MSU team wins national award for helping Flint teachers address lead poisoning

October 25, 2017
Four group members at graduation

(From left to right) Melody Strang, Sarah Van’t Hof, Amanda Unger and Camela Diaz.

As a school administrator in Genesee County, Melody Strang had started to feel the effects of the Flint water crisis—concern for students close to her district, anger, the urge to help.

She was standing in the hallway of Erickson Hall sometime in winter 2016 when she suggested to one of her classmates in the Doctor of Educational Leadership program, Camela Diaz, that they focus their final project on the situation.

Soon after, they went to a town hall meeting together in Flint where local educators and health professionals were discussing how to respond to widespread lead poisoning. How would it affect the kids, and what about their teachers?

“It was then we decided we have to do something,” said Diaz, a district-level administrator in the Lansing School District. They recruited two other students from the Ed.D. program at Michigan State University who could bring different forms of expertise: special education leader Amanda Unger and high school counselor Sarah Van’t Hof.

Through a challenging collaborative process, they went on to create a five-lesson curricular unit—including the script for an original cartoon—designed for and by educators on the front lines addressing children’s social and emotional issues in Flint. They hope to complete four more units, each with its own cartoon.

And their project has gained national attention. The MSU team members, who graduated in spring 2017, were selected to receive the Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award from the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED).

Susan Printy

“We are extremely proud of the work of this group,” said Susan Printy, associate professor emerita and co-advisor of the group. “It is a strong exemplar of the land-grant mission we embrace in the Ed.D. program.

“This Dissertation in Practice has the potential to make conditions better in schools throughout the Flint region and could be taken up as a strategy to help schools across the nation.”

“Like winning my Super Bowl”

The team was recognized at a convening of CPED in Oakland, Calif. CPED is a selective organization representing more than 100 schools of education that offer education doctorates across the U.S., Canada and New Zealand. In most programs, the Dissertation in Practice, or DiP, is the culminating work for students, who are typically full-time working practitioners.

At Michigan State, Ed.D. students in the Department of Educational Administration are required to work in groups on projects that have potential to solve problems facing schools and communities. High-quality research is a major component.

Other projects have helped Michigan schools work on questions such as how to empower teachers or bring together community groups, while others look at bigger-picture research topics such as differences in opportunities to learn and consensus on education policies.

“Being part of this program at MSU, you feel like you are part of something so much bigger than yourself,” said Unger, who oversees special education for the West Shore Intermediate School District in the Ludington area. “The idea that we completed something that’s not going to sit on the shelf and that directly affects student learning is really exciting.”

Not to mention, she says being picked as the best DiP in the nation “is like winning my Super Bowl.”

“A different kind of process”

The Michigan State team’s dissertation is the first CPED award winner to use design-based methodologies.

Madeline Mavrogordato

“This is a very different kind of process,” said co-advisor and Assistant Professor Madeline Mavrogordato, who with Printy introduced the group to design thinking. “You don’t go in and say, ‘This is what you should do.’ You have to be very open.”

Each member of the group conducted a literature review to gain background knowledge on different aspects of lead exposure in children and schools. They also studied how schools respond to crises in their communities. Then they recruited a diverse group of nine educators and other professionals supporting children, including teachers and administrators from a Flint charter elementary school, a therapist and parent advocates at the county and university levels. They listened. What were they seeing in their practice? What did they need?

Unfortunately, they found the educators’ knowledge about the effects of lead was limited at that point to just one half-hour training session with a nurse.

Over each of three meetings with the Flint participants, feedback was recorded, transcribed and coded to uncover their biggest concerns—and to inform possible solutions. They presented prototypes and re-tooled them together until final decisions could be made.

“It was really important that we embraced what design thinking is about, and that was that it’s iterative. It’s designed to be messy,” said Van’t Hof, who coordinates counselors at Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids. Another challenge for all was negotiating roles and setting egos aside. “As educators, we are collaborators. We don’t operate in isolation, so mimicking that in our research was really incredible.”

It became clear that the Flint educators could benefit most from materials focused on helping students self-regulate behaviors and emotions that could be caused by high levels of lead exposure. They developed fact sheets, lesson plans and associated materials, assessment tools and models for communicating with parents.

Bringing concepts to life

Along the way, Unger came up with the idea to create one cartoon to kickstart learning for each of the five lessons, and the Flint educators loved it. The group hopes to secure funding to move forward with the series.

Meanwhile, the first set of curricular materials are now in the hands of some Flint educators, and the group, along with Printy and Mavrogordato, hopes to pursue further research to improve and evaluate what they have created. This could include professional development for teachers.

“So many have wanted to help Flint in so many ways, but none of them seemed to look at what’s going to happen in the classroom. We wanted to help the teachers who are going to be held to the same expectations for academic achievement with these children,” said Diaz. “We just weren’t sure how to make that happen.”

In the process, all four of them say they feel transformed.

“The whole program really opened up our eyes to many things and made us better educators in the long run,” said Strang, who became superintendent of Genesee School District, a small district close to Flint in 2017. “It has made me a better advocate for students.”

This story was updated in February 2018.

How to help

If you are interested in supporting the project, contact Madeline Mavrogordato,, or Susan Printy,