Peabody College hosts Turkish scholar Serkan Özel through Vanderbilt’s Global Scholars in Residence program

Vanderbilt campus

By Jenna Somers


Bethany Rittle-Johnson (Vanderbilt University)

Bethany Rittle-Johnson, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, recently hosted visiting scholar Serkan Özel through Vanderbilt’s Global Scholars in Residence program. Özel is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. He collaborates with academic, industry, and non-governmental organization partners to empower students, with a particular emphasis on leveraging innovative STEM education approaches to uplift those from disadvantaged communities. He also works with educators on implementing social justice classroom practices to support the educations of ethnically minoritized students in Turkey.

Serkan Özel

“Returning to Vanderbilt University as a Global Scholar was a deeply enriching experience, feeling like a homecoming two years after my sabbatical,” Özel said. “The visit was highlighted by engaging discussions and fruitful collaborations, especially with the invaluable support of Professor Bethany Rittle-Johnson. Her guidance has been crucial, not only for our professional projects but also for personal growth, fostering an environment of continuous learning. This trip reinforced the strength of our partnership and left me optimistic about the future of our collaborative projects and initiatives, further solidifying the foundation for ongoing mutual enrichment.”

Özel gave three lectures at Peabody about the impact of his work on students and educators throughout various regions of Turkey. Two of these lectures were hosted by the Learning Incubator: a Vanderbilt Endeavor (LIVE) Initiative and the Nashville Partnership for Educational Equity Research (PEER).

Özel shared the importance of reaching Turkey’s disadvantaged and marginalized students at an early age through STEM education to expand their career horizons in STEM fields. In particular, girls and students from low-income and rural areas often struggle to envision futures in STEM careers because they lack exposure to STEM fields and educational resources. Özel works with these students’ teachers to build their competency in STEM pedagogy and to strengthen education equity.

Özel highlights that in Turkey, communities such as the Kurdish and Romani face significant educational challenges, often as a result of systemic barriers and cultural biases. He points out that these communities have encountered obstacles in accessing equitable education, partly due to restrictions on the use of native languages, which affects students’ initial engagement with the education system. Recognizing the importance of inclusive education, Özel has contributed to enhancing educational access by offering professional development to teachers. He aims to equip educators with the skills to introduce STEM concepts to students in a manner that respects and incorporates their cultural backgrounds, thereby fostering a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

In addition to presenting lectures, Özel met with Rittle-Johnson and Xiu Cravens, associate dean for international students and affairs, to discuss potential student and faculty exchanges between Peabody and Boğaziçi University.

Rittle-Johnson, an expert in mathematical learning and cognition, also provided guidance to Özel on his multi-national study that uses eye-tracking technology to investigate how pre-K and kindergarten students understand and act on patterning tasks. The project seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of how young children engage with and develop patterning skills, which are critical for success in STEM fields. The eye-tracking technology will capture data on children’s eye movements and attention to patterns, lending insight into cognitive processes. The project could improve early math education by advancing understanding of how young children learn and develop critical math skills.

“The Global Scholars in Residence program at Vanderbilt is a great opportunity to bring scholars from around the world to our campus,” Rittle-Johnson said. “It provided an opportunity for Serkan to present to a wide variety of scholars at Vanderbilt as well as educators and leaders in Metro Nashville Public Schools and to build connections with students and other faculty at Vanderbilt. I’m excited to travel to Boğaziçi University in May to connect with scholars there, as part of a Visiting Scientist Fellowship from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.”