Innovation in Instruction, Technology and Service

Posted on October 28, 2020 by Amber Day
Amber Day

Faculty Members data-lightbox='featured'

Helping people learn and grow is the mission of the USA College of Education and Professional Studies Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences. Faculty members have been creative and busy supporting students and educators on campus and in the local community this past year. 

Assistant professors in the Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences Dr. Pamela Moore and Dr. Joe Gaston recently added virtual reality technology into their training and courses. 

“Providing USA students with exposure and preliminary training in virtual reality now will help them be better prepared for this technology as it begins to appear in classrooms in the very near future,” said Moore (pictured above, bottom left) who serves as program coordinator for educational media and technology at South. “This exposure and training may also put our students in positions to be leaders in this field within their schools.

The department acquired two virtual reality headsets and hand controllers prior to the pandemic and installed software in the team-based learning classroom that will allow students to view what someone is seeing inside the headset. 

“What is being seen inside the headset can now be projected onto all of the main screens in the room,” Gaston (pictured above, top right) said. “This will allow our students to learn about virtual reality and see some of its capabilities without every person in the room having to wear the equipment. This experience will be incorporated into our fall classes that meet face to face. We also explored ways in which students could utilize the tools through remote learning.”

The two professors hope to establish a virtual reality lab in the college that will be open to students and faculty from across the University, as well as K-12 teachers and others in the community.

Dr. Ryon C. McDermott is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences and associate director of the combined clinical and counseling psychology Ph.D. program accredited by the American Psychological Association. McDermott recently served as a mentor to two doctoral students, April Berry (pictured above, center bottom left) and Jennifer Barinas (pictured above, center right), who received the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) fellowship. The two students are the first and second students at South to ever receive this honor.

“I have mentored April and Jennifer in their own respective areas of research in the context of our lab, the Cultural and Individual Differences Lab,” McDermott said. “More specifically, I have mentored them in study design, grant applications, preparing manuscripts for publication and advanced statistical techniques in an effort to help them develop the skills needed to become independent researchers.

The SREB doctoral scholars program aims to increase diversity among faculty by supporting underrepresented minority students as they pursue their doctorate degrees. 

The program provides its doctoral fellows with career mentorship, networking opportunities, an annual training institute and financial support in the form of a $20,000 annual stipend.

“This experience will allow me to be able to find employment in the field of academia, given SREB’s networking opportunities,” said Berry, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the combined clinical and counseling psychology Ph.D. program and graduate assistant at the University Counseling and Wellness Center. “It will also allow me to give back and contribute funds in the future to an SREB scholar so they can have the chance that I had.”

Barinas, a second-year doctoral student in the combined clinical and counseling psychology program, credits McDermott for his guidance and help as a mentor.

“Dr. McDermott is a great professor and mentor,” Barinas said. “He always has your research interests and career goals in mind, and truly cares about your growth and success. I think that the SREB fellowship would not have been possible for me without his advice and encouragement.”

Dr. Shenghua Zha (pictured above, center top left), assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences, was involved in teaching students coding and computation reasoning at Williamson Prep Academy in Mobile earlier this year.

“We engaged students in small group projects where they learned to code and generated visuals, music and made cars to move,” Zha said. “I taught students how to use BBC Micro:bit, a pocket-size computing system, to code. I also designed and facilitated the project work.”

More than 50 students from two classes at Williamson Prep participated in this weekly project, which ran from January through March 2020. 

“I want to bring computational thinking into middle schools and broaden students’ view of potential career opportunities,” Zha said. “Current computing tools, like the BBC Micro:bit, are ‘low threshold, high ceiling,’ meaning they do not require users to have prior knowledge. Yet when they have prior knowledge, they can do more. These tools enable us to do creative projects with students at young ages and help them experience the direct application of computational thinking skills.”

The job market has shown a deficit of computing workforce, which is a reason many states, including Alabama, require computing education in K-12 schools. 

“A teacher education program in this subject area is under development,” Zha said. “As a technology educator in teacher education, K-12 school experience gives me the first-hand evidence that I can use to improve the relevant curricula in teacher education. That is why I choose the coding and computational thinking subjects to teach.”

Dr. James Van Haneghan (pictured above, bottom right), professor and interim chair in the Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences, also led a collaborative project to provide training in robotics to students at Williamson Prep Academy. Dr. Prakash Duraisamy, assistant professor in the School of Computing at South, has an interest in computer vision and robotics and served as the primary instructor. 

“Dr. Duraisamy and I have over the last year started to look at learning analytics by exploring how computer vision could be used to examine student engagement in the classroom,” Van Haneghan said. “The Williamson collaboration arose out of the need to help students recognize the power, and ethical implications, of computer vision that can be harnessed through robots to carry out a number of different tasks.”

Duraisamy and Van Haneghan received a $10,000 grant from Wells Fargo that allowed them to purchase two Misty robots. 

“The Misty robot is described by its originators as a developer's robot that can be programmed to do a variety of real world tasks,” Van Haneghan said. “For example, it can be trained in visual recognition of faces, voice recognition and wayfinding. Showing the power of this technology to high school students and helping them develop some competence with it could motivate the students to pursue robotics further after they graduate high school.”

Van Haneghan and Duraisamy began work with 18 students at Williamson Prep in February 2020, but were unable to continue after COVID-19. They hope to return during the 2020-2021 school year, and ultimately, help students learn the coding necessary to teach the Misty robots meaningful tasks. 

Dr. James Stefurak (pictured above, top left), interim associate dean in the College of Education and Professional Studies and associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Instructional Sciences, has been working with the Mobile Police Department Special Victims Unit to conduct data collection analysis as part of the Promise Initiative, a program established to address the police department’s Sexual Assault Kits (SAK) backlog. Beginning in 2015, the MPD applied for and received a series of grants from the Department of Justice to fund this initiative, which was named the Promise Initiative given its goal to fulfill the promise of justice for victims. 

Stefurak has led a research team for the initiative, which includes USA College of Arts and Sciences psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling and three USA clinical and counseling psychology doctoral students. As part of the ongoing grant project, the USA team collects data on the victims whose SAKs were never submitted and document the reasons the DNA evidence was never utilized, as well as study the attitudes, well-being and professional practices of police officers as it pertains to sexual assault crimes. The research team has presented 11 times at national conferences and is currently submitting scholarly manuscripts on their findings to journals for publication. 

The “SAK backlog,” as it is generally referred to, is a situation in many police departments where sexual assault victims’ kits are never submitted for potential DNA matching. The Mobile Police Department began this effort to address their own SAK backlog in partnership with the University of South Alabama. 

“The Department of Justice grants for the Promise Initiative in Mobile have funded the process of cataloguing unsubmitted SAKs, submitting these kits for testing, putting in place new practices to prevent the backlog from reoccurring, and promoting trauma-informed investigation practices with sexual assault victims,” Stefurak said.

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