Magazine Feature / People

Columbine tragedy spurs new research tool

The Columbine High School shootings in 1999 left 15 dead, 24 injured and thousands more traumatized by the violence at the school.

Two years later, Carolyn Mears, the parent of a Columbine student in the school that day, enrolled in a doctoral program at DU’s Morgridge College of Education so she could research the tragedy’s aftermath.

Her goal was to “help others to understand what is needed for recovery from community-wide trauma” by investigating the experience from an insider’s perspective and revealing changes the tragedy brought into families’ day-to-day lives.

In completing her dissertation, “Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow,” Mears developed a model for qualitative research she calls the “gateway approach.”

Mears, who currently serves as a dissertation adviser and an adjunct faculty member at Morgridge, says she looked at numerous research methodologies before she determined that no standard methodology “seemed to quite satisfy [her] goals for the research and the particular concerns related to conducting research within a traumatized community.”

The gateway approach unfolded as a way to “safely capitalize on an inside perspective while avoiding bias that might skew the study.” The method provides a means for researchers to access the often hidden human responses and perceptions about an event or situation so that others can understand more fully.

According to Mears, the gateway approach offers step-by-step methods for oral historians, researchers, and educators for in-depth interviewing, analysis and editing so that the “essence” of the recalled experience preserves the narrator’s voice and expression.

Mears has written a book to help others use her approach. The text, Interviewing for Education and Social Science Research: The Gateway Approach, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2009 and is available through the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and others.

Bruce Uhrmacher, a Morgridge professor and a colleague of Mears, says the gateway method is “innovative, insightful and practical.” He notes the method is not only useful for novice and experienced researchers inquiring into tragic situations, but also is valuable for researching many other educational topics — both routine and sensitive.

Mears’ work was recognized by the American Educational Research Association as the Qualitative Dissertation of the Year in 2006.

She is at work on a second book, called Teaching in the Aftermath, which builds on her research and offers strategies that schools can employ to continue the process of teaching and learning even in communities that have faced large-scale trauma.

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