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Environmental portrait of Aubrey Whitehead

Aubrey Whitehead left a State Department job to pursue a PhD in Education at Mason. His dissertation will look at why high school students avoid STEM programs and ways to reignite their interest.

Focus on Keeping the Curiosity Alive

When Aubrey Whitehead counsels his daughter, Khaliah, about schoolwork, he tells the high school senior to focus less on grades and more on inquiry. 

“I tell her, I’ll take a hard C over a soft A,” Whitehead says. “If you’re in school and learning, I’m ecstatic. Once you get to college, something will click.”

For Whitehead, that position is logical and empirical. The former Air Force officer is working toward a PhD in education at Mason with a specialization in educational psychology. His dissertation, expected in 2018, will explore factors that influence high school students to avoid STEM programs and how to reignite student interest.

“Research shows students want to learn about science,” Whitehead says. “What’s important is to get away from ‘smart person’ and ‘not smart.’ You’re going to get a grade. Just keep the curiosity.”

To pursue his PhD, Whitehead left his U.S. State Department job, where he was senior coordinator for resource management and planning in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

He says he chose Mason because of the quality of its faculty.

“I looked at a lot of schools,” says Whitehead, who has a master’s degree in human resources development from Webster University. “It just made sense.” 

“He’s passionate about learning how we can increase student self-regulation so they can succeed. I think in a couple of years he will make a difference in the field, especially for students.”

—Anastasia Kitsantas, director of the College of Education and Human Development’s PhD in Education Program

Whitehead says his research shows several factors can keep students in STEM programs, including motivation from teachers, parents, and administrators. Most important, though, grades should be celebrated less and students encouraged more.

“Once they hear they’re not good in it, we’ve lost them,” Whitehead says. “It starts in 9th, 10th grade. Focus less on grades and more on ‘Do you like this?’ ”

Whitehead, who was team leader in the Presidential Management Fellows program at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is making a difference now, and enhancing his PhD research, in Mason’s University Career Services Office. There he talks to students about the office’s programs, gives resume advice, and even asks why they might have avoided STEM.

“It’s amazing how many people fall out,” he says of STEM programs. “I think you can bring them back.”