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Atwell tackles her own Honors Research

Dean of Student Research Catherine Atwell is using her public policy class to conduct research on instilling confidence in girls when discussing politics in the classroom. She is working on behalf of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and the Global Action Research Collaborative. Atwell taught the Public Policy in 21st Century America course during the fall semester and is now analyzing the data she gathered from the class for her report which will be published through GARC. In June, she will present at the NCGS conference with other researchers who participated in this project. Atwell emphasized that collaboration and political discourse were at the center of her research. 

“The idea was to see whether adopting a collaborative problem solving approach to public policy issues would promote students’ feelings of confidence and competence in discussing politically sensitive issues in the classroom,” Atwell said. 

The course explored the fundamentals of civics and macroeconomics. Atwell began with basics on how the US government functions and how economic policy is made. The class then focused more specifically on two case studies, immigration and healthcare. One student said that she felt like the class helped her not only gain a better understanding of government, but also how to connect with other students over politics. 

“I feel like I gained an understanding of US government and politics as well as policy in smaller institutions (such as schools),” the anonymous student said. “I also gained a connection with my classmates about how we see policy, as well as helping me to strengthen my beliefs about particular issues by getting a really good background on them.”

Atwell had her students write reflection papers at the end of each unit and encouraged them to participate in surveys and focus group interviews. She is using these as data points for her report; however, because the course was self-selected and Marlborough has a very specific demographic, students’ experiences discussing politics in the classroom may be different than they would be at a typical school. For example, Marlborough’s student body is predominantly left leaning, so students may have experienced less disagreement in the classroom than they would have in more ideologically diverse schools. Atwell says that although her research might not make the biggest discoveries, it will reveal small patterns and methods for teaching students political literacy. 

“Sometimes the findings are subtle, sometimes they are unexpected and sometimes they prompt you to refashion your question a little bit differently, and I think that’s probably where this is going,” Atwell said. “Largely because of the particular student population who were the focus of the study: It was a self selected group of students who chose to take the course, and there was overall less ideological diversity than there might have been, and that certainly is going to affect the results.”

She hopes to create a framework that can help Marlborough, as well as other schools, achieve these goals. Atwell said that she hopes she can emphasize the importance of listening to others when it comes to politics. 

“Being able to both advocate for your own position and be intellectually flexible and open minded enough to really listen to somebody with a different opinion and figure out how to work productively with them are skills that will serve every Marlborough student in the future,” Atwell said.