Sarah Asson '19: Social Policy in Action

How can we close an achievement gap that is already present in lower-income children by age five? Which interventions can nurture brain development from birth? These questions and others, which Sarah Asson ’19 spent her fall semester poring over, are central to a twelve-week, brain-building course developed by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and Harris County’s Women, Infants and Children program. The course is designed to help pregnant women and new mothers learn skills to build their infants’ healthy brains.

Asson is hoping to provide insights that will advance this important effort — specifically, by evaluating “fidelity of implementation.”  By observing and compiling data around issues of presentation, competence, attendance and engagement, her study will determine if the brain-building course was presented and received as it was originally designed. The resulting observations will work hand-in-hand with an associated impact study to determine the program’s effectiveness.

Graduating this spring as a social policy analysis (SOPA) major with a minor in statistics, Asson jumped at the opportunity to conduct public policy research through her senior capstone requirement. The new major, first introduced in fall 2017, equips Rice students with the skills to become the next generation of world-class researchers and decision-makers through a combination of thoughtful instruction and immersive research.

Much of the policy work for the SOPA major occurs in concert with the recently launched Texas Policy Lab (TPL), through which the School of Social Sciences partners with state and local governments to deliver data-driven research that will support and inform policy decisions.

Flavio Cunha, professor of economics, is one of three faculty affiliates. “What is fascinating is how much Rice students value working on real-world projects with the lab,” Cunha says. “They are tremendously engaged and motivated to improve the world.”  

Asson credits her experience with TPL with directing her towards the field of education policy. “It’s eye-opening to attend meetings and gain perspective as a part of the team,” she says. “It’s life-changing to feel like you are a part of real-world work that makes a difference.”

To learn more about supporting experiential education in social sciences, contact Kiki Cooper, director of development, at or 713-348-4482.


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