Onward and Upward: The Search for Research

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - 14:00

“What’s that building that’s under the North Parking Garage?” I mused to myself while wandering around campus during O-Week. The thought quickly left my mind as I ran off with my House for a trip to Chinatown for bubble tea. However, a couple days later, while perusing the booths at the student activities fair, I noticed the University Community Service Center (UCSC) table and, knowing that I wanted to get involved in service, went over. On the front of their pamphlets was a picture of their office, the bottom floor of a parking garage. The mystery was solved, and I walked away wanting to apply to be a part of the Neighborhood Schools Program, a UCSC program through which UChicago students work with teachers, children, and public schools on the South Side.

I was assigned to work at Shoesmith Elementary School, a school in the Kenwood neighborhood just north of Hyde Park. I was a teaching assistant in a classroom full of bubbly kindergarteners, and for a few hours every week, I got to teach them the ABC’s, read them books, and try to contain their abundance of energy. One of my main tasks was teaching the kids sight words. Sight words are a set of words that reappear most often in early childhood books. For example words such as “who, the, she, were, does,” are all sight words. Memorization of sight words is one of the steps many children take toward becoming literate. There was one student in particular that needed extra help with his memorization. The majority of students in the class could recognize over 300 sight words, whereas this student could recognize six. I helped him the best I could, even making sight word flashcards that he could bring home to practice. The more I worked with him, the more I became interested in this disparity, and the more I became interested in early childhood development.

I knew I wanted to get involved in research when I came to the College. I always wondered if it was possible for a first year to be involved in research, and, if it were possible, how I would even find a position. I emailed my career adviser, and asked if he knew any positions that were open, or if he knew any professors I should email. (Finding a research position here can be as easy as emailing a professor whose work intrigues you.) He sent me back some links to Handshake, our online jobs and internship database. Through Handshake, I found a research position with the Thirty Million Words Initiative, a lab in the hospital, applied, and got the position! I was doing research as a first year, and this is a very common experience for many UChicago undergrads.

The Thirty Million Words Initiative researches and works to close the literacy gap that begins to grow within the first three years a child’s life. Thirty million is how many fewer words a child born in poverty hears by the age of three compared to a child born into more affluent circumstances. The more a child hears in these first three years, the better prepared they are for school. The children with more exposure to language are better prepared, and this preparedness correlates to higher test scores, larger vocabularies, and stronger reading skills later in life, often defined as an “achievement gap.”

As a research assistant in the hospital, I am able to do research at the forefront of the field of early childhood development…as a first-year undergraduate! I am able to transcribe and do morphology and behavioral coding for the longitudinal Thirty Million Words study.

As I wander the halls of the hospital to get to the lab, I often see other undergraduates who, too, have research positions. Regardless of your major or interests, research is possible for all here at the University of Chicago!