Researchers to Improve Student Learning With Millions in Grants

UA College of Education faculty members, involved with partnership projects involving on- and off-campus partners, are working to improve student learning and teacher training with grants amounting to more than $2.3 million.
Aug. 10, 2016
The AnimalWatch iPad app, with its accessible graphics, is designed to improve students' algebra readiness. The app teaches students with visual impairments about the environmental issues different animal species face through the use of actual science data and information. (Photo: L. Penny Rosenblum/UA College of Education)
The AnimalWatch iPad app, with its accessible graphics, is designed to improve students' algebra readiness. The app teaches students with visual impairments about the environmental issues different animal species face through the use of actual science data and information. (Photo: L. Penny Rosenblum/UA College of Education)

Several University of Arizona faculty members are involved with projects newly funded by more than $2.3 million in federal grants for the collective purpose of preparing students for doctoral study in education, expanding teacher training and improving learning among youth with disabilities. 

Michelle Perfect, an associate professor in the UA Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, is principal investigator of a five-year grant at just over $1 million from the National Center for Special Education Research Technology, which is supporting efforts to increase the number of underrepresented students in doctoral study.

Perfect and co-principal investigator Brandy Brown, an assistant professor and program director of Organizational Leadership at UA South, are partnering with the UA's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium programs. The goal is to support 48 students through the Access, Wellness and Relational Determinants of School Success training program over the five-year funding period. And Laura Lunsford, previously a UA South associate professor of psychology, who helped with the grant proposal, will remain involved as a consultant on the project.

The grant-funded program is designed for upper-level undergraduate students and master's students and also recent graduates currently living in southern Arizona, and who are from underrepresented minority groups. The project will prepare participants — called AWARDSS fellows — in educational research while preparing them for graduate studies.

"Across the country and here in Arizona, there are repeated calls for increasing diversity in higher education. To be successful in this endeavor requires increased diversity among the faculty, which in turn requires more Ph.D. degrees to be awarded to underrepresented graduate students. This partnership between the UA main campus and UA South will help address this need," said Ronald Marx, dean of the UA College of Education.

The fellows will receive one-year fellowships, which includes a stipend, housing and a meal plan for the UA's UROC-PREP summer research institute, along with a travel allowance. Fellows also will be paired with faculty mentors for research apprenticeships, specifically related to student success, and will receive research and writing training and GRE test-taking in preparation for doctoral degree programs. 

The program is particularly unique given its focus on wellness and multiple layers of mentoring support offered, all to help ensure that fellows are not only academically engaged but also mentally and emotionally supported. Students in the program also will be studying related topics within K-12 education.

"Our theme is around positive psychology and resiliency, and ways to be successful in school," said Perfect, who emphasized that students must learn how to balance self-care and responsibility.

"As you enter graduate school, you may be having trouble balancing your responsibility and what you believe are obligations to your family," Perfect said. "If you aren't feeling well, you are not going to be effective."

Perfect also has received two other grants:

  • A $58,000 Research Experiences for Undergraduate supplement grant from the National Science Foundation for "A Sleep Education Program to Improve STEM Education in Elementary School," with co-principal investigator Janet Roveda, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, to hire and mentor undergraduate student researchers while involving them in active research around children's STEM learning and sleeping.
  • A $3,000 Minority Internship for Undergraduate supplement grant from the American Diabetes Association to fund Joshua Farmer, an undergraduate researcher studying biochemistry, psychology, and molecular and cellular biology, for his research on sleep in youth with Type 1 diabetes.

Sunggye Hong and L. Penny Rosenblum, faculty members in the UA Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, also have received new grant funding to help improve AnimalWatch, a tutoring system designed to improve students' algebra readiness that was developed at the UA.

Hong and Rosenblum are partners on a three-year, $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences led by Carole Beal, formerly of the UA and now a University of Florida education researcher.

With $555,660 of the funds, Hong is serving as lead of the UA's portion of the overall project, titled "AnimalWatch Vi: Building Graphics Literacy," which also teaches students about the environmental issues faced by different animal species through the use of actual science data and information.

The newly funded project builds on earlier work the team completed during the time Beal, the developer of AnimalWatch, spent at the UA. 

During the 2014-2015 academic year, the team launched an AnimalWatch iPad app with accessible graphics that was then used by dozens of students with visual impairments living in 17 states. The American Printing House for the Blind is poised to release the app and its graphics to more than 60,000 students with visual impairments nationwide.

While the iPad app was being utilized, the team found that some of the students had a difficult time deciphering graphics, which led to the new project.

"A lot of math is visually based," Rosenblum said. "But when you have low vision or are blind and you are not seeing everything at once — the charts, the bars, diagrams — you can't get that visual information."

With the new Institute of Education Sciences grant, the team will advance AnimalWatch further, developing and adding new units to then train students how to best use the app and its graphics for their own learning.

In turn, the team expects the app will help students to build their own skills at solving math word problems. Because algebra is commonly referenced as a "gatekeeper" subject for higher levels in math, mastering algebra can lead students to in-demand positions in computer science, architecture, engineering and other high-tech disciplines.

"Individuals with disabilities are under-represented in the STEM fields. The technology-based intervention developed through this project will positively impact students with visual impairments in locating key information for math word problems on graphics such as maps and scatter plots," Hong said.

"We also believe that techniques developed by our project team for accessing tactile graphics will help students with visual impairments and provide teachers with significant instructional resources. Through this original project, the research team hopes to address fundamental skills necessary for accessing STEM curriculum for students with visual impairments, resulting in increased awareness and knowledge for students of the STEM-related subjects."

As part of the project, students and teachers also will have numerous opportunities to provide feedback to help make further improvements within AnimalWatch. 

"Our team is excited to further advance the skills of middle school students with visual impairments in being able to locate key information in accessible graphics, in braille or large print, that is needed to solve pre-algebra word problems," Rosenblum said.

"Research shows that if a student isn't successful in algebra class, she or he is less likely to move into the STEM fields," she said. "By providing instruction and practice to students with visual impairments through our iPad app about real-life environmental science issues, we will foster the skills and interest in STEM-related fields for students with visual impairments."