Symposium explores urban research

A group of first- and second-year doctoral students in Penn's Graduate School of Education thought if conferences worked for faculty, they might work for students, too. The students, seeing how faculty used conferences to refine their research, exchange findings and advance their careers, set up their own forum that brings students together to compare notes on their research.

The forum is the Spencer Foundation Student Research Symposium. This year's inaugural symposium, which was held at the Graduate School of Education April 9, focused on "Exploring the Boundaries of Urban Research."

Joe Cytrynbaum, a first-year Ph.D. student in GSE and one of the conference organizers, explained before the symposium that the organizers intended to provide an opportunity for dialogue across disciplines at the event.

"You have people who are doing qualitative ethnographic work together with people doing quantitative work. We'll have them together, talking on the same subject from different approaches," he said.

The conference was also aimed at stimulating thought among students just embarking on their research careers. "Since many of us are early in our careers, we thought the dialogue would be valuable," Cytrynbaum said.

While urban education dominated the subjects scheduled for the panels, other topics were covered as well, including substance abuse prevention, teen pregnancy and artistic expression in an ethnic community.

The symposium is funded by the same Spencer Foundation grant that provides research and training support for first- and second-year students in GSE; Cytrynbaum is himself a Spencer Fellow. The symposium is one of the ways of providing that support. "Part of the proposal sent to Spencer was that the fellows would put on a symposium. It would be of benefit not only to the students in GSE, but to the University as a whole," he said.

The participants slated to present papers at the symposium reflect the organizers' desire for breadth. In addition to four Penn schools - Arts and Sciences, GSE, Nursing and Social Work - presenters from LaSalle and Temple universities and Teachers College at Columbia University were also on the schedule.

In addition to the major themes Cytrynbaum listed as the conference focus - research ethics, how researcher identity affects research, the challenges of conducting research in different contexts, methods and how research can relate to social activism - another theme emerges in the papers slated for discussion: the value of university-school partnerships in advancing both academic research and education in the schools. Also among those included in the discussion were teachers and students from West Philadelphia High School participating in two Penn-affiliated community service projects, and Penn students in an undergraduate education course on teaching science to elementary- and middle-school students.

After hearing a keynote address by Jean Anyon, the chair of the education department at Rutgers-Newark and author of "Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform," conference attendees, some of whom came from as far away as Chicago and Virginia, were to participate in roundtable discussions at one each of five morning and five afternoon sessions.

Putting the conference together has proved to be a learning experience in itself for the organizers. "We were given a lot of latitude with this," Cytrynbaum said. "The only constraints were that it be student-oriented, and that students were to talk about their work."

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Originally published on April 15, 1999