IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Train Special Education Researchers: Part 2

This blog is part of a series that highlights the experiences of graduate students in special education research who receive funding through the Department of Education. In the initial blog, two doctoral students shared their experiences with training opportunities made possible through OSEP and NCSER funding. For this second blog, we interviewed two additional scholars and included varying OSEP training mechanisms funded under the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program, including the Preparation of Special Education, Early Intervention, and Related Services Leadership Personnel grant program (ALN 84.325D) and the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention funded under the Doctoral Training Consortia Associated With High-Intensity Needs grant program (ALN 84.325). We asked them to discuss their experiences as OSEP Scholars, their work on NCSER-funded research grants, and how both opportunities prepare them to conduct research in special education.

Nathan Speer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Headshot of Nathan Speer

I have had a great experience as an OSEP Scholar! From the beginning, I was excited about the opportunity to pursue a PhD in special education intervention design, an area I have always been interested in as a professional educator. The funding and support I receive is comprehensive and practical. The OSEP-funded Research Interventions in Special Education (RISE) project funds my tuition, pays a non-work stipend, provides support for expenses associated with completing my degree program (including books, supplies, travel for required meetings or conferences), and helps with research by providing technology, software, and dissertation support.

I have been working on the IES-funded WORDS (Workshop on Reading Development Strategies) for Pandemic Recovery in Nebraska project for approximately a year. The research focuses on investigating the efficacy of professional development intended to aid teachers in implementing a tier 2 reading intervention for students in kindergarten through third grade who are at risk for reading disabilities. For the project, my roles are primarily conducting data analysis and coding. These two experiences have worked well in tandem. I have been able to attend several conferences and trainings thanks to the RISE grant that have positively impacted my work on WORDS, and my work with WORDS has provided me with an opportunity to participate in serious research as a PhD student.

Both experiences are helping me work towards a leadership role in academia and research in special education! WORDS provides me with experience participating in impactful research and RISE provides countless opportunities to learn and grow as an educator and build a professional network both on campus and in my field of interest. In the future, I hope to work in academia, preferably as a professor of practice working with undergraduate and graduate educators in special education. More specifically, I would like to focus my research and instruction on behavior (for example, applied behavior analysis, functional analysis, and behavior intervention planning).

Blair Payne, University of Texas, Austin

Headshot of Blair Payne

The National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention-2 (NCLII-2) training grant prepares special education leaders to have expertise in supporting students with complex and comorbid learning disabilities and behavior disorders. As a cohort of scholars, we meet two to three times a year for small conferences, which are centered around topics such as preparing for the job market, supporting education policy, or conducting and disseminating research. NCLII-2 provides scholars with tuition to one of the universities in the consortium, travel funds, and funding for our dissertation or a small research project. During our meetings, we can meet faculty and students from other universities to create mentorship or collaboration opportunities. 

Over the past 4 years, I've had the privilege of working on three IES-funded research studies. The project on which I have worked the longest is Developing an Instructional Leader Adaptive Intervention Model (AIM) for Supporting Teachers as They Integrate Evidence-Based Adolescent Literacy Practices School-Wide (Project AIM). Project AIM is a partnership with Dr. Jade Wexler at University of Maryland and Dr. Elizabeth Swanson at University of Texas, Austin. As the Texas project coordinator, I have supported material creation, educator training, test administration, recruitment, data preparation, and dissemination. Since the grant is a development grant, it has been a remarkable experience to learn the boots-on-the-ground requirements of working in schools.

My work as an OSEP Scholar has provided me with the background knowledge that I need to conduct research. Through my work on IES grants, I can use this background knowledge to support project implementation. Both funding sources work together, hand-in-hand, and I am incredibly grateful that I have been able to learn so much from both experiences.

My future goal is to work at a research university as a faculty member. Through my IES work, I am getting direct experience on how to implement school-level research. I hope to one day support schools through this research, and when I do, I'll be able to lean on my experiences from various IES projects to support this endeavor. My experience as an OSEP Scholar supports this goal by building foundational knowledge of special education research, which is instrumental to take into a faculty position in which I may wear many hats for a department. The NCLII-2 grant has helped to ensure that the graduates of the training grant are prepared to enter the field of special education with up-to-date knowledge from the field. As future faculty, we will enter the field ready to prepare the next generation of teachers and providers and build their capacity to serve and support children with disabilities and their families.

While OSEP and NCSER are separate funding mechanisms, they can be leveraged to work synergistically by providing student scholars a comprehensive research experience that includes training in research methodologies and opportunities to apply this knowledge within current research projects. Thank you to Nathan and Blair for sharing their experiences as OSEP Scholars working with research supported by NCSER. NCSER looks forward to seeing the future impact you will have in your field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Shanna is also an OSEP Scholar through RISE.

Early Intervention and Beyond: How Experience with Young Children and Special Education Motivated a Career in Autism Research

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we would like to share an interview with Dr. Stephanie Shire about her Early Career Development and Mentoring project. Dr. Shire, associate professor of Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Oregon, focuses her current research on young children with autism and their families. In this interview, she discusses this project as well as her prior experiences in early intervention and special education and advice for other early career researchers.

Please tell us about your IES Early Career project.

Headshot of Dr. Stephanie Shire

My IES Early Career project is titled LIFT: Leveraging Autism Interventions for Families through Telehealth. The idea behind this project—exploring the technology-assisted delivery of an established evidence-based, in-person, one-on-one, caregiver-mediated social communication intervention—began even prior to the pandemic, before the field had to shift service delivery to online family-mediated services for young children with autism. The project focuses on helping caregivers use the existing intervention strategies to advance their children’s social communication and play skills. We’re not changing or testing the established intervention for the children, but rather the way in which we support caregivers in their learning.

The project is being conducted in partnership with early intervention and early childhood special education community practitioners and leaders. Our partners were fundamental in the development and revision of the online intervention program, which took an intervention manual of several hundred pages designed for clinicians and turned it into a series of brief online modules that families can read or listen to at their own pace. Our partners also shaped the implementation strategies that we are now testing in a pilot randomized trial. Families enrolled in the trial are being served by their local early intervention and early childhood special education practitioners in their home communities in Oregon.

How did you become interested in research on interventions to help young children with autism?

I was introduced to young children with autism as a high school student volunteering in a hospital playroom and as a special education classroom volunteer in my first year as an undergraduate student. In both cases, these preschool and school-age children had few or no words. I watched the practitioners try to connect and engage with the children with mixed success. I then spent the next several years as an undergraduate student working as an in-home intervention aide delivering services to young children with autism, many of whom had few or no words. I found myself failing to support the children’s progress, particularly with their communication skills. My desire to do more for these children prompted me to pursue additional resources and learn more about practices to better support them. This led me on a path to graduate school, first at the master’s level and then doctoral-level training, focused on intervention science to learn more about the development and testing of interventions to maximize communication development for young children with autism.

What do you find most rewarding about conducting research with young children with autism and their families?

Children and their families are at the heart of all my research team’s projects. Celebrating the moments when a child shows us a new idea in play, makes a joke, or points to something to share it with us lights up my entire lab! The greatest reward is seeing children shine and experience victories, big and small.

What are your next steps in this line of research?

We’re taking what we’re learning now, as well as the training that I’ve received in implementation science, to work on the next steps in this research project. We need to understand how to personalize implementation strategies for caregivers to help more families advance their children’s social communication skills through play and daily activities. Because this intervention has an adaptive component, we are now looking at combining sequences of supports for caregivers based on their individual progress halfway through implementing the intervention.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Persist. In special education and early intervention, we are still acutely feeling the effects of the pandemic on a system that was already experiencing many challenges. There will be bumps along the way, but children show us every day that they can keep accomplishing small victories even in the face of obstacles. Let’s follow their lead and do the work in partnership with their caregivers and educators to keep building toward big victories for all children and their families. 

Thank you, Dr. Stephanie Shire, for sharing your early career research experience!

This blog was produced by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. KatieTaylor, NCSER program officer, manages grants funded under The Early Career Development and Mentoring Program Program.

 

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Train Special Education Researchers

Through different programs within the Department of Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorizes funding that can provide doctoral students with valuable training in special education research. These different funding mechanisms work independently or, in some cases, can be leveraged to work synergistically. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides support for doctoral-level students through grant programs that are part of the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program to help prepare future faculty, researchers, and administrators for leadership positions. Through this program, OSEP awards funds to institutions of higher education to provide doctoral students (OSEP Scholars) with advising, mentorship, and research experience. In exchange for service to the field following graduation, scholarships may cover such student expenses as tuition and fees, health insurance, books, supplies, and research-related expenses.

IES grants allow faculty to hire doctoral students on their NCSER-funded research projects, providing another potential avenue for these students to obtain research experience. Sometimes OSEP Scholars receive their research experience and mentorship through work on NCSER-funded research projects, as either their primary research focus or an additional research training opportunity. When this occurs, the benefits of both funding sources can provide students with opportunities to apply their training and knowledge in true research settings under the guidance of seasoned researchers.

In a new blog series, we will interview doctoral students who participate in both kinds of federally funded opportunities to better understand the unique contributions of each and how the two funding sources complement one another. We asked each doctoral student to tell us about their experience as an OSEP Scholar, their work on IES-funded grants, the synergy between their OSEP supports and NCSER grant work, and how they believe these experiences will help them achieve their career goals.

Matt Klein, Texas A&M University

Headshot of Matt Klein

I am in my third year as an OSEP Scholar, supported through the Research Interventions in Special Education (RISE) Scholars Network—a partnership among Texas A&M University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to train future faculty in special education. This program has provided me with access to numerous learning experiences, including the opportunity to collaborate with high-caliber doctoral students, work with leading researchers at multiple institutions, and take research method courses that would otherwise not be available to me. The funding and tuition coverage that I receive as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to focus on my studies and research without worrying about needing to take outside employment that may be unrelated to my training in education research.

I also work on an IES-funded meta-analysis project that looks at augmentative and alternative communication interventions for children with autism and/or intellectual disabilities. I love this project because I had worked as a teacher for children with autism. Currently, I code the data from the articles that are included in the analysis. This process has certainly been a learning experience, but it is so much fun because I read about interesting research that serves as inspiration for my own future work.

My work on the IES project and my experience as an OSEP Scholar inform one another. I began my doctoral program as a research assistant on the IES-funded project, and in my second year I became an OSEP Scholar. During my first year, I gained valuable research experience while working on the meta-analysis. This experience was crucial in my second year when, as an OSEP Scholar, I took a class on systematic review with intervention studies. My training as an OSEP Scholar has, in turn, given me the tools to lead a sub-project on the IES-funded meta-analysis.

Although I am still considering my future career goals, ideally, I would like to conduct research on interventions that can be used to support advocacy for play-based learning opportunities for children with disabilities. The research experience I receive as an OSEP Scholar and through IES-funded research will help build my knowledge base. The ongoing collaboration with other OSEP Scholars provides a natural forum for me to develop and refine research ideas as well as build a professional network for future collaborations even before I graduate.

Taydi Ray, Vanderbilt University

Headshot of Taydi Ray

I’m a first-year doctoral student, supported by an OSEP-funded training grant—Preparing Leaders to Unify Social, Behavioral, and Communication Interventions for Toddlers (Project PLUS-BC)—a cross-site collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the University of Washington to prepare scholars for leadership roles in early childhood special education with a focus on toddler language and social-emotional development. My short time as an OSEP Scholar has allowed me to visit our partner site, attend national conferences, and participate in a cross-site prenatal-to-three seminar. The training grant has also covered school-related expenses, such as tuition and a stipend I used to purchase a new computer. The project provides mentorship, training, and research opportunities with faculty from both universities. 

EMT en Español, an IES grant, introduced me to academia before I became an OSEP Scholar. This efficacy trial strives to improve language and school readiness skills for Spanish-speaking toddlers. I joined the research team in May 2022, primarily serving as an interventionist to deliver a naturalistic language intervention, Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT), and train caregivers to use the strategies, too. This project was an excellent introduction to special education research.

Although I continue to work on this project, as a current OSEP Scholar, my primary research efforts and training occur through another IES-funded project—Toddler Talk. Toddler Talk aims to improve language development in toddlers at high risk for persistent developmental language disorders and poor social and academic outcomes. I currently serve as a data collector for this project, which entails learning, administering, and scoring classroom-based assessments with teachers and toddlers. I have enjoyed this unique opportunity to engage in classroom research.

Before pursuing a doctoral degree, I worked as a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP) in schools. I would love to combine my background in speech pathology with my budding knowledge of special education research by serving as a faculty member in a communication disorders program. Ultimately, I hope to prepare future SLPs to confidently work with culturally and linguistically diverse children with disabilities and their families. I believe that my work on Project PLUS-BC, Toddler Talk, and EMT en Español will prepare me to be a well-rounded leader in special education.

Both OSEP and NCSER provide student scholars access to a variety of experiences that include training in research methodology and opportunities to apply this knowledge and build skills within current research projects. These opportunities can comprehensively prepare doctoral students to be future leaders who will contribute to meaningful research and teach the next generation of teachers, interventionists, and providers to use evidence-based practices to serve and support children with disabilities in their communities. Thank you to Matt and Taydi for sharing their experiences as OSEP Scholars working with research supported by NCSER. NCSER looks forward to seeing the future impact you will have in your field!

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at NCSER and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. Shanna is also an OSEP Scholar through RISE. Sarah Allen manages OSEP’s Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results Program.

Research and Development Partnerships Using AI to Support Students with Disabilities

A speach therapist uses a laptop to work with a student

It is undeniable that artificial intelligence (AI) is, sooner rather than later, going to impact the work of teaching and learning in special education. Given formal adoption of AI technologies by schools and districts and informal uses of ChatGPT and similar platforms by educators and students, the field of special education research needs to take seriously how advancements in AI can complement and potentially improve our work. But there are also ways that these advancements can go astray. With these technologies advancing so quickly, and with AI models being trained on populations that may not include individuals with disabilities, there is a real risk that AI will fail to improve—or worse, harm—learning experiences for students with disabilities. Therefore, there is a pressing need to ensure that voices from within the special education community are included in the development of these new technologies.

At NCSER, we are committed to investing in research on AI technologies in a way that privileges the expertise of the special education community, including researchers, educators, and students with disabilities and their families. Below, we highlight two NCSER-funded projects that demonstrate this commitment.

Using AI to support speech-language pathologists

In 2023, NCSER partnered with the National Science foundation to fund AI4ExceptionalEd, a new AI Institute that focuses on transforming education for children with speech and language disorders. Currently, there is a drastic shortage of speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to identify and instruct students with speech and language needs. AI4ExceptionalEd brings together researchers from multiple disciplines including special education, communication disorders, learning sciences, linguistics, computer science, and AI from nine different universities across the United States to tackle pressing educational issues around the identification of students and the creation of specially designed, individualized instruction for students with speech and language disorders.

By bringing together AI researchers and education researchers, this interdisciplinary research partnership is setting the foundation for cutting-edge AI technologies to be created that solve real-world problems in our schools. A recent example of this is in the creation of flash cards for targeted intervention. It is common practice for an SLP to use flash cards that depict a noun or a verb in their interventions, but finding or creating the exact set of flash cards to target a specific learning objective for each child is very time consuming. Here is where AI comes into play. The Institute’s team of researchers is leveraging the power of AI to help SLPs identify optimal sets of flash cards to target the learning objectives of each learner while also creating the flash cards in real time. To do this effectively, the AI researchers are working hand-in-hand with speech and language researchers and SLPs in the iterative development process, ensuring that the final product is aligned with sound educational practices. This one AI solution can help SLPs optimize their practice and reduce time wasted in creating materials.

Adapting a popular math curriculum to support students with reading disabilities

Another example of how partnerships can strengthen cutting-edge research using AI to improve outcomes for students with disabilities is a 2021 grant to CAST to partner with Carnegie Learning to improve their widely used digital math curriculum, MATHia. The goal of this project is to develop and evaluate reading supports that can be embedded into the adaptive program to improve the math performance, particularly with word problems, of students with reading disabilities. CAST is known for its research and development in the area of universal design for learning (UDL) and technology supports for students with disabilities. Carnegie Learning is well known for their suite of curriculum products that apply cognitive science to instruction and learning. The researchers in this partnership also rely on a diverse team of special education researchers who have expertise in math and reading disabilities and an educator advisory council of teachers, special educators, and math/reading specialists.

It has taken this kind of partnership—and the inclusion of relevant stakeholders and experts—to conduct complex research applying generative AI (ChatGPT) and humans to revise word problems within MATHia to decrease reading challenges and support students in understanding the semantic and conceptual structure of a word problem. Rapid randomized control trials are being used to test these revised versions with over 116,000 students participating in the study. In 2022-2023 the research team demonstrated that humans can successfully revise word problems in ways that lead to improvements in student performance, including students with disabilities. The challenge is in trying to train generative AI to reproduce the kinds of revisions humans make. While generative AI has so far been unevenly successful in making revisions that similarly lead to improvements in student outcomes, the researchers are not ruling out the use of generative AI in revising word problems in MATHia.

The research team is now working with their expert consultants on a systematic reading and problem-solving approach as an alternative to revising word problems. Instead of text simplification, they will be testing the effect of adding instructional support within MATHia for some word problems.

The promise of AI

AI technologies may provide an opportunity to optimize education for all learners. With educators spending large amounts of their day planning and doing paperwork, AI technologies can be leveraged to drastically decrease the amount of time teachers need to spend on this administrative work, allowing more time for them to do what only they can—teach children. Developers and data scientists are invariably going to continue developing AI technologies, many with a specific focus on solutions to support students with disabilities. We would like to encourage special education researchers to exert their expertise in this development work, to partner with developers and interdisciplinary teams to apply AI to create innovative and novel solutions to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. For AI to lead to lasting advances in education spaces, it will be imperative that this development is inclusive of the special education field.

This blog was written by NCSER Commissioner, Nate Jones (Nathan.Jones@ed.gov) and NCSER program officers Britta Bresina (Britta.Bresina@ed.gov) and Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov).

ED/IES SBIR Special Education Technology is Showcased at the White House Demo Day

On Tuesday, November 7, 2023, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a Demo Day of American Possibilities at the Showroom in Washington, DC.  The event featured 45 emerging technologies created by innovators through federal research and development programs across areas such as health, national security, AI, robotics, climate, microelectronics, and education. President Biden attended the event and met with several developers to learn about and see demonstrations of the innovations.

An IES-supported project by a Michigan-based Alchemie, the KASI Learning System (KASI), was invited to represent the U.S. Department of Education and its Small Business Innovation Research program, which IES administers.

KASI is an inclusive assistive technology that employs computer vision and multi-sensory augmented reality to support blind and low vision learners in using hand-held physical manipulatives to practice chemistry. A machine learning engine in KASI generates audio feedback and prompts to personalize the experience as learners progress. At the event, the project’s principal investigator and former high school chemistry educator, Julia Winter, demonstrated KASI to leaders in government and to attendees from the assistive technology field.

ED/IES SBIR supported the initial development for KASI through three awards. Based on these awards, Alchemie received funding from angel investors in Michigan, won a commercialization grant from the Michigan Emerging Technology Fund, and is establishing partnerships with publishers in K-12 and higher education. To extend KASI to more topics, Alchemie has won additional SBIR awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and is currently a finalist in the 2024 Vital Prize Challenge competition. KASI has also recently been highlighted in Forbes and Crain’s Detroit Business.

 

 

Stay tuned for updates on KASI and other education technology projects through the ED/IES SBIR program on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


About ED/IES SBIR: The Department of Education’s (ED) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds entrepreneurial developers to create the next generation of technology products for learners, educators, and administrators. The program, known as ED/IES SBIR, emphasizes an iterative design and development process and pilot research to test the feasibility, usability, and promise of new products to improve outcomes. The program also focuses on planning for commercialization so that the products can reach schools and end-users and be sustained over time. Millions of students in thousands of schools around the country use technologies developed through ED/IES SBIR.

Edward Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) is the Program Manager of the ED/IES SBIR program.

Laurie Hobbs (Laurie.Hobbs@ed.gov) is the Program Analyst of the ED/IES SBIR program.