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UGA education researchers receive $1.5 million NSF grant to make STEM programs more accessible

Athens, Ga. – During the last decade, the influence of digital media has changed the way young people learn, play and socialize. As a result, education researchers at the University of Georgia are partnering with the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia Perimeter College to develop an innovative learning environment that combines social networking and virtual 3-D communities to encourage students with disabilities to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

The UGA College of Education has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create the Georgia STEM Accessibility Alliance (GSSA), a five-year collaborative project aimed atgiving students with disabilities greater access to STEM programs and an increased capacity to succeed in these programs from high school through graduate school.

The goal of the GSSA is to increase the number of students with disabilities enrolling in STEM classes and majors; increase their retention and graduation rates; and increase their entry rate into STEM graduate programs, said principal investigator Noel Gregg, a UGA Distinguished Research Professor and associate dean for research in UGA’s College of Education.

“Through virtual mentoring and teaching, social networking, academic support, transition assistance and preparation of instructors, the GSAA will develop new strategies for accessibility in STEM courses and degree programs,” she said.

The GSAA’s use of this model of virtual worlds and avatars will provide groundbreaking research on its effectiveness, scalable impact to other Georgia secondary and postsecondary schools, and insight into the national needs of secondary students with disabilities in STEM majors.

The GSAA will develop these new strategies for accessibility in mandatory freshmen STEM courses at UGA, Georgia Tech and Georgia Perimeter, and the project has the potential to impact all students at these institutions. The GSAA’s secondary school partners in Clarke, Greene and Gwinnett counties have more than 6,000 high school students with disabilities who could be impacted by the project.

Some of the new GSAA strategies will include: creating a mentoring/training island in the virtual world of Second Life and integrating social networking tools to allow students year-round mentoring experiences; providing evidence-based STEM learning strategies through learning seminars and virtual learning communities; enhancing STEM faculty and staffs’ability to educate students with disabilities using web-based and Second Life training modules; and providing transition preparation and ongoing support to develop self-advocacy and academic skills essential for students with disabilities to succeed in STEM secondary and postsecondary programs.

Participants will include students with all types of disabilities including those with cognitive disabilities (learning disabilities, behavioral/emotional disorders, and mild intellectual disabilities) enrolled in three secondary school systems in Georgia and postsecondary students enrolled at the partner institutions. STEM faculty, administrators and disability personnel from partnering secondary and postsecondary institutions also will participate.

Although project efforts primarily will be focused in Georgia, outreach and dissemination efforts will extend nationwide. Lead agencies are UGA’s Learning Performance and Support Laboratory, Georgia Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access,and Georgia Perimeter’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Co-principal investigators include Michael Hannafin, the Charles H. Wheatley-Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Technology-Enhanced Learning and director of the LPSL at UGA, and Robert Todd, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech.