Goldman's mentoring helps high school senior win research award

In a field driven by hard facts and cold numbers, sometimes it’s a human touch that makes all the difference.

Susan Goldman, co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute and one of the country’s leading learning sciences scholars, knows this.

But this past school year, she was able to live it, as well.

With Goldman’s guidance, a high school senior with no research experience completed a sophisticated project and won a Distinguished Research Scholar award from her school for her exemplary work.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” said Erin Belk, 18, who graduated in May from Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy in Forest Park, Ill.

Goldman could not have been more proud of her budding scholar.

“A lot of the work I do does not have a direct impact on a student’s life,” she said.  But meaningful personal connections are important to a student’s success, Goldman said, so when she was offered the chance to work with Belk, she took it.

Belk performed, she said, “beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.”

Belk met Goldman through a mentoring program that Proviso offers its students. She needed to complete a final project to participate in that program.

But Belk didn’t know where to start. She wasn’t sure what to study. As an alto saxophone player, she cast about music topics, but none of her ideas seemed to gel.

Goldman, along with LSRI professor Josh Radinsky and other faculty, urged her to explore areas that were new to her, things she never dreamed she’d learn about.

In the end, Belk settled on a topic about her hometown. Her project, Demographic Shifts of African-Americans to the Maywood area, 1950 to 2010, was an ethnographic study of African-American residents who moved from Chicago to Maywood in search of higher incomes and safer neighborhoods.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Belk visited LSRI and the UIC campus to work on her project. Goldman and her team worked with Belk every step of the way, from showing her the foundations of qualitative research – such as what an ethnography, or the systematic study and recording of human culture, is – to teaching her to use mapping software to aid her analysis.

“Dr. Goldman didn’t let me glide by. She made me work,” Belk said.

But Goldman was also ready with inspiration and encouragement, and Belk said that with Goldman at her side, she knew she could not fail. She also was able to apply the lessons and work ethic she learned from Goldman to her studies in high school. That paid off, she said. After graduation, Belk plans to attend the University of Iowa to study international communications.

To show her gratitude, Belk visited LSRI after she graduated. She showed Goldman the ribbons and awards she earned from school, and gave Goldman a memento in thanks.

“She was amazing,” Belk said.

For Goldman, working with Belk was another way to make learning fun and accessible - one student at a time.