RIT/NTID Research Team Earns $500,000 Grant to Study Communicative Interaction Between Deaf, Hearing STEM Students

four students at a table working on a project together with papers and ipads in front of them

Researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology are using an National Science Foundation grant valued at nearly $500,000 to study the challenges of how STEM students from diverse backgrounds—specifically hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing students—effectively communicate with each other and understand common subject material.

The grant, which will be distributed over three years, will help researchers investigate strategies for mixed teams of students to more effectively communicate and solve complex problems. RIT is a unique environment with hearing students and 1,400 deaf and hard-of-hearing students at its National Technical Institute for the Deaf learning together on one campus.

RIT/NTID professor Michael Stinson said the university is the perfect place to put their research into action as mixed teams of deaf, hearing and hard-of-hearing students often struggle to communicate with each other in critical STEM learning activities.

“Access services, such as sign-language interpreting, real-time captioning and note takers for deaf students have been designed for traditional lecture courses,” explained Stinson, co-inventor of the C-Print real-time captioning service that is used at RIT and leader of C-Print research. “But, this model is often inadequate in team learning situations. At this time, little is known about what happens in these mixed team situations and what communication approaches will work in them. This research will explore ways to facilitate communication in these team situations that are being used more and more.”
The study includes teams of four students—two deaf/hard of hearing and two hearing students—who will each receive unique information that must be shared and understood in order to solve a problem. The initial problem involves using statistics to describe and make predictions about tornado occurrence, intensity and destruction. According to Stinson, statistics are used in many STEM fields and he believes that studying tornadoes will encourage student engagement. Additional topics will also be explored. His hope is that the development of effective communication strategies and knowledge-sharing tools will help future students engage in problem solving in mixed groups.

Stinson is working alongside co-principle investigators Lisa Elliot, senior research scientist in NTID’s Center on Access Technology, Carol Marchetti, professor of statistics, RIT College of Science, and Joan Rentsch, professor of communication studies and director of the Organizational Research Laboratory, University of Tennessee.

“Once students graduate, they will also face similar situations in the workplace,” added Stinson. “That’s why it’s even more important to understand and work through these communication issues earlier, rather than later.”