Ph.D. Candidate Profile: Sarah Lilly

By Laura Hoxworth

Ph.D. candidate and Dean's Fellow Sarah Lilly shares how an interest in interdisciplinary, project-based teaching methods led her to pursue a doctorate at the Curry School.

Sarah Lilly always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

The difficult part? Deciding what to teach. As an undergraduate student in a 5-year teaching program, Sarah couldn’t choose between math and English – so she majored in both. “I think it improved my math when I could take a pause and go do something that required a different type of creativity, like write an essay – and vice-versa,” she said.

After graduation, when Sarah began working as a math teacher at Albemarle High School, she wanted all of her students to realize that learning doesn’t have to be confined within content areas. So she joined forces with three other teachers – science, history, and English – to start an interdisciplinary program for at-risk students. With 60 students and three hours a day, Sarah and her co-teachers designed a project-based, interdisciplinary program organized around central themes.

In one unit on exploration, for example, students learned about the history of famous explorers, discussed literary themes in the novel “Ship Breaker,” and used trigonometry to build and operate historical navigation tools like astrolabes and backstaffs. Every unit incorporated hands-on work and technology.  

The program seemed like a huge success, and Sarah said it was gratifying to see students who were previously disengaged discover joy and purpose in learning. But the more attention it gained, and the more she spoke with other educators about the program, the more she felt like something was missing. “I could see that the kids were trying harder, and they were happier, and some were passing SOLs that never had before,” she said. “But I didn’t have any research basis for it, and I didn’t have the skills to find that out.”

So she decided to change that. Now, Sarah is in her first year of the Curry School’s Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction program.

When she started looking into programs, Sarah was impressed by Associate Professor Jennifer Chiu’s work with STEM and project-based learning, so she reached out and was encouraged by Chiu’s enthusiasm and support. Chiu invited her to meet with some Ph.D. students and sit in on a class to get a peek into the program and ongoing research projects.

From the very start, Sarah said Chiu, now her advisor, encouraged her to jump in and take on leadership roles within the Curry School’s own design lab and maker’s space. “She said, ‘I have a couple of undergrad students who are interested in redesigning it and working on it, if you want to take charge of it,’” Sarah said. “That’s what I love about working with Jenny – she’s like, go for it!”

Sarah describes the program as rigorous and research-focused, but with a strong build-in sense of community and support. She’s currently working with undergraduate students in the design lab to update technology, redesign the space, and consider new ways of using it to help pre-service teachers learn valuable skills. She also values weekly get-togethers with fellow STEM Ph.D. and Ed.D. students, where they meet in the design lab to talk about their research, review one another’s papers and share resources.

Leaving the classroom to pursue a doctorate degree wasn’t easy. But Sarah hopes to become a professor one day, where she’ll keep teaching through research-based, engaging methods – so she can put effective tools into the hands of as many students and teachers as possible. “Right now, I miss the classroom a lot – I think that’s a natural feeling to go through,” she said. “But having this opportunity to see how research is done, and find out that a lot of the techniques I was using are effective – having that proof and now working to give it to others, it’s so exciting. It feels like a really natural next step.”