ESS Capstone Research Confronts K-12 Classroom Issues

March 30, 2015William Schmitt

How can Catholic schools retain more of their recently enrolled Latino student populations? Are statewide voucher programs changing the public schools from which students depart? What are students most likely to remember from a teacher’s presentation?

These were some of the research questions to which Notre Dame seniors discussed answers when the Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS) academic minor program hosted its annual Senior Presentation Night in Remick Commons March 25.


ESS faculty members, administrators, and underclassmen joined the 23 seniors around tables for conversations about the findings from these students’ independent research—their capstone projects in the popular minor affiliated with the Institute for Educational Initiatives.

“I was so proud of all our students for the work they put into their projects,” said Nicole McNeil,  ACE Associate Professor of Psychology and director of the ESS program, as she addressed the group after two hours of the rigorous but relaxed discussions, accompanied by pizza.

McNeil thanked her colleagues on the leadership team—Africana Studies assistant professor and senior ESS associate director Maria McKenna, along with ESS associate director Ann Primus Berends. Members of the program’s interdisciplinary faculty who were present to inquire into the students’ work also included technology specialist Pamela Burish, political science scholar David Campbell, Notre Dame Center for STEM Education Director Matt Kloser, and psychology associate professor Julianne Turner.

Turner is one of the founders of the ESS program. She designed the capstone experience and has been an instructor in the capstone seminars for more than a decade. Capstone seminars are one of the ESS venues for independent research; students can also elect to do an ESS-specific thesis or an education-related thesis in their academic major.

The seniors presenting their theses or capstone seminar findings included Grace Carroll, whose findings from parent and student surveys yielded steps that Catholic schools might take to ensure that the Latino students enrolling in many schools in growing numbers will stay in Catholic education.

“You have to recruit with retention in mind,” she said, suggesting that Catholic high school principals make themselves accessible to Latino families, with outreach starting while the students are still in grade school.

Anthony Barrett, an ESS student who also heads Notre Dame’s memory club, did research that entailed several hours of local classroom observation where teachers led discussions of two types—those focused on discrete historical facts and those focused on explanations and contexts for historical developments.

“I tested students one month later, and they remembered the ‘why’ insights from those discussions better than the facts like names or dates,” Barrett said to the audiences around the tables. “Their memory was better about cause and effect and the order in which historical events happened.”


The interdisciplinary minor in Education, Schooling, and Society uses a liberal arts perspective to reflect on, understand, and influence education locally, nationally, and internationally. Some ESS graduates go on to be teachers, while others pursue a variety of programs leading to education-related careers.