Mason PhD students intern with CAST, a leading educational design nonprofit

Reagan Mergen. Photo provided

For the first time, George Mason University doctoral students are spending the summer helping CAST, an organization focused on educational design, with their research projects. The students, all working on PhDs in special education, are grant-funded scholars with Mason’s College of Education and Human Development’s Project ASPIRE.

Roba Hrisseh, Reagan Murnan and Reagan Mergen, three of the six Project ASPIRE (Advancing Special education Pedagogy, Innovation, and Research toward Effective interventions) scholars, have been working remotely this summer on projects involving CAST’s research. CAST is nationally recognized for pioneering universal design for learning, a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people, based on scientific insights into how humans learn.

“CAST is nationally known for its work to make learning inclusive and that is a passion of mine,” said Mergen. “I jumped on the chance to work with this incredible organization.”

During her internship, Mergen has been working with a team that is developing support materials for elementary school instructional coaches.

Roba Hrisseh. Photo provided

“The internship with CAST is an essential component of my doctoral program because it provides me with relevant experience in research outside the walls of academia and in a real-world context,” said Hrisseh.

Mason’s Project ASPIRE prepares scholars for higher education faculty positions to advance special education pedagogy, innovation and research toward effective interventions. There are six full-time Project ASPIRE scholars who receive full tuition, fellowships, conference travel and research funding.

Peggy King-Sears, co-principal investigator for Project ASPIRE, said that the partnership with CAST provides the scholars with the chance to get more hands-on experience with extensive research projects.

“Scholars interning with CAST have unique opportunities to work with nationally known researchers and leaders in the field of universal design for learning,” said King-Sears.

Anya Evmenova, co-principal investigator, said that the technology CAST uses is the best in the field, “designed to promote motivation and learning for students with diverse learning needs.”

Reagan Murnan. Photo provided

CAST staff said they are excited to have the Project ASPIRE scholars working with their research teams.

“Each scholar has become an active, participating and important member of their project teams,” said Tracey E. Hall, senior research scientist and instructional designer at CAST who is supervising the scholars. “We greatly appreciate and enjoy having this opportunity to work with the scholars and look forward to future scholars joining the CAST team in the future.”

Murnan said her internship with CAST, which ends in late August, has been eye-opening. Murnan has been helping a team review the effectiveness of Writer’s Workbench, a software tool aimed at assisting teachers with their writing instructional practices.

“It’s a great opportunity to see what happens behind the scenes with important research,” said Murnan.