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USF associate professor launches interdisciplinary research center in partnership with Caribbean university

Mutual Life Assurance Society building in Bridgetown, Barbados

In collaboration with the University of West Indies Cave Hill, College of Education associate professor Patriann Smith recently launched an interdisciplinary research center housed in the Mutual Life Assurance Society building in Bridgetown, Barbados. | Photo: Getty Images

At just 19-years-old, Patriann Smith began her teaching career in St. Lucia with little knowledge of the impact she was having on her students and the community.

Today, nearly 25 years later, she’s focused on ensuring that educators in the Eastern Caribbean avoid the same mistakes she made early in her teaching career.

“When I worked in the Caribbean as a teacher, I was oblivious to how curriculum emphasized the perspectives of certain individuals or certain groups over others,” Smith, PhD, an associate professor of literacy studies at the University of South Florida (USF), said. “I was completely unaware of how students’ backgrounds needed to be foregrounded in the curriculum. All of this came out of my thinking that whiteness was the appropriate standard for students, even though I didn’t know it at the time.”

Patriann Smith

Patriann Smith, PhD

Smith’s research has found that teachers in Barbados and neighboring island countries are often unaware of the Eurocentric standards that they have for students in their classrooms, an issue that illustrates the need for research-informed practices, she says.

Smith’s efforts to help her home community have led to a local impact. She was recently awarded a three-year, $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with the University of West Indies Cave Hill to launch an interdisciplinary research center in Barbados—a center that will use evidence-based research to address the challenges faced by educators in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

“I see this work as sort of a redemptive pathway, going back to my peers in the Caribbean to say, ‘here’s what I did as a teacher 25 years ago, and here’s what I know now,’” Smith said. “In humility, just sharing with my people that we are damaging students when we don’t rethink the way we focus on research, when we don’t rethink the way we talk about curriculum or our teaching practice in the classroom.”

The Center, RISE Caribbean, which opened its doors on Sept. 15, was established to support educational decision making and policy development and to create an online repository for educational research conducted across the region.

By including the work of doctoral students, experts and educational scholars in Barbados and the eastern Caribbean in the database, existing research will become accessible to educators, stakeholders and other constituents who are interested in learning about the region’s educational system and what sets it apart from others.

This, Smith says, will set the stage for a research-driven culture and help tackle common challenges in eastern Caribbean schools, such as low testing performance and high school drop-out rates.

“We do have a situation where, in spite of all the data we tend to collect about students and what they do in classrooms, teachers are often unable to use this data in a way where it is consolidated to then inform practice,” Smith said. “So, we see the research center providing an opportunity to harness this data, to inform what teachers are doing in the classrooms and to also, partner with teachers who wish to examine their practice.”

Patriann Smith with brother in Caribbean

Dr. Smith and her younger brother, David Smith during a family visit to Soufriere, St. Lucia.

Just as USF partnered with the University of West Indies Cave Hill for this initiative, Smith says the Center aims to position itself as a collaborative organization that other higher education institutions could seek out for research projects.

USF’s involvement in this international partnership provides necessary funding for research efforts, but also opportunities for mutual learning and knowledge sharing, said Kiki Caruson, PhD, Interim Vice President of USF World.

“We’re looking forward to what we can learn from our colleagues at the University of West Indies Cave Hill campus and from those who are a part of a broader effort across the Caribbean,” Caruson said. “It goes without saying that today’s greatest challenges cannot be solved by one institution or one country alone. These initiatives broaden our perspective. They’re essential to what we do as a global research university.”

The RISE Caribbean initiative is supported by a $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The grant is in partnership with the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados to establish an interdisciplinary educational research center to help support decision making and policy development for educational innovation and expansion in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

Learn more about RISE Caribbean on the US Embassy’s website.

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.