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College of Education Undergraduates Get Hands-On at Georgia Southern University

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Special Education faculty members at Georgia Southern University’s College of Education (COE) are embedding research within the student teaching experience at the undergraduate level. The program, “Research to Practice: COE Undergraduate Research Initiative,” is a first of its kind within the College. Research, normally reserved for graduate or honors students, has transcended to undergraduate, non-honors students, in an effort to prepare pre-service teachers for the workforce; a growing need within the state of Georgia

“Field-based experience is perceived by early career teachers to be the most valuable experience within teacher preparation programs. While some feel this experience is critical to their preparation, rarely are pre-service teachers using these experiences to conduct valuable research to support them in their development,” says Meca Williams-Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the College of Education. “Pre-service teachers are more equipped to discuss issues that impact the classroom and schools within the area of the student teaching placement.  These pre-service teachers have developed skills in exploring the cultural and sociological aspects that are a part of the school environment.”

The undergraduate research project began in 2012 with a pilot of six students in their senior year. The yearlong project sought to partner with school districts and local schools to focus on in-depth data collection, annotate special education barriers in the classroom, work with faculty and school officials to develop research goals, and to connect school improvement plans with a specific issue that the student teachers would use research to solve.

“What we’ve found is that the knowledge gained in their student teaching semesters prepares them to use research in future classrooms,” says Kymberly Harris Drawdy, Ph.D., assistant professor. “The data and data analysis obtained during the research experience helped our pre-service teachers to address specific questions related to building relationships with students on the statewide performance assessment more than other pre-service teachers who didn’t have this experience.”

Through research and observation, the student teachers were able to collect quantifiable data that revealed connections between the school improvement plan and special education teaching methods. They also worked to introduce assistive technology to teachers in the field as a way to explore other learning techniques, and to collect data for their classrooms.

Student teachers at Georgia Southern are now leading the discussion on how undergraduate research has provided insight into real world special education data collection and application. Drawdy says the increase in teaching skills, confidence and decision-making skills has been worth introducing undergraduates, or pre-service teachers, to research and quantitative data collection.

“Students are now able to speak to how this particular experience has increased their writing, public speaking, and teaching skills and how it’s preparing them for the workforce,” said Drawdy. “They’re presenting their findings to teachers, administrators, principals and other researchers at state-wide conferences, national conferences and the Georgia Department of Education. We’ve also received interest from other universities wanting to start an undergraduate Special Education research program of their own, and there has been an increase in teachers requesting researchers to observe their classes.”

The College of Education will introduce the program to students beginning in their junior year and will start this year’s program with 18 students in the spring.

“Our hope is that by exposing undergraduate students to hands-on research we will increase special education teacher retention throughout the state and open the door for advanced education here at Georgia Southern,” says Tracy Linderholm, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of Graduate Education and Research.

For more information on the College of Education, or special education undergraduate research, visit coe.georgiasouthern.edu.

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