Babe Ruth once said “it’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” These words rang through my thoughts as I was entering college working with the Special Olympics and kids who never gave up. This experience would change my academic and personal life forever. Working with children and coaching made me pivot my original plans of studying sports medicine. I was fortunate to get a job right out of college teaching a resource mathematics class for Mike Moses Middle School in Nacogdoches, Texas. At the same time, I entered a graduate program in school and behavioral psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University. This is where the research bug bit me! I only required a little nudging to make me want to chase a Ph.D at Utah State University and the Center for Persons with Disabilities.
My research, which has been continuously funded since 2008 with more than $12.25 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), examines how K-12 and postsecondary students with disabilities can effectively learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content using innovative technologies.
This research has provided a foundation for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute (TJEEI). In 2017, I was asked to become the Director of the TJEEI where we bring a convergence of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service with a scholarly focus on individuals with disabilities and their families. The mission of the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute is to provide opportunities for lifelong learning and support for children and adults with exceptional needs and their families through interdisciplinary research and practice, professional development, and partner collaboration. We have funded several doctoral and postdoctoral positions and employ students with disabilities helping with research initiatives. In addition, we are able to support our local community by hiring students with disabilities from a local STEM high schools to complete internships with us. The partnership with PedsAcademy at Nemours has allowed a new and exciting opportunity to impact children and families at the world’s first pediatric school program designed to provide children in hospitals with extraordinary, research-backed educational opportunities specific to their respective disease or condition. Our team and I are committed and excited to help establish the PedsAcademy as the preeminent location for effective evidence-based practice and research.