NSF-funded research fellowship program to focus on producing experts to aid people with disabilities

November 01, 2011

Arizona State University (ASU) and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) will help produce the next generation of experts trained in the skills and equipped with the tools to assist people with disabilities to improve the quality of their lives.

In early 2012 the universities will begin awarding up to 30 doctoral students fellowships to pursue studies and work experience in multiple fields - from technology development to public policy making - that contribute to efforts to assist individuals with disabilities.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a grant of approximately $3 million to support the students through its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program.

The fellowship program will bring together experts at ASU and CSULB who share interests in research, education and practice related to helping people with disabilities.

The combined team of more than 20 faculty and staff from the two universities (see list below) - all of whom have experience working with a diverse range of students - reflects diversity in culture, gender, disability, race and ethnicity. The team members will co-advise and mentor the doctoral student research fellows.

"Receiving IGERT grants for this kind of endeavor is a testament to the strengths of both ASU and CLUSB across a broad spectrum of disciplines," says Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, an ASU professor of computer science and engineering who will lead the new IGERT-funded program. Forouzan Golshani, dean of the College of Engineering at CSULB, will be co-leader.

Panchanathan has been ASU's chief research officer since early 2010. On Nov. 1 he will move into the position of senior vice president of the university's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

"The NSF's goal aligns with the goals of ASU's 'New American University' for advancement of interdisciplinary education and research," Panchanathan says.

NSF IGERT programs apply an education-research-practice model for training students across a range of disciplines in collaborative approaches to meeting the nation's critical needs.

Likewise, the ASU-CSULB collaboration will emphasize the cross-pollination of innovations from various disciplines to address the complex issues facing individuals with disabilities.

The new program's research projects will meld expertise in computer science and engineering, bioengineering, mechanical engineering, science education, science and public policy, psychology, and industrial design.

The program, entitled Alliance for Person-Centered Accessible Technologies (APAcT), will involve students who are seeking doctoral degrees in those areas. The program website (http://www.apact-igert.org) is to go live on Nov. 4.

IGERT trainees from each university will be expected to spend at least one semester at the other institution to experience a different academic culture and to strengthen working relationships with other IGERT trainees and faculty.

For all IGERT trainees, the program will emphasize entrepreneurship education, learning through community service, industry internships, international leadership, collaboration skills and interdisciplinary research experience.

IGERT trainees will also be schooled in law, ethics and social issues related to assisting people with disabilities.

Students will be prepared for leadership as academics, as entrepreneurs, and as industry experts. The program's goal is to produce a new generation of leaders who understand the world from an interdisciplinary perspective, and will be poised to make a major economic contribution to the country.

"This IGERT award is significant from two perspectives." Golshani says. "From a technology perspective, it enables the engineering community to frame its innovations in universal design and progressive inclusion policies. From the perspective of economic development, it aspires to find methodologies by which innovators can design products and services for small populations and yet realize adequate market share and return on investment."

Much of the technical education for the program will take place at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), which focuses on designing devices to assist people with perceptual or cognitive disabilities. The center is part of the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Students will also benefit through the work of CSULB's Accessible Technology Initiative, one of the nation's leading efforts to remove barriers to education for people with disabilities. It is led by Golshani.

CSULB was the first university on the West Coast to establish a Learning Disability Program. It evolved into California's first university high-tech center for disability services, which now serves more than 1,000 students with disabilities.

Students are also expected to have opportunities to learn through community service with organizations connected to CUbiC and the Accessible Technology Initiative - including the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System, Barrow Neurological Institute, the Microsoft Assisted Living and Accessibility group, Johnson Controls, Cleveland Clinic and Meyer-Johnson.

Members of the IGERTS program faculty and staff team are already working with research and education partners that are expected to provide internship opportunities for students - including the Microsoft Assisted Living and Accessibility group, Apple, Meyer-Johnson, Johnson Controls, IBM, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel Corporation, Procter and Gamble, Dow Corning Corporation, Barrow Neurological Institute and Mayo Clinic.

The NSF expects that in the future the expertise of students trained in the program will have a significant impact on the lives of a large segment of the country's population - including injured military veterans, the elderly, children with learning and development disabilities, individuals with autism and those with visual disabilities, among others.

In its description of the program, the NSF states that the nation will benefit from advances in health care, education and public policy expected to result from the program's research and education efforts.

"IGERT fellows will develop the ability to view technologies and their areas of expertise in ways that can serve the needs of all community members," says Jay Klein, the program's project director.

"They will be engaged in education and research in individually designed technologies that will have widespread uses," he says. "For example, while sidewalk curb cuts were originally designed for people using wheelchairs, they have become a necessity for people using strollers, bikes, skateboards, grocery carts, rolling bags, Segways, and mail carts."

With the explosive growth of new technologies and devices in recent years, the design and development of person-centered technologies "provides a new vision for device design - toward not only technologies for individuals with disabilities but to the otherwise so-called able-bodied individuals," says Vineeth Balasubramanian, the fellowship program's research director.

"As devices get smaller and faster, the need for devices to conform uniquely to each individual's requirements is only aptly captured by the unique requirements of each individual with a disability," he explains. "Developing such paradigm-shifting technologies for a rewarding cause makes this program immensely attractive to talented and motivated graduate students."

Along with Panchanathan, the ASU and CSULB program team members and their areas of expertise are:

Arizona State UniversityCalifornia State University, Long Beach
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Arizona State University

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