Planting seeds to grant growth


Before Mays Imad was awarded a seed grant in September, she conducted a preliminary study that included a survey of college students.

“The survey was looking to see what makes a holistic education that tends to the mind and the heart,” said Imad, noting that the survey asked the students if they had one thing they wished their instructor would know, what would it be.

“‘I wish they knew how hard I was trying; I am struggling with depression; I wish my instructor knew my name; I wish they knew how much they were helping me.’ These alluded to, that for the student, it’s all about the relationship,” Imad said. “When they don’t do the assignment, it’s not that they’re lazy, but they have full-time jobs and illnesses that get in the way.”

Imad, a biology instructor at Pima Community College, used the data she collected to apply for the seed grant. The grant will be used this spring to conduct a study, “Teaching the Whole Student,” which is based on the idea that emotional well-being is a foundation for academic success.

Mays Imad by Michela Wilson

A group of 100 Pima students will be assessed at the beginning and end of the semester. In the middle of the semester, they receive training, or what Imad calls an intervention.

“The assessment will look at metacognition, stress, measured by cortisol levels, self-awareness and decision-making ability,” Imad said.

Metacognition means thinking about thinking, and it’s a term often used in the field of educational psychology.

“Our brain has the ability to think, and to step back and assess that thinking,” Imad explained. “When a student is taking an essay exam, a lot of time they’re on autopilot. Pausing, self-reflection, introspection, yields a sophisticated type of learning.”

The mid-semester intervention will try to foster that type of learning. It will consist of online modules, journaling exercises and individual mentoring. The online modules cover emotional awareness, the autonomic nervous system and metacognition.

Nathan Toy, a pre-law major at Pima, said he feels like he has a lot of his stress levels under control.

“I tend to listen to music. Spend some time with friends. For me, I don’t have to worry there’s a deadline coming on. Just focus on the work. Get an early start,” Toy said, but added that, as an honors officer, he hears people talk about stress all the time.

“The first and last month of school is always the most stressful,” Toy said. “I have people come up to me and ask how we do it. It’s like it’s doomsday. You hear a lot students constantly dealing with it.”

Christina Drennan, who’s majoring in public management and policy, said she’d be interested in the study, noting that it’s hard to motivate yourself to do the kind of practices the training provides.

“You can study as well as you can, but you have stress from the rest of your life that impacts how well you perform in school,” Drennan said.

Imad shares Drennan’s sentiment about how stress from outside the classroom can impair students’ ability to learn.

“It’s really tough,” she said. “When their body is in a state of fight or flight, there is a hard-wired resistance to learning. The guy sitting, studying at MIT can be metacognitive all he wants, because he can afford it. Our students are facing monumental challenges. Cognition is impaired by stress. Metacognition is impaired by stress.”

The seed grant was awarded by the University of Arizona Center for Insect Science. Imad became aware of the grant when she was mentoring David Kikuchi, a post-doctorate student from the center.

The first time the two applied, it was denied on the grounds that it needed someone with a background in psychology. So they applied again, this time with Robert Wilson and Leslie Langbert from UA as advisers.

“It so happens David works on attention and decision making in bees, and Robert works on attention and decision making in humans,” Imad said.

Wilson is director of the Neuroscience of Reinforcement Learning Lab, and Langbert is the executive director at the Center for Compassion Studies. Imad said she met with several people before finding Wilson and Langbert.

“I’m so happy to be working with people not just with the degree, but wisdom and compassion,” Imad said.

Bryan Kromenacker, her former teaching assistant, will be executing the study alongside the rest of the team. Kromenacker is a nurse currently in medical school who has an interest in this research.

Imad first received a grant from the Pima Foundation in December 2016 to collect the preliminary data. She used that data to apply for the seed grant, and her goal is to apply for an even bigger grant.

“Ideally what I would like to see is a first-year seminar, that teaches and coaches on finding the inner strength, resiliency, grit; how to recognize it and self-regulate it,” Imad said.

On Dec. 7, Imad will give a free talk covering how the study came into fruition, and where she plans on going in the future. The presentation is a part of the PCC Speakers’ Series. It will take place at 6 p.m. in the Community Board Room (Building C) of the PCC District Office, 4905 E. Broadway Blvd.

Pima students who are interested in participating in the study can contact Mays Imad at Participants will be paid $10 an hour.

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