Erika Kitzmiller

Historian - Ethnographer - Educator

Current Projects

From Direct Instruction to Authentic Learning: A Shift to Increase Academic Success and Engineering Competencies among Youth of Color (National Science Foundation-Engineering and Education, $346,360)

Evidence shows that low-income youth of color are significantly underrepresented in postsecondary institutions and engineering-related fields. Many believe that these findings are connected, at least in part, to the emphasis on direct instruction that persists in many American urban high schools today. This project, based in an urban public high school, aims to support teachers as they move from direct instruction, which stresses content-based learning and rote memorization, to authentic learning, which focuses on project-based approaches and engineering literacies.  During the grant period, we will observe classroom practice, create teacher inquiry groups, and conduct semi-structured interviews with teachers and students to understand the effects of this pedagogical shift on classroom learning and student outcomes.  The project will demonstrate the instructional practices and pathways that are most likely to increase academic outcomes and college placement, which ultimately, will create a more diverse group of individuals with the skills, literacies, and competencies to pursue careers in engineering.   

This project seeks to validate that authentic learning is directly tied to college placement and success in engineering careers and seeks to explore the reactions among the students and teachers who are committed to moving their curricular and pedagogical approaches from direct instruction to authentic learning.  Through a mixed-methods approach that combines classroom observations, student/teacher interviews, textual analysis of student work, and analysis of student-level data, the study will examine the ways that teachers and students react to these instructional changes and how these shifts affect students’ academic outcomes and diversify the pathways to and through engineering by fundamentally restructuring the way that instruction is delivered. The research will have broad implications to understanding and replicating instructional practices and learning processes that best prepare urban youth of color for postsecondary success and engineering careers. It will leverage the Next Generation of Standards of Science and the Engineering Habits of Mind to explore the development of engineering literacies.  The findings from this study will generate a framework for understanding school reform and instructional change that takes into account teacher and students identities and perspectives and outline the most promising ways for urban public high schools to increase academic engagement, engineering competencies, and college persistence among youth of color. 

Youth Inequality, Mobility, and Opportunity in Red and Blue America

This project  is a mixed-methods book-length study of youth perspectives of inequality, mobility, and opportunity in Red and Blue America.  The work seeks to understand the perspectives that have contributed to the erosion of civic discourse and democratic deliberation in this country, especially over the most recent presidential election cycle. 

The study focuses on three sites in Pennsylvania that are crucial to national politics and that represent polar-opposite political viewpoints:

1. A mid-sized town of 20,000 residents located about 10 miles from the Mason Dixon Line.

2. A small rural town of 1,000 residents located in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. 

3. One of the state’s largest and most racially diverse city.

Current research suggests that the rise in inequality has fractured our democracy into two distinct segments: a conservative rural block and a progressive urban block. This narrative grossly oversimplifies these geopolitical divisions and ignores how the escalation of inequality and polarization of politics affects the educational opportunity, social mobility, and political dispositions of American youth.  By comparing and contrasting the factors that have contributed to inequality in Red and Blue America and the perspectives that youth and their families have about these factors, this project aims to shed light on the distinct ways that inequality affects the lives of urban and rural youth and the solutions that we can use to address these inequities in our schools and communities. 

Connecting the Dots to Increase Inquiry-Based Pedagogy and Learning: Museum Artifacts, Historical Sites, and Archival Documents (Teachers College, Provost Investment Fund, $20,000)

This project aims to increase inquiry-based pedagogy in humanities classrooms through a unique research-to-practice partnership between academic researchers, young teachers, and museum educators. In this project, pre-service, first-year, and experienced teachers will participate in professional learning community that helps them incorporate museum artifacts, historical sites, and archival documents to increase representation of marginalized groups in their curriculum and inquiry-based learning in their classrooms.

The project, which is being done in collaboration with the New-York Historical Society, aims to help teachers understand: 1. how to use museums and their holdings to develop historical inquiry, 2. how to use libraries and archives to find the answers to these inquiries, and 3. increase teacher confidence to implement inquiry-based pedagogy and learning.  In this approach, the historical society and historical sites are the catalysts to engage in inquiry-based learning and ultimately to develop an inquiry-based project worth pursuing.  The library and archives contain the materials to answer the questions that the teachers developed for their inquiry-based project.  We believe exposing teachers to this method has powerful resonance for their pedagogy and practice and will expand the perspectives and voices that their students are exposed to in their social studies classrooms.