Teaching children who were struggling to read launched Stephanie Al Otaiba on an investigation of early literacy intervention that continues almost two decades later as a professor in SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
Delores Etter’s future path was not as clear. Etter, a professor in the Lyle School of Engineering, grappled with the relevance of her mathematical expertise outside the realm of higher education until she discovered the link through electrical engineering and digital signal processing research.
Robert Lawson, a professor in the Cox School of Business, recognized the value of computer muscle as he sought to move to a different plane the debate about the merits of free-market versus interventionist economic systems. The data-driven evaluations of international economies that Lawson has been instrumental in developing are intended to remove conjecture and rewire the discussion along empirical bases.
In contrast, subjective observations and human foibles lie at the heart of historian Sherry L. Smith’s inquiries. An early interest in Native American culture and treaty rights motivated Smith, a professor in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, to delve into the power of perception in shaping much of our nation’s history involving American Indians.
While their explorations may not intersect, these faculty members share intellectual curiosity, the courage to test the status quo and a desire to teach and guide students. Following, they trace the roots of their interests and discuss the defining experiences that inspired their research and eventually led them to SMU.
Opening a new chapter for struggling readers
Stephanie Al Otaiba folds her tall, graceful frame until she is eye-to-eye with the two young girls quietly poring over workbooks. She starts chatting with them about their reading assignments. Without prompting, one of the students says she is dyslexic, then asks, “Can you be a teacher if you’re dyslexic?”
In a soothing voice, Al Otaiba assures the student that people with dyslexia excel in many fields, and that with the skills she is developing now, she is on the right path to joining their ranks. Pleased by the answer, the girl goes back to her book.
“That’s why we teach,” says Al Otaiba, who was recently named the Patsy And Ray Caldwell Centennial Chair in Teaching and Learning, the second Centennial chair in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
The exchange took place in a classroom at Stevens Park Elementary School in Dallas, where she was observing her team of research assistants involved in a school-based research project that examines the efficacy of the Voyager Passport reading intervention. The widely used program combines targeted instruction and progress monitoring for young students who need supplemental assistance. The children have or are at risk for reading disabilities, and in the fall, they scored in the bottom 30 percent in reading comprehension on standardized tests.
The research – the first of its kind performed with this intervention – involves fourth-grade students in West Dallas and Northern Florida schools. It started July 1, 2013, and will continue through June 30, 2017, and is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. Al Otaiba, who came to SMU in January 2012 from Florida State University, collaborates with FSU Professor Jeannie Wanzek, principal investigator, on the project.
Al Otaiba focuses on early literacy intervention for struggling students, understanding students’ response to intervention and training teachers how to use data to guide instructional decisions. Her current research portfolio extends to six other grant-funded projects.
“I’m fortunate to have a strong team of research assistants, including some current and former SMU graduate students, led by Brenna Rivas, an alumna of the doctoral program in the Simmons School,” she says.
Connecting research to the classroom completes the equation, she adds. “For any of us who do intervention research, what keeps us passionate is the feeling that we can impact the greater community through improving teachers’ practices and, in turn, improving outcomes for children.”
Her mission to aid children with learning difficulties began in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. While visiting family she met her late husband, a UAE citizen, and her temporary stay turned into a 16-year residency and an incubator for her future career in education.
“A friend was working with the United Nations to establish a special education program. At first I worked as a volunteer, then completed teacher training and started teaching in 1981,” she says. “The longer I taught, the more I wanted to learn about evidence-based practices that helped students learn.”
A decade later, she earned a master’s degree in special education and began to follow beginning reading and special education research. After her husband’s death in 1996, she returned to the United States and completed the Ph.D. program at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.
The global relevance of Al Otaiba’s research performed in the intervening years recently drew her back to the Arabian Peninsula, this time to Muscat, Oman. At the invitation of Mahmoud Emam, an assistant professor of special education at Sultan Qaboos University, she served as a guest lecturer at a two-day workshop about reading disabilities and interventions. She continues to consult on his grant to improve special educators’ ability to use data to guide their intervention.
“Since there are few measures available in Gulf Arabic, developing appropriate formative progress monitoring measures has been a challenge. Dr. Emam and his team have been adapting measures associated with response to intervention in English,” she explains. “It was wonderful to see how dedicated they are and motivated to helping change the face of special education and how developing countries are using U.S. research and making it their own.”
Closer to home, Al Otaiba is acting as an Engaged Learning project mentor to junior Stephanie Newland. Newland hopes to learn more about the impact of the Jesters Program, a musical theatre activity for people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities, on participants, parents and volunteers.
Eyeing The Future Of Engineering
The yellow-orange light emitted from the scanner casts an eerie glow in the darkened room. Delores Etter positions one of her student researchers in front of an apparatus that resembles a vision-testing machine in an optometrist’s office. As the student sits in a fixed position, visible and near-infrared light is used to take a clear, high-contrast picture of his irises.
A digital template of the image – a map of the naturally occurring random patterns that make each person’s iris unique – will be created and stored in a database. With this type of database, matcher engines sort through templates at lightning speed and make identifications with extreme accuracy.
This research at the vanguard of technology with wide-ranging applications is happening at the Lyle School of Engineering, where Etter leads SMU’s biometrics research program. Etter, who joined the SMU faculty in 2008, holds the TI Distinguished Chair for Engineering Education in the Lyle School of Engineering. She also serves as the first director of SMU’s Caruth Institute for Engineering Education.
In offering hands-on opportunities to undergraduates, she ties what they learn in the classroom to knowledge and skills that will fuel their careers after graduation. Her own college experience informs her belief that students should make those relevant connections early.
“I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, and I could do all this wonderful math, but I didn’t see the applications,” Etter remembers. “I started questioning what good was it to know it if it didn’t seem useful.”
Major life events – she got married and had a child – took precedence over her academic career until she accepted a position at the University of New Mexico. Although she was teaching computer science, many of her students were electrical engineering (EE) majors.
“I didn’t have a clue about it, and I sat in on the first EE course so I could see how to tie in my classes to what they were doing,” she says. “It totally changed my life. I thought ‘Here’s the real-world application for all that math I know.’”
She went on to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UNM at a time when few women entered the field. Etter blazed trails across the technology spectrum, making significant contributions to the knowledge base on digital signal processing and the emerging specialty of biometrics. She also became an internationally recognized advocate for early STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
Her rising stature in academic and engineering research was noticed in Washington, D.C. She served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and Assistant Secretary of the Navy under two presidents. She also held the Office of Naval Research Distinguished Chair in electrical and computer engineering at the United States Naval Academy.
With her finger on the pulse of the international intelligence community, Etter brought biometrics research to SMU “because it has national significance in terms of security.”
Etter and former colleagues from the Naval Academy initiated a joint research project involving biometrics databases. At Lyle, students comb through the iris image data they have collected to “get rid of the noise” that could interfere with accuracy. In conjunction with the project, they will travel to Annapolis for a week this summer to interact with industry experts and government specialists working on real issues related to national security.
In the fall, she will take a group from SMU to the Biometric Consortium Conference in Tampa, Florida, where they will sit in on presentations and visit state-of-the-art exhibits. They will follow up by writing reports about what intrigued them and what they learned.
These experiences not only enhance their engineering toolkit, but also open their eyes to possibilities, Etter says.
“I want to develop a cadre of students who understand biometrics, find it fun and interesting, and want to go out into industry or government and add their innovations to the field.”
Measuring The Economic Might Of Freedom
In the film “Economic Freedom in Action: Changing Lives,” successful entrepreneurs in Chile, Slovakia, South Korea and Zambia describe how they mapped their personal routes to prosperity when unbounded by restrictive government policies and institutional structures. The documentary aired on 200 PBS stations nationwide from November 2013 through January 2014. The program was based on the findings of the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) report released in 2012.
Economist Robert Lawson coauthors the yearly index that is produced by the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy think tank. Lawson holds the Jerome M. Fullinwider Endowed Centennial Chair in Economic Freedom in the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom in SMU’s Cox School of Business,
“If you boil it down, economic freedom is about people being free to make their own choices in their economic lives – government largely leaves them alone to buy and sell what they want at prices they have negotiated,” Lawson explains. “It’s analogous to freedom of speech and religion.”
First published in 1996, the study now covers 151 countries and territories. Using data collected from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum and other sources, researchers employ 42 distinct variables in ranking countries on a zero-to-10 scale, with 10 representing the highest level of economic freedom. Economic freedom is quantified using five different factors: size of government, legal structure and security of property rights, access to sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation of credit, labor and business.
For Lawson, the report provides the data-driven clarity missing from the intellectual free-for-alls he participated in with fellow graduate students at Florida State University.
“In broad terms, they were Adam Smith versus Karl Marx debates, free market versus interventionism. They were great, but they were primarily theoretical and hotly ideological,” he says. “Those discussions basically took us nowhere, whereas using data advances the debate on empirical grounds.”
While earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics at FSU, he served as a graduate assistant to economist James Gwartney, who became a mentor, friend and collaborator on the EFW report. Gwartney holds the Gus A. Stavros Eminent Scholar Chair and directs the Stavros Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Economic Education at FSU. It was Gwartney who took on the challenge of developing a scientific instrument that could be used to quantify economic freedom. He enlisted Lawson to add his data-mining expertise to the groundbreaking project.
“Kelvin said to measure is to know, and we wanted to know,” Lawson says. “We started collecting data and feeding it into the computer. It was a long process. It took seven or eight years to develop our first report.
“It was very important to us to use objective data to avoid subjective views influencing the ratings of any country,” he adds, “And transparency was key. We wanted to develop a research tool that others could replicate.”
A self-described “math guy,” Lawson says he was first drawn to economics by its demand for “analytical rigor.” Although he started his undergraduate education at Ohio University as a political science major, he changed his mind “within minutes of my first economics class.”
Lawson, who joined SMU in 2011 from Auburn University, teaches in the M.B.A. program at Cox. He also travels the world as a guest lecturer on the topic of economic freedom.
Because he misses teaching and mentoring undergraduates, he recently launched an interdisciplinary reading and discussion group for these students. The 12 participants had to apply for inclusion and commit to completing weekly reading assignments.
“The readings are eclectic and cover political science, philosophy and economics,” Lawson says. “I lead the group, but it’s not a lecture; it’s a forum for student discussion. They ask questions, but it’s really up to them to talk through the issues and draw their own conclusions.”
Documenting The Power Of Perception
A fascinating character from her childhood still looms prominently in the memory of historian Sherry L. Smith, University Distinguished Professor of History and assistant director of SMU’s William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies in Dedman College.
The man she describes as “a sort of surrogate grandfather” lived in a rustic cabin near her family’s home at Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan and was an Indian hobbyist.
“He had grown up in South Dakota, and his home was full of all sorts of Indian items. He would dress in full Native American regalia and tell stories. Of course, I was in awe,” she says.
Much like today’s Civil War re-enactors who bring battles back to life, hobbyists gathered in tribal clothing to recreate Native American ceremonies. While she leaves it to other scholars to dissect the hobbyists’ motivations and influence, Smith has documented a provocative perspective on Native American history.
“The central questions in my research are how have non-Indians perceived Native Americans and how did those ideas shape political action and our culture,” she explains.
Her interest in Native American issues first took a scholarly turn when she entered Purdue University. As she worked toward bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, she became particularly sympathetic to Indian demands for justice regarding sovereignty and treaties.
“As a member of the Baby Boom generation, I believed we could change the world,” she says. “At first I considered a path through law, with a specialization in Indian law, to make a more immediate impact.”
Instead, she elected to make a difference in academia, an option she had not seriously contemplated before a pivotal conversation with a professor.
“He asked if I had ever considered getting a Ph.D. No one had ever suggested that before,” she says. “I realized then how professors can open up a realm of possibility you’ve never considered and really make a huge difference in your life’s trajectory.”
She subsequently earned a doctorate at the University of Washington and launched a career in higher education that has spanned three decades.
Smith, who joined SMU in 1999, focuses on actors at the frontline of evolving attitudes and policies affecting Native Americans. She has documented the moral conflicts experienced by army officers involved in the Western expansion; the influential writings that helped change American opinions from 1880 to 1940; and the fight for Indian rights in the 1960s and ’70s.
She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters. She also has written four books, including two prize-winners. Reimagining Indians: Native Americans Through Anglo Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2000; paperback edition, 2001) received the 2001 James A. Rawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians and the SMU Godbey Author Award. Smith’s most recent work, Hippies, Indians and the Fight for Red Power (Oxford University Press, 2012), is the first book to examine the loose coalition that cut across racial, ethnic and class lines to push for political reforms that strengthened Native American sovereignty. The book garnered a 2014 Godbey Award.
While on leave from teaching in the spring, she is revisiting the life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, an Army officer who figures in Reimagining Indians and earlier writings, from a very different angle. His complicated, 35-five-year relationship with Sara Bard Field, a married woman 30 years his junior who eventually became his wife, plays out against a backdrop of Progressive Era politics, Bohemianism and West Coast radicalism.
“It’s a fascinating story, but quite different from my previous research,” she says. “In this case, I’m letting their story take precedence over analysis, and as it unfolds, allow readers to decide how they feel about the couple.”