Education opens the door to endless pathways of opportunity, but equity in education remains among society’s most pressing challenges, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

With a background rooted in special education and a path forged through advocacy-based research, Maya Israel, associate professor of educational technology, has dedicated her career to increasing equity, improving access and expanding inclusion in STEM to foster success for all learners.

“Especially when we’re thinking about students with disabilities, there are some long-standing biases about what kids can and can’t do,” she said. “… There’s this perception that they’re not or can’t be as successful as their peers, and that’s simply not the case.”

Israel, who also serves as the research director of Creative Technology Research Lab (CTRL), a UF lab that investigates how to meaningfully engage all learners in technology-mediated learning, has a robust research agenda with a special focus on K-12 computer science (CS) education, computational thinking and Universal Design for Learning.

“My K-12 teaching background, essentially, makes me think about how we can intervene to help students be successful,” she said. “… I like the analogy of reading: There are some students who pick up reading very quickly and then there are other students who need some more explicit instruction. At the end of the day, they’re all going to be effective readers, but some students need an approach that’s a little bit more targeted.”

Through a variety of interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects, Israel is examining these issues from all directions — identifying existing and persisting barriers, and exploring instructional strategies, learning processes and innovative technologies that can build much needed bridges.

Most recently, Israel and a team of computer science education leaders were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to cultivate a Research Practice Partnership (RPP) that explores and addresses the barriers to inclusive elementary CS education.

The partnership will include P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Broward County Public Schools, New York City Public Schools and the San Francisco Unified School District to explore ways to expand inclusion in CS education for students with disabilities.

“We’re at the point where students with disabilities are generally included in computer science education, Israel said, “but, oftentimes, teachers don’t have the pedagogical tools to support them in a way that is accessible, engaging and inclusive.”

Among her latest research endeavors are:

Maya Israel

Maya Israel

UDL4CS

Universal Design for Learning for Computer Science (UDL4CS): Partnership for Inclusive Elementary Computer Science Education, Funded by the National Science Foundation

A Research Practice Partnership, UDL4CS aims to build sustainable partnerships among districts across the country around the shared problem of practice of fostering equitable K-8 CS education and meaningful inclusion of students with disabilities. The team, led by Israel, will examine the current level of inclusion of K-12 students with disabilities and explore the barriers to inclusion that are unique and shared among districts. Based on the findings, the team will create web-based professional development resources to build the capacity of CS educators and equip them with the tools to support all learners.

UDL4CS offers a new lens for exploration in cultivating inclusive CS experiences for students with disabilities and those at risk for academic failure with past projects including the NSF funded Teaching All Computational Thinking Through Inclusion and Collaboration (TACTIC), also led by Israel.

Learn more about UDL4CS: https://education.ufl.edu/news/2020/09/23/educational-technology-professor-awarded-nsf-grant-to-foster-inclusive-computer-science-education/

INFACT

Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking (INFACT), Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Education and Innovation Research program

Leveraging a consortium of leading researchers and practitioners in computational thinking led by TERC, INFACT seeks to design an inclusive, comprehensive computational thinking program to support a wide range of learners in grades 3-8. Utilizing novel methods, such as eye-tracking and facial recognition, the team is developing responsive technologies for the program to provide adaptive, customized pacing based on students’ individual strengths and struggles as well as embedded supports to aid in student attention, metacognition and social-emotional learning.

Learn more about INFACT: https://ctrl.education.ufl.edu/projects/infact/

C-COI

Collaborative Computing Observation Instrument (C-COI) 

The C-COI was born in response to the need for a more nuanced way to understand the learning processes of K-12 students while they engage in computational thinking and programming activities. Developed through dynamic, multi-year efforts with a diverse team of researchers and collaborators, the C-COI grew from white boards, to spreadsheets, to finally a video analysis instrument that allows researchers to study students’ computational behaviors. This video analysis instrument can help researchers better understand students’ time on tasks, persistence, help seeking and help giving, collaborative problem solving, social behaviors and challenges faced while computing.

The C-COI tool was recently made available for use to researchers across the country. Learn more about the C-COI: https://ccoi.education.ufl.edu/

“Ultimately, what we want to provide kids with the tools to be expert learners on their own and to provide teachers with the tools and the strategies they need to support students,” she said.

Israel recognizes the power in collaboration to build a brighter future where boundless opportunity is possible for all learners. Among her latest collaborative efforts driven by a passion to transform education is the UF College of Education’s newly forming Institute of Advanced Learning Technologies (IALT).

IALT coalesces the power of researchers in educational technology, learning analytics and related fields to find data-driven emerging and advanced technology-based solutions to dramatically improve learning outcomes globally.

Supporting learning technology faculty and student researchers, state of the art labs and teaching facilities, and academic, industry and government partners, the institute will demonstrate the university’s collective power in creating and disseminating advanced learning technologies that improve learning outcomes on an international scale.

“If we can bring together people that have different areas and backgrounds — that’s where the innovation happens,” Israel said.