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CCI Researchers Team With A.J. Drexel Autism Institute to Empower Special Educators

A team of Drexel researchers are exploring how technology can better track and compile data for more impactful education of students with special needs.

Empathic Design and Technology group
Gabriela Marcu and students Allison Spiller, Nicole Tomy, Anthony Ferro, Jonathan Arevalo and Ressa Reneth Sarreal of CCI’s Empathic Technology and Design group

October 21, 2015

By Kerry Boland

A team from the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) is working with the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute to help educators get better, organized data for teaching their students with special needs.

Behavioral intervention plans are guided by a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a document that identifies which kinds of special needs accommodations are required by each student.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP is required for all children receiving special education services. According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report, that accounts for 6.4 million students.

Yet, IEPs and behavioral plans are largely managed with pen and paper, which means that an overwhelming amount of valuable information — data that could be shared among stakeholders to impact a student’s progress — is often stopping at the file drawer.

“Data [on paper] is not easy to share with other school staff, administrators or parents,” said College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) Assistant Professor and A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Research Fellow Gabriela Marcu, PhD. “Data can only be analyzed if it is entered into the right software. This data entry takes a lot of time, and existing software isn’t always easy to use or effective for their purposes. As a result, a lot of decisions are made that are not based on data.”

Marcu, along with student researchers in CCI’s Empathic Design and Technology group, is working with Associate Professor and A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Clinical Director and Research Fellow James Connell Jr. and his team to design and implement Lilypad, an application that helps manage, track and coordinate behavioral implementation in special education settings.

In providing specialists with real-time aggregated data about a student, Lilypad enables administrators and teachers to make more informed decisions about the most appropriate behavioral interventions.

Behavioral intervention plans are most effective when educators deliver reinforcers and rewards immediately and objectively. Consistency is crucial in order to change behaviors, but it is also challenging for classroom staff to achieve.

That’s where technology can play a positive role.

“The Lilypad system automates the intervention process and takes out some of the subjectivity of the delivery of the intervention,” said Connell.

Connell believes that the Lilypad app can quickly process complexities of the behaviors that an increase or decrease is desired, what arrangements that behavior is supposed to occur under and the implications that are created by the behavior’s occurrence.

“All the staff need to do is hit a counter when requirements are met,” she said. “Then the rest of the plan will pop up for them.”

After designing the system together with educators and pilot testing it through data collection, analysis, interpretation and feedback, Marcu and her team will be launching a deployment study to evaluate the effect of the Lilypad system in classrooms with emotionally disturbed (ED) students at an elementary school in New Jersey this fall.

The Empathic Design and Technology group is dedicated to addressing many complex social problems using design and technology. In addition to their work in special education, the group also focuses their human-computer interaction (HCI) research on helping solve issues in areas such as Title IX and mental health.

The lab merges the perspectives of students possessing knowledge and skills in a variety of areas including computer science, information science, user experience design, psychology and sociology.

“Getting to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and majors (psychology, product design, computer science, etc.) has been a unique and wonderful opportunity,” said computer science student Allison Frauenpreis.

Through projects like Lilypad, the students are applying their knowledge outside of the classroom while finding meaning in their work.

“I've definitely learned just as much working in the lab as I have in any course — probably even more,” said computer science undergraduate student Amy Gottsegen, who spent this past summer working on Lilypad as part of Drexel's STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program. “In classes, it can be harder to connect the skills you're learning to a meaningful outcome, but in the lab, every skill that I learn, I learn because I know I need it to implement the solution I've designed. “

For more information about the Empathic and Technology Design group, please visit