Doctoral student centers research on the experiences of Oromo students

May 14, 2020

While growing up in Seattle, Asiya-Bontu Mohammed actively worked to uplift the local Oromo community — an ethnic group from Ethiopia.

As a volunteer at the Oromo Cultural Center in Seattle, she helped create enriching opportunities for Oromo youths, including field trips and STEM mentorships. She also helped organize community-building activities, like skating events, and family engagement events with Oromo professionals to help bridge the gap between family expectations and current experiences of Oromo youth from kindergarten through college. 

While pursuing her undergraduate degree in elementary education, Mohammed developed an interest in research-based interventions. That eventually brought her to the work of University of Washington Professor Emeritus Susan Nolen, whose research on motivation and identity drew her to continue her studies at the UW. 

Today, Mohammed is a doctoral student in the UW College of Education’s learning sciences and human development program. Her goal remains the same: to support her community, with a focus on helping its young people achieve their aspirations in STEM fields and the rest of their educational journey. 

Four years ago, Mohammed’s younger sister attended a coding course offered by a nonprofit serving predominantly East African youths in Seattle. Students in the course were taught basic code by engineers of color from the community, who told stories of their experiences in the field and created an engaging learning space for Mohammed’s sister and her high school peers. 

“[T]he experience that she had in that space was so different to what she describes in her regular day-to-day schooling,” Mohammed said. Having exposure to computer science and professionals in the field was a powerful moment in her sister’s life, and the desire to replicate similar experiences for young people in her community — and the larger school system — inspired Mohammed’s further exploration of design-based research in STEM education. 

“You hear a lot of stories or experiences where people attend a university as freshmen wanting to pursue a STEM degree — whether it’s engineering or anything in the sciences or math — and, somewhere in their experience at the university, they make a decision, and they don’t end up pursuing that degree,” Mohammed explained.

Her research, thus, seeks to understand how altering the educational environment — which includes the resources available to students and interactions between students and their teachers — can motivate learning and help students foster and sustain STEM identities.

Part of this research involves co-developing a coding course for high school students interested in STEM and seeking positive learning spaces. This effort is in collaboration with the community-based organization Team Oromia Seattle.

Another important facet of Mohammed’s research is creating opportunities for students to experience learning as a cultural experience.

In the course, instructors from the local community alternate between speaking English and Oromo. “In that process,” Mohammed said, instructors are “talking about their own cultural experiences as immigrants in the schooling system — and just talking about anything related to culture because the students could relate to that experience.”

Hearing the stories of instructors from their own community, Mohammed said, can strengthen young people’s resilience. It helps students recognize, “‘OK. It will get hard, but I can get through. I can get through this obstacle. Even if I fail this, I can still pursue the goal that I want to pursue.’”

The next steps of Mohammed’s research involve refining the coding course based on student feedback, which includes streamlining the registration process, as well as incorporating representations of more women in STEM. The storytelling aspects of the course, which were rated highly by students in a survey, will remain a foundation to motivate students throughout their STEM education. 

While she is striving to improve STEM education for high school students, exposure to diverse research in the UW’s learning sciences and human development program has empowered Mohammed to take up projects in different fields, such as early childhood education. 

For example, Mohammed is helping to advance early childhood education in Washington state as the regional lead on the Ratings team at Cultivate Learning. In this role, she helps collect data from early childhood education centers, early childhood education and assistance programs and family childcare programs, including Oromo-speaking childcare programs. This work supports Cultivate Learning’s mission to improve the quality of early childhood education in Washington state learning environments and expand educational opportunities. 

Mohammed is also drawing on her expertise in early childhood education to support Team Oromia Seattle on the development of future programs in the Oromo community supporting preschool- and school-age kids. 

In the field of learning sciences and human development, Mohammed said, “there is a lot of meaningful work, but I think I wanted my community — and communities who are similar to the Oromo community — [to have] research centered around their experiences.”

“And I think representation is important,” she added. “That’s a big drive. Just to have people see me in this position, I hope will inspire them or let them know that they can do this work also.”

Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications