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4 Grants Address Education, Human Service Needs, Bring $4.7 Million to CEHS

Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015

representatives from the USU college of education with poster information on NIH grant

Rare NIH grant awarded to fund research into physical rehabilitation.

participants working on USU's e-textile project

Participants in the e-textile project met for a workshop that introduced them to concepts that combine science with sewing. Photo courtesy of Colby Tofel-Grehl.

participants in the Aggies Elevated program

Young adults with disabilities face significant barriers to entering the adult world. Photo courtesy of Sue Reeves.

In the latest round of grants awarded to Utah State University Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, a combined $4.74 million in funding will support a program for students with intellectual disabilities in higher education, train teachers and rehabilitation counselors, sustain physical rehabilitation research and bring STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — skills to 10,000 children in the classrooms of three states.

Here’s a look at the four projects that were recently funded.

Rehabilitation Training

A Utah State University program has received $2 million to fund training for rehabilitation counselors in the critical — and often neglected — areas of transition services and customized employment for individuals with disabilities. The project provides funding for students to obtain specialized certificates in these areas of focus.

The grant from the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Education will train 240 people over a period of five years.

Youth who are enrolled in special education typically receive services from school districts through young adulthood. But when they “age out” of that system, they often face significant barriers to entering the adult world, finding employment and living as independently as possible.

Federal legislation has called for a stronger emphasis in transition from high school and customized employment. The Graduate Certificates in Transition Services and Customized Employment help rehabilitation counselors in the field to meet that mandate.

Nationwide, only a few rehabilitation training programs offer even one course on transition from high school to the adult world, said Jared Schultz, an associate professor and director of the Rehabilitation Counseling program in the department of Special Education and Rehabilitation.

“Most rehabilitation counselors get exposed to transition as a small part of a larger introductory course” Schultz said.

To his knowledge there are no graduate programs offering coursework on customized employment, which is still a very new and developing practice in the field.

Completion of the certification program requires 12 credit hours of classroom instruction, plus four credit hours of supervised practicum experience. But its ultimate goal is to give young adults with disabilities the things they need most: more jobs and more independence.

The certificate idea poses some intriguing potential for the field, Schultz said. It allows the program to train professionals more completely in specific areas of practice, and it is a more efficient use of funding.

“We are interested to examine the effectiveness of the certificate program, and possibly expand it to meet other areas of practice as well,” Schultz said.

Aggies Elevated

When Aggies Elevated began in fall of 2014, it was the first program of its kind in Utah, offering higher education to students with intellectual disabilities.

One year later, the program has received $1.1 million in support from the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education. The money allows the program to expand the number of Aggies Elevated (AE) students from 11 to 18, and it provides for support staff over a period of five years. It also establishes outreach to other universities. The grant proposes to make partnerships with other agencies in order to make campus-based programs for students with disabilities a part of the education system.

“The hope is that by stabilizing the program with the necessary support staff, an ongoing stream of donations or other sources of money can secure the future of the program,” said Bob Morgan, principal investigator of the postsecondary education grant. “At that point, we can start looking at student scholarships.”

Morgan is a professor in the Special Education and Rehabilitation Department.

In the year since AE began, three other Utah programs have begun offering higher education to students with intellectual disabilities and autism. The growth of the movement can be attributed to several things, Morgan said. It’s an extension of the inclusion movement that began in public schools. Families have begun to expect the same opportunities at the higher education level. And people with intellectual disabilities have wanted a way to continue their education past the public schools — a privilege their typical peers take for granted.

Along the way, administrators and staff have worked to bridge the skills gap between AE students and their peers. The differences are real, Morgan said.

“The challenges facing students with intellectual disabilities in a college environment are significant,” he said.

They have needed to work on math skills, writing skills and their knowledge of standard computer software.

That said, the learning gap isn’t insurmountable.

“It’s bridgeable,” Morgan said. “We know because we’ve done it.”

His hope for the future is to raise expectations in the schools, so that preparation for college is built into the system for students with disabilities.

Already, Morgan said the AE students have experienced tremendous growth.

“When they first got here, they looked at the floor and answered questions in two- or three-word phrases,” he said. “Now they’re doing public presentations and are part of the fabric of the college.”

The first AE students were busy over the summer, one as an Americorps/Vista volunteer, two as participants on humanitarian trips and one as a junior counselor at the National Ability Center in Park City. Two found jobs. One even climbed Mt. Kiliminjaro.

AE’s support staff members include Sarah Bodily, Aggies Elevated program director, Jeff Sheen, co-principal investigator, and Sue Reeves, rehabilitation counselor. For more information, visit the Aggies Elevated website and blog.

Science, technology, engineering, math and e-textiles

A $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help introduce students from three states to science, technology, engineering and math concepts through e-textiles.

The goal is to create a new avenue for people to start picturing themselves as scientists, said Colby Tofel-Grehl, an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership who leads the project.

“This is a really unique collaborative effort,” Tofel-Grehl said. “We have faculty from four departments across two colleges, and a university center. They’re all trying to integrate best practices across multiple fields.”

The two-year project will first focus on developing an integrated curriculum that incorporates e-textile projects: a temperature-sensing lunchbox and a force-sensing backpack. (These products will measure whether food in the lunchbox is too warm or the load in the backpack is too heavy.)

The two projects will do more than meld electronics and sewing, Tofel-Grehl said. It will emphasize concepts like anatomy, electron transfer, circuitry, heat transfer and physics forces.

Researchers will collect data in the classrooms where the curriculum is deployed.

Tofel-Grehl has already used e-textiles in the classroom, and she likes what she has seen.

“It’s a very cross-curricular STEM approach,” she said.

Girls and minority students who have worked with e-textiles have started to see themselves as people who could do science. Boys have been exposed to skills they thought were only for girls.

“It’s really lovely to see the shifts that happen for students,” she said.

A curriculum will be piloted by 50 teachers in January, then refined and deployed in summer of 2016. In the project’s second year it will be used in classrooms in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Researchers will study the effectiveness of the program in classrooms where it is used in comparison to classrooms that that do not adopt the curriculum. The study should affect 10,000 students in all — and classroom teachers will learn new concepts as well.

In the end, the researchers should have data that will inform policy and spending decisions at the school and district level.

The research team includes Tofel-Grehl; Vicki Allan of USU’s Computer Science Department,  Louis Nadelson and Max Longhurst of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership, Deborah Fields and Kristin Searle of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences and Sanghamitra Roy and Koushik Chakraborty of USU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. USU’s STE2M center is providing evaluation and assessment services to inform the researchers’ work.

Award allows researcher to focus on physical rehabilitation

From USU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies: Sydney Schaefer — assistant professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation — received the prestigious National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Mentored Research Scientist Development Award in late September for research in the physical rehabilitation of older adults.

In a separate interview, she said the award will also allow her to hire a student research assistant.

“It now allows me to compensate the undergraduate students that have volunteered in my lab,” she said. “They have been working out of the goodness of their hearts and their interest in research. Now there are funds to cover that.”

You can read the full story on the Office of Research and Graduate Studies website.

Related link:

USU Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services

Contact: Jared Schultz,

Contact: Robert Morgan,

Contact: Colby Tofel-Grehl,

Writer:  JoLynne Lyon,

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