Tettegah's Research Takes A Virtually New Direction

Sharon Tettegah went from teaching in school classrooms to using innovative methods for studying and improving the educational process.

Sharon Tettegah spent almost a decade in the very real world of a school classroom. Today, as a Beckman Institute faculty member, she spends much of her time in virtual worlds doing trailblazing research in the field of educational psychology.   

Tettegah is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Illinois and a member of Beckman’s Cognitive Neuroscience group. After working as a classroom teacher for nine years, Tettegah entered academia, earning a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of California with a research focus in the area of pre-service teacher education. While her research relies on scientific measures and advanced technology, Tettegah’s motivation comes from the heart.  

I taught in K-12 schools for nine years and I saw the things that were happening with children and I also saw the things that happened with teachers and their students. I think not enough is talked about in those areas and we have to make some changes in schools.
– Sharon Tettegah

“My research is about improving school environments,” she said. “What drives it is passion. I’m a former teacher. I taught in K-12 schools for nine years and I saw the things that were happening with children and I also saw the things that happened with teachers and their students.

“I think not enough is talked about in those areas and we have to make some changes in schools. Promoting teaching and learning is a passion that has been driving me now for 20 years.”

In order to fulfill her ultimate research goals, Tettegah said, it was necessary to come to the University of Illinois and eventually a faculty position at the Beckman Institute.

“I moved because my background was in educational psychology and it was a switch from classroom teaching and learning to math, science, and technology,” she said. “I got very involved with the technology aspect.”

Tettegah’s switch from doing traditional educational research to incorporating digital technologies as both research tools and for integration into the classroom experience has created a unique niche for her in the field of educational psychology. Throughout her journey the research has had an overarching theme: empathy.

“My interest is in how much empathy do teachers have, and do we have certain types of individuals who go into the profession who have high or low empathy,” Tettegah said. “That’s what I wanted to measure and if it’s low then we need to think about providing them with tools where they could be more empathic.”

Tettegah’s work involving empathy is unique for a couple of reasons. She said that while there have been studies involving social emotional intelligence and learning, no one has been measuring empathy in the classroom or using social simulations as a measuring tool.

Gaining insight into the empathic aspect of the teacher-student relationship and developing new methods like simulations for promoting better understanding of students by their teachers has been a constant of Tettegah’s work from graduate school to the present. It has led her to stake out her own place in the emerging field education and cognitive neuroscience.

Tettegah’s use of technology in her work is wide-ranging. Every spring she teaches an undergraduate course about virtual technologies – also using them in innovative educational research and training projects – and she is starting a project involving Beckman’s Integrated Systems Laboratory (ISL) and Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC) for subject experiments measuring empathy. She began using ISL’s CAVETM virtual reality system several years ago and has continued to expand her research with Beckman’s facilities after joining the Institute four years ago.

Tettegah has been working closely with ISL Director Hank Kaczmarksi on past and current projects using ISL’s virtual reality environments, the CAVE and the immersive, six-sided Cube. Both Kaczmarski and Tettegah say it is the first time any researcher has tried to measure the concept of empathy in this way. Tettegah said this type of innovative research could only be done at Beckman.

“Hank has been very instrumental every step of the way in everything I’ve done at Beckman,” Tettegah said. “(Beckman is) helping to push my research agenda. Ultimately the plan is to have a center for empathy training and we couldn’t do it without Beckman.” 

Tettegah said Kaczmarski told her to approach Beckman Associate Director Van Anderson about creating a center for studying empathy and empathy training at the Institute and that Anderson was supportive. A gift led to a pilot study aimed at gaining data for proposals to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for creating an empathy center. The initial experiments measuring empathy begin this spring using ISL’s immersive virtual reality environments and BIC’s headscanner magnet.

Tettegah’s work with virtual reality applications began several years ago. She started looking at using virtual worlds as an assistive technology tool, both for doing research and for training purposes. Every spring semester she teaches a course called Games, Simulations, and Virtual Reality in which she has used applications like the online user-generated virtual world Second Life to train non-computer science undergraduates in the ways of virtual technologies.

“We actually go in and visit the virtual worlds,” Tettegah said. “They develop content in the virtual worlds, write programs, things they can do without being a computer science student.”

As part of her work to improve the teacher-student relationship, Tettegah led a collaboration with Computer Science faculty member Brian Bailey that created a child-friendly computer program called Clover that gives students a unique way to express themselves. Fellow education researcher Carolyn Anderson and Tettegah collaborated to perform sophisticated statistical analyses of responses from pre-service teachers who also used the program.

The Clover program allows users to create an animated story – what Tettegah calls animated narrative vignette simulations – for sharing their experiences with others. Teachers who see the vignettes may use them to gain a better understanding of what the student is going through at home or in the school environment. Clover users can write their own dialogue, include graphics, add animation, and use their own voices in telling their story.

“You choose your own story, something that you feel like you want to tell,” Tettegah said. “My thing is giving someone a way to express themselves other than with just words, a graphical representation of part of their lives.

“If a kid is upset, if a kid is bullied, they can’t learn anything. That’s what that software is about because we all have stories to tell about our school experiences. Some are very positive but some are not and what happens in K-12 schools affects us for the rest of our lives.”

Local students were able to use Clover and Tettegah said the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“It went really well in the Urbana schools. The kids loved it,” she said.

Tettegah also collected more than 1,000 pre-service teachers’ personal experiences using Clover and other technology tools in order to, she said, “engage them in technology while at the same time tying it to something like an authentic experience.

“I like to think of it as a way to do a mental health practice too,” she added with a laugh.

With her use of advanced technology and collaborations with researchers from different disciplines, Tettegah is an example of how interdisciplinary research can provide new insights in a given field of study.

“For me, I have always been interested in interdisciplinary work because I don’t function very well with these narrow views of learning,” Tettegah said. “I don’t believe that we learn in a box. We learn widely. For me it’s really important to collaborate because everyone has a strength and you have to bring those strengths together.”