perpetuate racial inequalities across generations. For instance, debt can make it more difficult for highly educated African American parents to support their own children’s educational aspirations. If a person who has a child right after graduate school invested $300 per month to their child’s college fund versus paying off their own student debt, with a 4% rate of return they could expect to have roughly $44,000 toward their child’s college education in 10 years.

The bigger picture

With student debt nearing $1.6 trillion dollars nationally, people worry that student debt is the next financial bubble that could topple the U.S. economy. They also worry that student loans may be financially crushing an entire generation.

But our research suggests that when it comes to the nation’s $1.6 trillion student debt problem, it pays to look beyond just student loans for four-year degrees. We found that nearly half the nation’s student debt is held by households where at least one member has an advanced degree. These are households that typically enjoy relatively high incomes.

For that reason, any talk about student loan debt should take into account the debt held not just by people with four-year degrees. If disparities in student loan debt are going to be addressed, they must be addressed among people who hold graduate degrees, too.

Does America Really Want More Black Teachers? If So, Supporting HBCUs is the Answer.

January 21, 2020   |   By Tina and Trina Fletcher

From Diverse: Issues in Higher Education

During last year’s September 12th  presidential debate held at Texas Southern University, an HBCU in Houston, Senator Kamala Harris, a graduate of Washington, DC’s premier HBCU Howard University, introduced her plan to allocate “$2 trillion [dollars] into investing in our HBCUs for teachers”. According to her campaign website, “teachers of color are significantly underrepresented in our education system.” Harris’ plan and promise were timely given the fiscal challenges some HBCUs face due, in part, to ongoing inequities in federal and state funding. According to Howard University education professor Dr. Deena Khalil, “…any one of [the major research institutions] receive more than all of the Black colleges combined.”

Black Teachers Matter.

In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 75% of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree in education were White and according to scholar Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ book Crossing Over to Canaan, America’s teacher educators are 88% White. Nonetheless, a 2016 study by Cherng and Halpin found that students of all races prefer teachers of color. Additionally, the study found that students have a more positive rating of Latino and Black teachers, in particular. Despite these findings, Black teachers make up less than 8% of the teacher workforce and that percentage is declining. These findings are particularly significant because scholars also argue that teachers of color have higher expectations for their students and are more culturally sensitive. Thus, the need for more teachers of color, especially Black teachers, is a necessary call to action. As Dr. William Hayes, a Black male principal with Morehouse College (HBCU), Harvard University, and Vanderbilt University credentials puts it, “[Teachers of Color] are not afraid to articulate [to students]: You are Black, you are Latino; it’s not going to be easy for you, but we want you to be successful…”

A national call to action for more Black teachers is especially necessary when considering research shows Black teachers are less likely to suspend or expel students of a shared race. Thus, increasing the number of Black teachers can aid in eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, a system 2019 national Teacher of the Year (TOY), Rodney Robinson, knows too well. The first Black male TOY since Thomas Fleming in 1992,  Robinson teaches social studies in a Richmond juvenile detention center. Ironically, Fleming also taught social studies in juvenile detention center, an important coincidence considering the disproportionate impact the pipeline has on Black boys. As he travels the nation speaking to people with decision-making power, Robinson, a graduate of Virginia State University (HBCU), has made it his mission is to help increase the number of Black male teachers who currently make up just 2% of the teacher workforce.

Why HBCUs are the Answer.

According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE,) HBCUs trained one-third of African American teaching candidates. And for the 25% of education majors who aren’t white, training to become teachers at PWIs can have a negative impact. In a 2001 Journal for Teacher Education article, scholar Christine Sleeter stated “for preservice students of color in predominantly White programs, the overwhelming presence of Whiteness can be silencing.” This has led some scholars to suggest the recruitment of Black teachers should start and be heavily focused around institutions with large percentages of Black students, HBCUs. A unique opportunity within the HBCU teacher preparation community includes single sex institutions Spelman College and Bennett College, both female focused, and Morehouse College, male focused, as they are well positioned to help increase the number of Black teachers because they “consistently strive to meet the needs of prospective Black educators.”

It Took a Village. Now, it will Take a Nation.

National calls for more Black teachers are not new. Both Carnegie and Holmes reports of the 1980s called for more teachers of color and in 2011, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, made a national call to increase the number of Black male teachers while visiting Morehouse College in Atlanta. Several power players responded. The Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have all funded initiatives or organizations focused on increasing and supporting Black educators. In fact, the Kellogg Foundation has gone as far to support and fund an extensive framework for teacher education at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and a 3-year project focused on introducing high school Black males to teaching through HBCU partnerships. As a result, several grassroots organizations have launched and grown including the Black Male Educator Convening, Profound Gentlemen, and the Leading Men Fellowship, to name a few.

Increasing the number of Black teachers will take more than foundation support and verbal promises from presidential candidates. Policy makers and universities must rethink teacher preparation in its entirety. Admissions and certification requirements along with other burdensome hurdles that disproportionately impact HBCUs and the overall pipeline of teacher production must be reconsidered. Education leaders, philanthropist and funding operators must continue to lift this topic in front of and behind closed doors in order to increase the number of Black teachers in America. If America is really interested in diversifying its teacher workforce, everyone at the table must decide that HBCUs are a vital piece of the puzzle and support them accordingly.

Tina L. Fletcher is an education policy doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies the recruitment and retention of Black male teachers and the school-to-prison pipeline. She is a former high school social studies teacher.  Dr. Trina L. Fletcher is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at the Florida International University where her research focuses on HBCUs and their production Black STEM degree holders. 

The Fletcher twins are natives of Arkansas and hope to improve the state’s education system through innovative solutions and strategic partnerships. 

Education deserts: How geography impacts access to higher ed

January 13, 2020   |   By Matt Zalaznick

From University Business

A new map published by the Jain Family Institute seeks to draw more attention to another college access hurdle: geography.

Considering most students go to college close to home, the Institute’s researchers have developed the “School Concentration Index” to measure the number of options students have in different parts of the country and how a lack of competition in more rural areas may impact affordability.

“Tuition-free public universities alone cannot resolve inequalities in access across the country—indeed, rather than ‘choking out’ for-profits, the distribution of public colleges and universities appears to create markets for them in areas without a proximate public option,” the Institute’s researchers wrote in a blog accompanying the interactive map.

“Stark geographic disparities call for reconsidering and reassessing the demand and supply forces that are at play in the higher education market,” they wrote.

An October report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that “nearly 41 million American adults live 25 miles or more from the nearest university or college, or in areas where only a single community college offers accessible public higher education.”

The report, however, highlights strategies used in rural communities in California, Indiana and Texas, that have worked to expand postsecondary opportunities.

And around the country, organizations such as College Possible and College Advising Corps have extended virtual advising to rural high schools students to help them with the college search and application process, according to the Hechinger Report.

Rural students also could be getting a little help from Congress. A new bill, The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, would support partnerships between school districts, colleges and the business community to help students enroll, graduate and find jobs, according to the Associated Press.

University of Wisconsin researcher Nicholas Hillman has identified education deserts in urban and suburban areas as well. In 2016, he told University Business that two of the largest education deserts in the nation existed in Columbia, South Carolina, and the area around Lexington-Lafayette, Kentucky.

Each community features a flagship state school (University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky), but their acceptance rates had fallen below broad-access. The smaller private schools in those communities didn’t cover the access gap, Hillman told UB.

“The access issue has been hijacked by economists who believe that if we get better information into the hands of consumers, they will shop around,” Hillman said. “But that doesn’t fit into the reality of working-class families.”

Four from UW–Madison ranked among most influential education scholars

January 8, 2020   |   By UW-Madison School of Education

From UW-Madison School of Education

Education Week blogger Rick Hess published his annual rankings of the top 200 most influential education scholars in the United States on Wednesday — and four faculty members with UW-Madison’s School of Education are on this year’s list.

UW-Madison’s Gloria Ladson-Billings is No. 8 this year, while Adam Gamoran is No. 97, Stacey Lee is No. 176, and Jerlando Jackson is No. 177.

These annual public influence rankings appear each January in Education Week’s “Straight Up” blog, which is authored by Hess.

Ladson-Billings is a professor emerita and the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, while Gamoran is the John D. MacArthur Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Educational Policy Studies, and the former director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Lee is a professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, and Jackson is a Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Hess explains that the idea behind these rankings is to “spotlights the top 200 education scholars who move ideas from academic journals into the national conversation. Using nine metrics, Hess calculated how much university-based academics contributed to public discussions of education.”

“One small way to encourage academics to step into the fray and revisit academic norms is, I think, by doing more to recognize and value those scholars who engage in public discourse,” explains Hess. “As I see it, the extraordinary policy scholar excels in five areas: disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and shepherding collaborations, providing incisive media commentary, and speaking in the public square. This whole endeavor is admittedly an imperfect exercise. Of course, the same can be said about college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. Yet such efforts convey real information and help spark useful discussion.”

Each scholar was scored in nine categories — Google Scholar Score, Book Points, Highest Amazon Ranking, Syllabus Points, Education Press Mentions, Web Mentions, Newspaper Mentions, Congressional Record Mentions, and Twitter Score.

To learn much more, check out Hess’ Straight Up blog post about this year’s rankings. 

Feinstein is lead author on, ‘Three roles for education in climate change adaptation’

January 6, 2020   |   By UW-Madison School of Education

From UW-Madison School of Education

UW–Madison’s Noah Feinstein is the lead author on a new article published in the journal Climate Policy that explains how education can play an important role in helping society adapt to a changing climate.

Feinstein is an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. The co-author on the report is K.J. Mach from the University of Miami.

The paper’s abstract notes how “education, appropriately conceived, can be a powerful tool in enabling effective adaptation to climate change.”

The abstract then explains three policy uses:

• First, protecting and deploying education infrastructure, the social and material resources on which education depends, can reduce vulnerability and build resilience.

• Second, improving general education, measured in terms of literacy, school attendance, and overall academic attainment, can enhance adaptive capacity.

• Third, research-based adaptation learning support can accelerate social and policy change by maximizing learning before and during adaptive decision-making.

The abstract adds: “Although all three are important, the unique and transformative contribution of education lies in adaptation learning support: curricular, pedagogical, and technological resources that prepare people for complex adaptive decision-making and help them solidify learning during that work. As human societies seek to balance the old social mechanisms that ensure stability with new ones that facilitate change, our capacity to systematically support the learning that undergirds adaptation may be the limiting factor.”

To learn more about the paper, titled “Three roles for education in climate change adaptation,” visit:

Bell named next director of Wisconsin Center for Education Research

January 6, 2020   |   By UW-Madison School of Education

From UW-Madison School of Education

Courtney Bell will become the next director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), UW–Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess announced Monday.

Bell, who is currently a principal research scientist with Educational Testing Service (ETS), the world’s largest private, nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization, will begin her new position July 1.

“I am thrilled that Dr. Bell will be joining the School of Education as director of WCER,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “She is an extraordinary educational leader and researcher. Her background as a high school teacher, a faculty member, a leader of complex and innovative research teams and projects, and principal researcher with ETS uniquely prepares her to be an excellent leader of WCER. I look forward to working with her.”

Bell has worked at ETS since 2008, when she was hired as an associate research scientist within the Research and Development Division’s Teaching and Learning Research Group. Over the past decade, Bell has taken on increasing responsibilities within ETS, and since 2018 has served as a principal research scientist with the Research and Development Division’s Global Assessment Center. ETS houses a team of education experts, researchers, and assessment developers dedicated to advancing quality and equity in education across the world.

“Through research and innovation, WCER colleagues are working every day to improve our understanding of education for the next generation of citizens. I am honored to have the opportunity to work alongside such committed and gifted colleagues,” says Bell. “I am especially excited to continue the collaborative, interdisciplinary work I have always enjoyed with colleagues in the School of Education and the broader community.”

Bell has played a leading role in several significant, externally funded national and international research projects focused on teacher evaluation, the measurement of teaching, and its relationship to student growth and development. She notes that, by design, most of these multi-million-dollar projects have been cross-disciplinary and collaborative.

As a senior researcher within a larger organization, Bell has been a primary generator of new knowledge and has taken the lead in applying that expertise and capability to existing and new ETS products and services. This leadership work has included setting substantive research and development goals, priorities, and policies for ETS, in addition to policy, planning, and management of work with external clients.

Bell has led the internal research agenda for the study of teaching at ETS, with input from senior management, for more than six years. She also co-led the conceptualization, launch, and development of the Understanding Teaching Quality Center, which supports research and development related to measuring various aspects of teaching. She directed the center from 2014-16, which included supervisory responsibilities for research scientists, administrative staff, project managers, and research associates.

Bell received her Ph.D. in curriculum, teaching, and educational policy from Michigan State University after previously earning secondary chemistry teaching certification from East Carolina University and an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Dartmouth College. She started her education career as a high school science teacher in North Carolina in 1996 before holding several teaching and research positions at Columbia University, Michigan State, and the University of Connecticut over the next decade.

With more than 500 faculty, academic staff, and students, plus annual expenditures of more than $80 million, WCER is one of the oldest, largest, and most influential university-based education research centers in the United States. Housed within the School of Education and founded in 1964, WCER’s research and dissemination activities are diverse and international in scope, with funding from a variety of federal agencies, private foundations, and public service agencies.

The center is home to about 120 grant-funded projects and also includes a significant fee-for-service portfolio that includes WIDA, a global leader in assessments, standards, and training for educators of multilingual learners.

“WCER has a long and distinguished history of research and innovation that improves educational outcomes for all young people,” says Bell. “It’s an exciting place for me to continue to learn and work to improve education.”

Reporting to the dean of the School of Education, Bell is being called upon to provide exceptional organizational leadership that encourages innovation, provides first-rate service to researchers in the center, and supports the growth of both the research and fee-for-service missions of the center. Bell is also being tasked with ensuring that WCER continues to provide undergraduate and graduate students with meaningful opportunities to hone their research skills.

Bell was selected to lead WCER following a national search that brought three finalists to campus in December to participate in public forums and meet with faculty, staff, and School of Education leadership. The finalists were selected by a 13-member search-and-screen committee co-chaired by WIDA Executive Director Tim Boals and Percival Matthews, an associate professor with the Department of Educational Psychology and a WCER researcher.

Local Women Level Up In Game Development

December 17, 2019   |   By Emily McCluhan, BRAVA Magazine

From BRAVA Magazine

Amber Holkenbrink, senior designer at Raven Software, remembers asking her dad to help her learn how to read when she was 5 years old so she could play “Legends of Zelda.” Then, after spending years playing Nintendo games with her brother, she was officially hooked on video games when “Perfect Dark” was released.

“The protagonist in that game was actually a woman and she was a badass. And I thought, ‘wow, this is very different from the Barbie game that we rented at Blockbuster,’ ” she says.

But even when she stepped on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Art in 2004, game design wasn’t something she’d considered. She had dreams of working on Disney and Pixar movies. When she was offered an internship at a small game design studio doing user interface work, she decided to try it out. She ended up spending 10 years at that studio and fell in love with creating user experiences and graphic design in video games. Eventually, she sought out something bigger and landed at Raven Software in Madison, which is known as one of the top cities in the nation for game development companies.

In the past couple of decades, the landscape of games and game development has changed at lightning speed. Gaming competitions have evolved from the gaming parties of the 1990s, where gamers would haul their desktop computers to the same room and connect them, to eSports, a half- billion-dollar industry for video game competitions that fill large arenas. Sitting solo in a room or with friends playing games on a console still exists, but the rise of mobile phones as a gaming platform has become just as mainstream.

As games have gotten more diverse, so have the people consuming them. A recent statistic from the Entertainment Software Association shows that 46% of gamers are female, yet the industry that creates the games continues to be a male-dominated world, often clouded by a “boy’s club mentality.” The 2017 International Game Developers Association Developer Satisfaction Survey showed that only 21% of game developers are female. This is on-par with women in STEM roles, but the push to recruit and retain women in game development is growing.

There have been well-publicized setbacks, like so-called Gamergate, in which Boston game developer Zoë Quinn’s disgruntled ex-boyfriend caught the attention of Internet trolls and harassment influencers by claiming that she’d slept with a gaming site’s writer, even though the writer hadn’t reviewed her games. Twitter bots and angry male gamers piled on, going after women in the industry. Quinn was plagued by explicit rape and death threats and driven from her home, and the rampant misogyny meant that taking a stand against harassment in gaming could land you on a list resulting in doxing (the practice of broadcasting private information on the Internet about an individual), hacking attempts, or worse. Five years later, the harassment is still common, but female and other diverse voices are louder.

Rhea Vichot, assistant professor in the Media and Game Development program at UW-Whitewater, studies how online game players communicate, and the cultural, social and political impact of games. She believes much of the behavior exposed through Gamergate is related to the “gamer” identity.

“The short answer is that there is a very vocal, motivated minority of self-described gamers who have built their hobby as some kind of all-consuming identity and boys-only treehouse club,” she explains. “This community has done a lot to openly harass and intimidate women developers, journalists and media critics and academics for simply being visible.”

She likens it to the backlash against the female leads in “The Last Jedi” and “Captain Marvel” movies in recent years fueled by men who have built their identity around being a “Stars Wars” junky or comic book expert trying to protect the status quo of those worlds.

“[It’s] anything that challenges their group identity of what a ‘gamer’ is and they feel it needs to be corrected,” Vichot says.

When a Pastime Becomes a Career Path

Many feel the solution is to continue building diversity and equality in the world of gaming, as well as game development. Some women who end up in this industry stumble on game design without ever thinking of it as a career path. Iva Ivanova, an immigrant from Bulgaria whose parents expected her to find a financially stable job when they moved to the U.S. in 2013, came across Madison College’s animation program in 2015 and was hooked.

“I could no longer picture doing any- thing else,” Ivanova says. “I had never stopped to think that game art and digital drawing was something I could do as a career.”

Ivanova was hired at Gear Learning, a game development studio at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research through UW-Madison, after completing an internship there.

“At Gear, you have the opportunity to be a Swiss Army Knife. If you want to do something outside of your comfort zone you can, like this year I’m getting into sound effects. This is the end-all be-all career choice for me. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says.

Allison Salmon was raised with computers in her house in the ’80s and ’90s, learned programming in high school and even owned a gaming center on State Street as she earned her computer science degree at UW- Madison. She thought about game development as a career option but was never sure how to break into it. That’s until she was laid off from her first job in 2000 doing special effects at a small startup company.

“I was hunting for a job and had an interview with a programmer at a microscopy company who had a brother who worked at Raven Software,” she recalls. “He said to me, ‘I don’t think you’d really be a good fit for this job, but do you want to apply over at Raven?’”

She jumped at the chance, landed a role as a developer at Raven and spent the next 10 years there. Now she’s a developer at Flippfly, a small independent studio in Monona.

For these women, having the bravery to try something they’d never done was the first hurdle to getting into game design. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, quotes a statistic in her book “Lean In” that states men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. This is common across industries, but especially apparent in STEM jobs where women are vastly underrepresented.

“My advice to people is always ‘just apply,’” says Salmon who has been in the industry now for almost 20 years. “Like other industries, the game industry puts out these job postings that have a laundry list of things. And that’s their wish list. I’ve done a lot of talks and panels and young women will show me their resumes and question if they’re qualified for any job in the industry. Often they’re more qualified than most of the male candidates.”

Raven Software’s Holkenbrink says her proudest accomplishment in the industry is having the fortitude to push herself into something bigger.

“Doing the scary thing of leaving a place that I’ve been at for 10 years to find something that was more fulfilling is something I’m really proud of,” she says. “I absolutely love my team from my last job, but at a larger company I work with and for a group of people who have all these other experiences, and they have expectations for me that I never had for myself.”

Salmon also points out that game development and design is a creative industry and it’s critical to hone your craft, no matter what part of the industry is of interest, from program- ming to animation to sound design.

“Just doing it more, even on your own, seeking out other people who are doing it and getting feedback on your craft, and producing more. It’s necessary, and then you can use that to apply for jobs,” says Salmon.

Creating a Safe Space for Marginalized Groups

This underrepresentation in the industry has sparked local women and other marginalized groups to create their own safe places for discussion and feedback in Madison’s booming game development scene.

Katherine Stull, community manager at Human Head, remembers what it was like being isolated as one of the only women in the Media and Game Development program at UW- Whitewater in 2012, and even in the local games industry now. So, she started FemDev, a group to bring women together in the Madison area to meet up, network and do what they love—create games. Stull recently rebranded the group to Pixel Picnic to include others of diverse genders working in the game industry.

“It’s a great place to be able to talk about the things we love without fear of judgment or condescension. It’s just an uplifting environment and a great sounding board,” she says.

She’s also the vice chair of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, a group focused on promoting Wisconsin as a premier site for game development and design. By having a female voice involved, she hopes that developers from the coasts will recognize Stull’s efforts toward greater inclusion.

Most of the women BRAVA spoke with said they are fortunate to not have experienced the type of online or workplace harassment that has come to light in the years during and since Gamergate. But they do feel the “no girls allowed” mentality when they play online.

Vichot still loves losing herself in games but knows what to do to keep it enjoyable.

“ ‘Activision-Blizzard’ has had a difficult time with their character-based shooter game ‘Overwatch’ because, while they have taken pains to create interesting, diverse characters with rich backstories for a relatively fast- paced game, many women, including myself, can’t communicate over voice because the second you open your mouth it tends to be an invitation for male players to harass or up the trash talk to personal attacks. It goes back to that same root of the gatekeeping impulse,” she says.

Does this behavior ever deter these women from being in an industry that is slow to drive diversity and equality? Stull says that having opportunities like being a community manager helps highlight that most of the derogatory behavior comes from a small minority.

“I was in college during Gamergate and it made me afraid to talk to other gamers. But my job by default is all about speaking with them so just hav- ing to combat that hurdle has been good,” she says.

In Salmon’s tenure in the industry she has rarely felt discriminated against because of her gender, but recalls times at industry events where she was assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend, and not a game developer. She also notes that while studios are doing a better job of giving women opportunities, retention is still a challenge.

Workplace Culture and Employee Retention

A problem that has historically plagued the game development industry is rolling layoffs, sometimes tied to a crunch period, where employees work 60-100 hours a week to push toward a big release deadline. After that release, or as direction shifts, studios may lay off large chunks of teams. Salmon experienced this at Raven Software in 2010. She says even though the company handled the layoff well, it made her question if she should stay in the industry.

“It was a question of ‘do I want to stay in games, and more so, can I stay in games in Madison?’ I didn’t know what was out there,” she says.

She was surprised to find that even almost 10 years ago, there were many opportunities in the area, ideal for her young family that wanted to stay in Madison.

While crunch periods and layoffs are still a concern, these local game designers agreed that their employers put a strong focus on work/life balance. Holkenbrink, a current Raven employee, notes that they’ve added a paternity leave equal to maternity leave, and she hasn’t seen any retribution for people that need to leave work at a normal hour for their kids’ baseball games.

To completely avoid the crunch periods (when salaried employees are often not compensated for overtime), there is a growing voice for unionization, similar to other creative industries like filmmaking. Organizations like Game Workers Unite sprung up in the last year and sessions on unionization at the Gaming Development Conference fill breakout rooms to overflowing. These groups are pushing the idea at a grassroots level, studio by studio. But some female employees say those who stand up for the cause risk retaliation by their employers.

Beyond fair hours, Holkenbrink says that Raven makes a big splash for International Women’s Day and Pride Month to support their diverse employees, as well as a Lean In circle for female employees.

“We discuss things like imposter syndrome, career development and biases that we have about ourselves,” she says. “It’s great because the percentage of the women at the company is low compared to the men and we’re spread out across different departments, so we never get to see each other. It’s awesome to connect.”

Salmon found a good balance for her lifestyle at the smaller indie studio, Flippfly. The demands are differ- ent than at a large studio and she has more flexibility and freedom for using her passion and skills.

The future will tell how women and others of diverse genders adapt to this evolving industry. For students like Liz Beine, a senior in UW- Whitewater’s Media and Game Development program, there are concerns about crunch periods and finding a job, but she knows this industry has potential for a real career.

“All the games that are being produced right now are so exciting and it makes me think, ‘oh, I want to create that someday.’ Not one game looks exactly like another and there are so many artistic styles and that is really cool,” Beine says.

She also notes that the skills she’s learning in the program can easily be expanded into other industries like movies and animation, giving her (and her parents) confidence in her program choice.

Women Are an Emerging Market

According to WePC, a website with resources for people building a gaming computer, the video games market is expected to be worth over $90 billion by 2020, meaning more job opportunities for women like Beine. And as the market expands, how gamers consume games is changing. The world of eSports has a global fascination, but in the U.S., it is gaining professional sport-like following. Nine states recognize eSports (or competitive video gaming) as a varsity sport in high schools, and 130 colleges have eSports programs, giving away more than $15 million in scholarships. So far, Wisconsin has not joined their ranks.

In this arena as well, women are vastly underrepresented but there is a recent push to get more females involved. The global eSports organization GenG recently partnered with Bumble, the dating app, to create a community for female gamers and fans. Given the large female base of gamers, these groups see women as an untapped fanbase and hope to give women a place to feel welcome and confident in their gaming skills.

Other groups like the Girl Gamer eSports Festival are vying for the same participants. While some players question if an all-girls focus is a detriment to advancing women (since all you need to play are two hands and a brain), others feel an all-girls tournament could draw more females into the mix.

Other growing areas of the game development industry include educational games. Mary Romolino isn’t a self-described gamer, but after many years in the world of marketing and advertising, she stumbled on the idea of using games to change behavior.

“We were making TV commercials and radio commercials and brochures, and I thought, ‘oh my gosh, games are so much more powerful than all of those things,’” she says.

What she quickly found is that the talent needed to create games is not the talent typically found inside an ad agency. So, she and her husband, an app developer, decided to launch Acme Nerd Games in 2015. “The whole idea is that we’re a B2B game development company,” says Romolino. “Let’s work with businesses to create games that are not only good for the business, but are also good for the customers and prospects as well to drive engagement and retention.”

She says that being a female gaming company owner is not the challenge, but convincing people that games can educate and change behavior has been, although she sees her younger clients grasping the concept quickly.

Holkenbrink agrees.

“The women that are coming into the industry now…have so much less of the cultural influences around what’s considered ‘unladylike’ or expectations of what girls ‘should’ be do- ing,” she says. “And it’s the same for the younger men. They’re more aware of the inequities, and the conversations are more comfortable than even 10 years ago.”

Vichot sees this new generation of female game designers firsthand as the instructor for the introductory course in UW Whitewater’s Media and Game Development program. Part of that course is computer programming and she watches women come in leery of programming, unsure of the wall of text and numbers.

“But they get really excited to see that programming is not this scary thing. This is a tool to build things. And I think it’s really important to get people the access and the space to be able to try things out in order to help remove the larger cultural stigmas about women in technology that some- times they don’t have the aptitude,” she says.

While the online gaming and eSports communities may have an uphill battle still, equity in game development is up for grabs as women find their voices and their seats at the table, with a goal to become respected peers instead of the marginalized few.

NHHS teacher panelist at STEM event in Madison

December 10, 2019   |   By Staff at

By Staff at

The Rural Education Research and Implementation Center (RERIC) hosted 19 rural STEM educators from 18 school districts around Wisconsin for the third annual Teacher Speakout! on Friday, Nov. 15 at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in Madison.

Beth Allcox, a high school science teacher in the New Holstein School District, attended the event as a panelist.
The goal of Teacher Speakout! is to bring the voices of rural teachers into a collaborative, public forum with researchers, legislators, and rural school advocates.

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings to Keynote Edgewood College’s Black History Education Conference

December 3, 2019   |   By Madison365 Staff


National educational consultant Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings will be the featured keynote speaker at Edgewood College’s “Dreaming In Ethnic Melodies Black History Education Conference,’ which will be held on February 21-22, 2020 at Edgewood College, the Overture Center, the Madison Concourse Hotel, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“Dreaming In Ethnic Melodies” will have a strong emphasis on social and emotional learning, and universal literacy instruction under six African-American categories of children’s literature.  Dr. Billing’s keynote will focus on “Dreaming With Our Eyes Open: Cultivating Hope in Black Children.”

“As recently reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the performance gap between black and white students continues to widen in the state of Wisconsin,” Tony Garcia, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Edgewood College, said in a statement. “Locally here in Madison, we continue to see K-12 and higher education institutions struggle with creating equitable learning opportunities for diverse students. The importance and timeliness of this conference cannot be overstated and we are eager to welcome educators from across the state of Wisconsin to engage in meaningful dialogue on how best to promote and model academic excellence.”

Ladson-Billings was a faculty member on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for more than 26 years and held the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education. She was a professor with the departments of Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Policy Studies, and Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She is also currently serving a four-year term as president of the National Academy of Education. Last year, the American Educational Research Association’s Division B honored Ladson-Billings with a Lifetime Achievement Award at their Annual Meeting in New York City.

 Sessions during the “Dreaming In Ethnic Melodies Black History Education” will focus on nine cultural values that promote self-love and identity development, address how to utilize culturally relevant pedagogical approaches, highlight successful family engagement practices, share culturally relevant leadership strategies, demonstrate the importance of utilizing the arts to increase the possibilities for our collective behavioral and academic outcomes, and draw on student’s personal experiences.

“The conference experience is intended to provide a venue where educators from across the state and country will be able to share policies, practices, programs, and procedures that have proven effective in promoting high levels of achievement for those often being underserved in our school systems,” Andreal Davis, conference creator and CEO of Cultural Practices That Are Relevant Consulting, said in a press release. “Continuing to think with the idea of ‘communalism’ in mind, we are asking attendees to open heads, hands and hearts to collaborate and to close the stark gaps that exist for many of the students and families that we serve in our community and across the country.”

To learn more about the conference and to register, click here.

Mishicot’s Justin Gerlach speaks at Madison Teacher Speakout! event

November 18, 2019

The Herald Times Reporter (USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Justin Gerlach, a high school science teacher at Mishicot High School who in 2018 was named Rural Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, was a panelist at the third annual Teachers Speakout! event Friday at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in Madison.

The Friday event was followed by field trips on Saturday at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

Gerlach was one of 19 rural STEM educators from 18 Wisconsin school districts to participate in the Teacher Speakout! event, which is hosted by the Rural Education Research and Implementation Center. A news release said the goal of the Teacher Speakout! "is to bring the voices of rural teachers into a collaborative, public forum with researchers, legislators and rural school advocates."

Wisconsin Center for Education Research Director Robert Mathieu said in the news release, “The event will bring the knowledge of our teacher partners directly to campus so our research is better informed and can respond most effectively on behalf of students in rural school districts in Wisconsin.”

Rural Wisconsin STEM teachers build connections to researchers at UW event

November 18, 2019   |   By Yvonne Kim

The Capital Times

Jennifer Seelig was working on her dissertation in the Northwoods in 2017 when the Wisconsin Center for Education Research reached out to her about involving teachers in education research.

A former rural teacher herself, Seelig jumped on board to help plan the first Teacher Speakout! event and is now the assistant director of WCER’s Rural Educators Research and Implementation Center. On Friday and Saturday, RERIC hosted 19 teachers from the state’s rural districts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the event’s third year.

“Centering teachers’ voices would be an effective way to engage them with research we’re already doing at WCER, as well as interest researchers in connecting with teachers,” Seelig said about the event’s origins. “Folks often don’t think of rural schools as places to do research.”

After the first two years, RERIC considered how to create stronger “professional learning communities” for rural teachers who may be isolated with little access to colleagues in their field, Seelig said. One way was to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a specific subject area. Eight rural teachers discussed their personal experiences as STEM educators during a Friday panel.

Science and math teacher Jessica Dennis, who represented Washington Island, called her island district a “magical place” where students don’t just learn about wood or Lyme disease on paper. Instead, they have direct access to wooded areas that directly influence what they’re learning based on their surroundings.

In the Pecatonica Area School District, high school science teacher Jacob Roberts said he enjoys the flexibility to change up his lesson plans day to day in a small district. For instance, he teaches climate change by referencing rates of flooding in the Pecatonica River, and “the students get that right away. It’s not political to them.”

“Where you live should not limit your opportunity,” Roberts said. “Sometimes we can’t afford some of the expensive scientific experiments without grants … so we need to continually seek out ways to get students in contact with technology and opportunities and re-instill in them that they’re capable of great things regardless of where they live.”

Moderating the panel in the UW's School of Education, Seelig made sure to raise questions about higher education, such as how universities like UW-Madison can better engage teachers in grant proposals.

High school computer science, business and science teacher Olivia Dachel mentioned the importance of institutions removing barriers, such as transportation, when hosting events or creating opportunities for rural teachers. High school science teacher Jackie Drews discussed the difficult time commitment of deciphering which of seemingly endless grants to apply for.

“Getting someone to narrow it down for me would be absolutely amazing,” Drews said. “That would be the most useful thing anyone could do for me in terms of trying to find funding and trying to find new opportunities for students.”

Astronomy professor and WCER director Bob Mathieu said in an interview that, though many researchers on campus are already interested in rural Wisconsin, RERIC has offered a “place of connection” for people to nucleate that interest and directly connect with one another. Opening Friday morning’s panel, Mathieu said he was eager to hear STEM perspectives from rural teachers.

“We, being in a city, are constantly bringing students to campus to enrich and expand their STEM experiences. It is my guess that there are many, many opportunities to do the same in rural Wisconsin,” Mathieu said. “How do we give them the opportunities to follow what may be their life path?”

UWO takes part in research on undergraduate military service members, veterans

November 15, 2019


A new research project focuses on the experiences of undergraduate military service members and veterans enrolled in Wisconsin universities, including the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

The Wisconsin Center for Education Research recently launched the Veteran Education to Workforce Affinity and Success Study (VETWAYS), a three-year, $556,000 research project funded by the National Science Foundation.

The study seeks to better understand the unique social experiences and challenges this special student population encounters as they progress through college and into the workforce.

VETWAYS staff will conduct research through surveys and interviews with students and educators from UW Oshkosh and three other UW schools—Madison, Milwaukee and Stout.

“I believe research that helps to better understand and focuses on the success of student veterans has great value,” said Timber Smith, UWO Veterans Resource Center coordinator.

“This particular research will be extra beneficial to our Veterans Resource Center because it aligns with our primary mission: To provide a central location on each campus to seek guidance, explore available veterans education benefits and campus resources while connecting with other veterans, friends and resource center staff.”

While other studies conducted on student veterans show that social support is important to improving their college experiences, very little research has specifically focused on the relationships that provide them with help, advice, comradery or guidance, said Ross Benbow, the study’s principal investigator.

“Social support has come up as a particularly important factor linked to college success in other studies of student veterans. Our work, which explores how social support connects with students’ college-to-career trajectories, is an important step in the progression of this research.”

Benbow said that student veterans in college face two unique sets of challenges.

“Transitions into college from military lives marked by discipline, a clear chain of command, and a real unity of purpose can be incredibly difficult,” he said, adding that feelings of isolation on campus, coupled with the many bureaucratic hurdles student veterans have to jump in college, may adversely affect persistence.

“Veterans are also more likely to be students of color, first-generation students, older and/or married, and have more off-campus responsibilities. They’re more likely to suffer from trauma due to military experiences than traditional students, as well.”

Benbow added that these characteristics all have been linked to more difficult pathways through college.

Joseph Rasmussen, veteran services coordinator with University Veteran Services at the UW-Madison, is an advisory board member for the new study.

“I am thrilled about the Veteran Education to Workforce Affinity and Success Study. UW-Madison has a strong tradition of public service and research, and this study honors both,” said Rasmussen, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “I’m excited to see the positive real-world impacts these findings will hold for student military service members and veterans as well as for professionals looking to serve them.”

Benbow said VETWAYS can help college administrators and student services professionals—whether veteran coordinators, career counselors, academic advisers, faculty, or other higher education practitioners—shape curricular and programming offerings to better meet the needs of undergraduate military service members and veterans.

“When you’re looking at higher education and the country’s future workforce needs, as my colleagues and I are doing, this is an incredibly skilled, capable and deserving group of students to focus on,” Benbow said. “Colleges and future employers should be competing over these students, so we’re excited to play a small part in better understanding and helping to improve their academic and early-career experiences.”

New online tool helps businesses start internship programs

November 12, 2019   |   By Sun Prairie Star

From the Sun Prairie Star

To make it easier for businesses to launch their own internship programs, the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) have introduced the Talent Generator, a new online tool offering smart tips and best practices for creating and sustaining a successful student talent development program.

The easy-to-use, no-cost tool was unveiled Nov. 12 by UW System President Ray Cross and WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes. They were joined by university career services representatives, regional economic development officials, and local business leaders who expressed support for how the new Talent Generator will complement their own efforts to help employers expand workforce opportunities.

The online Talent Generator is designed to help small and medium-sized companies develop and sustain successful internship programs. It will help Wisconsin further solidify its reputation as a national leader in student internships.

Officials announced the new online reference at Market & Johnson, an Eau Claire–based construction company that manages its own highly successful internship program and helped develop the new instructional modules.

Hiring managers from American Family Insurance, ProHealth Care, and Royal Credit Union also provided video testimonials describing the important role internships play in their efforts to attract, develop, and retain talent. 

UW System President Cross said internships are one way to help Wisconsin build its workforce by retaining more graduates from state colleges and universities. Like many other states, Wisconsin faces a growing shortage of workers in the next decade.

“Today, more than 80 percent of UW System graduates live in Wisconsin five years after graduation, and we see this new resource as one more tool to help that number grow,” Cross said. “Our goal with the Talent Generator is to increase the odds every student in the state’s largest talent pipeline—the UW System—has an opportunity to secure an internship. We know every time a student secures an internship with a Wisconsin employer, the likelihood of them staying here increases.”

Hughes added that WEDC already has launched other successful programs to attract and retain Wisconsin workers. 

“Businesses told us it would be useful to have a primer on internships to help ensure successful outcomes for both hiring managers and mentors, and for the students involved,” Hughes said.

“Small and medium-sized firms, typically the fastest growing segment of our state economy, often run very lean and may not have the capacity to launch these types of learning experiences," Hughes added. "This innovative resource helps reduce some of the barriers to tapping the student talent pipeline in Wisconsin.” 

The Talent Generator leverages the online learning platform developed by UW Extended Campus, creating an interactive tool for businesses to explore the critical elements of a successful internship program.

According to Aaron Brower, Executive Director for UW Extended Campus, the intern program highlights several key areas: internship basics, legal requirements, best practices, and keys to supervising.  The modules are free to all users and available at this link:  

If a company does not have an internship program, knowing where to start and understanding the key building blocks can be daunting, according to Staci Heidtke, Associate Director of Career Services with UW-Eau Claire’s Advising, Retention and Career Center.

“This new resource is amazing," Heidtke added, "and it provides a valuable tool for regional businesses looking to start the process of hiring interns.”

Woven throughout the online training modules are resources to connect with local college and university academic and career services offices. The intent is to assist businesses in leveraging the knowledge, expertise, and connections these advisers have with students.

“It’s not just about showing up at career fairs," As Jerry Shea, President of Market & Johnson, said. "You have to build ongoing and meaningful connections with the campuses all year long.”

Internship programs are the focus of growing attention within higher education, according to UW-Madison’s Dr. Matthew Hora. He is a widely recognized scholar of career development initiatives and the study of 21st century competencies in the workplace.

“As a learning scientist who acknowledges how well-crafted experiential learning spaces can be transformative for students – professionally, intellectually, and socially – one of my goals is to see that high-quality internships are made available to every college student," Hora said. "This new program from UW System is one more step in the process of helping to ensure quality outcomes.” 

“One of the goals of UW System’s 2020FWD strategic framework is to provide every student with the opportunity to experience at least two high-impact learning practices, including internships," Cross said. "Building our state’s talent pipeline, and supporting our future economic vitality, is influenced by our ability to prepare students for the world of work.” 

Already, UW System students participate in internships, co-ops, or other work-based learning opportunities at a rate higher than the national average. Of seniors in spring 2017, 56 percent participated in an internship or field experience compared to 47 percent nationally. 

Learn more at UW System Career Connect. The site includes links to career service offices at UW System, Wisconsin Technical College System, and Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities institutions across the state.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) leads economic development efforts for the state by advancing and maximizing opportunities in Wisconsin for businesses, communities, and people to thrive in a globally competitive environment. Working with more than 600 regional and local partners, WEDC develops and delivers solutions representative of a highly responsive and coordinated economic development network. Visit or follow WEDC on Twitter @WEDCNews to learn more.

The University of Wisconsin System serves approximately 170,000 students. Awarding nearly 37,000 degrees annually, the UW System is Wisconsin’s talent pipeline, putting graduates in position to increase their earning power, contribute to their communities, and make Wisconsin a better place to live. 

UW-Madison research finds easy, low-cost exercise prevents ‘6th-grade slump’

November 7, 2019   |   By Dannika Lewis

From Channel 3000:

MADISON, Wis. - Dana Serwe went into her career thinking she wanted to teach elementary school but, 11 years after being hired as a sixth-grade instructor at Toki Middle School in Madison, she’s still in those same classrooms.

“The most important thing that I hope kids go home with at this point in the year is that they belong here at our school,” Serwe said.

It’s a message that resonates with administrators, as well, knowing the transition from elementary into middle school can be particularly difficult and sometimes overlooked.  It’s why staff members such as Cory Foster were brought on board.  Foster now works as the school’s student-family engagement coordinator, emphasizing that sense of belonging as kids continue to build a foundation for high school and beyond.

“We're doing it together,” Foster said.  “It's beyond solidarity, but it’s synergy and energy in here.”

More than half of the middle schoolers at Toki are students of color.  Kyle Walsh has only been the principal for the last year, but he said it's been a priority to make sure those kids feel welcome and have adults they can look up to in the building.

“One of our greatest assets and strengths, I think, is our diversity,” Walsh said.

Still, it’s no secret many kids struggle socially, academically, behaviorally and emotionally when they go from elementary school to middle school. UW-Madison education researcher and professor Geoffrey Borman decided to explore the transition in his research.

“Students are entering puberty and going through all of the sort of physical, emotional changes, cognitive changes, at that period of life,” Borman said.  “But then, also piling on top of that, this big change going into middle school from elementary school.”

Borman and his team looked at more 1,300 sixth-graders at all 11 middle schools in Madison and found one of the main struggles for those students was a need to fit in.  From there, the researchers developed a survey, asking adolescents to report their biggest challenges with the transition and what successes they had with the shift to middle school.  They took those responses and shared them with sixth-graders and asked if they resonated with them.  Borman said it was important that those anecdotes and stories came from their peers and not from adults.

“That is something that is much more believable to kids and something that doesn't appear so preachy and something that they have to do.  Rather, this was just simple advice that, 'Look, you know, this is tough for everybody,'” Borman said.

Borman found that by tapping into that feeling of belonging, reinforcing that the struggles are all temporary and reassuring kids that everyone was going through the changes together, students showed higher attendance, better academic performance and fewer behavioral issues.

Specifically, Borman’s team found their work:

  • Reduced disciplinary incidents  by 34%
  • Increased attendance by 12%
  • Reduced the number of failing grades by 18%

Even more exciting, Borman said, is that the low-cost method helped preteens across the board.

“These writing exercises helped all kids.  It didn't matter the color of your skin.  It didn't matter the wealth of your family.  It didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl.  It benefited all kids equally,” Borman said.

Borman said the UW is recreating the study this year at middle schools in Arizona and Texas, hoping to further replicate the results and prove the affordable option works for sixth-graders across geographic lines.  He’s also looking forward to retesting the “self-affirming exercises” with Madison schools, including places such as Toki.

Walsh said he’s open to anything that will help all middle schoolers, especially minority students who might be harder to reach, feel like they’re supported.  It’s why he said he's particularly proud of groups such as the Black Student Union, a club that has gained momentum over the past few years as a place where kids can share their struggles, success stories and suggestions for the school.

“We need student voice.  We need them to help us figure out where we're going because they usually have a better idea than we do,” Walsh said.

“Having that mentality that we can pick each other up and keep moving forward is essential in middle school,” Serwe said.

“It's no 'us or them.'  It has to be both of us,” Foster said.