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Undergrad research fellows pilot new NSF program

Four undergraduate research fellows in a new pilot program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) have developed projects this summer that are important to the educational needs of deaf people. The campus community is invited to learn about their findings on Friday, August 7 when the fellows give formal presentations in the SLCC Atrium, beginning at 3 p.m.

The Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows Program is an NSF initiative to encourage underrepresented groups to engage in academic research with the goal of getting them interested in teaching careers at the college and university level. Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) obtained $60,000 from the NSF under grant number SBE-0541953 to fund four undergraduate research fellows in this 10-week program:

Deon Johnson, a junior majoring in psychology who wants to continue his studies in clinical psychology; Brittany Freel, a psychology major at the Rochester Institute of Technology who plans to become a teacher of underachieving deaf children at inner-city schools; Candace Myers, a senior majoring in psychology who wants to work with black deaf high school students and provide them the tools they need to graduate; and Ryan Barrett, a senior majoring in English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who is considering enrolling in graduate school after graduation but has not yet decided on a specific field of study.

The students have spent the summer working on projects that are related to the VL2 mission of exploring visual language and visual learning.

The NSF grant program is extremely valuable to Gallaudet, said professor Diane Clark of the Department of Educational Foundations and Research, because it will help increase the number of deaf scholars and encourage them to become faculty members — a field in which they are now underrepresented. Clark added that she has been highly impressed by the diligence the students have displayed in working on their projects, and said that the research process has improved their study habits.

“They’ve grown so much. I’ve seen their writing and critical thinking skills improve tremendously,” she said. The fellows’ enthusiasm has even rubbed off on their peers.

“They want to share their excitement with other students, and then they start talking and it creates a buzz,” said Clark. “They recruit themselves” for other research projects. She pointed to student research that is happening in the American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies Department and the Biology Department’s Molecular Genetics Laboratory, as well the Undergraduate Honors Research program, as prime examples.

“It’s happening everywhere; it’s so exciting!” she said.

The public presentations will be an ideal way for the campus community to share some of the undergraduate research fellows’ enthusiasm, as well.

A summary of their projects follows:


Historically, people have believed that sign languages show strong correspondence between form and meaning (i.e., the sign looks like what it means). However, research has demonstrated that sign languages, like spoken languages, can be abstract — that the sign does not necessarily look like its meaning. This idea is referred to as “iconicity.”

Basically, an iconic sign is a sign that a person without previous knowledge of sign language is able to understand. This study involves both hearing and deaf subjects. Hearing people will be shown a sign and asked to guess its meaning while deaf people will be shown the same sign and asked to rate its level of iconicity.

If hearing people generally guess the meaning of one sign correctly, it will be considered iconic for the study. As well as looking at the ratings from the deaf subjects, their backgrounds with languages will be observed as well. The study seeks to determine how different backgrounds with deaf people affect how they view iconicity in their own language.


Black deaf individuals, for the most part, have not had the level of reading and writing skills required for success. Hearing African American parents frequently do not read with their deaf children because they face obstacles such as unfamiliarity with deaf culture, inability to use sign language, and racial discrimination. Language studies with hearing African American students who use Ebonics have shown how the use of language impacts students’ reading and writing.

Likewise, black deaf students utilize a form of Ebonics in their sign language communication that is different from sign language used by white deaf students. This research study explores how cultural languages and experiences impact black deaf individuals’ reading and writing skills.


There has been a long-standing controversy over ASL and its validity as a form of literacy. Many believe that ASL is nothing but broken English and that using it hampers deaf peoples’ acquisition of English. However, scientists and linguists alike have proven that ASL is a true language. What’s more, ASL actually helps deaf people learn English as their second language.

The ASL and English skill levels of a deaf person rely upon many factors, one of which is family background. For example, whether the family is deaf or hearing may affect reading abilities. The purpose of this study is to investigate the relationship between ASL skills and English reading skills, and how familial characteristics affect the ability to make the transition.


This study investigates sign skills using the American Sign Language-Sentence Repetition Test (ASL-SRT) between native and non-native signers at Gallaudet. The hypothesis is that native signers will have higher scores on the ASL-SRT than non-native signers. The study seeks to find out the impact on ASL for students who went to residential schools in comparison to those who attended mainstream schools. Finally, parents support for learning ASL will be investigated.

VL2 Director Thomas Allen, Department of Educational Foundations and Research (DEFR), professor Diane Clark, also of DEFR, and RIT clinical neuropsychologist Peter Hauser, have served as faculty mentors for Johnson, Freel, and Myers.

Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures associate professor Dr. Pilar Pinar has been Barrett’s mentor. Support came from the following VL2 staff members and graduate students: research administrator Angela McCaskill, database assistant Salena Agyen, post-doctoral fellow Shilpa Hanumantha, secretary Shanon Price, and graduate students Melissa Anderson, Gizelle Gilbert, Wyatte Hall, and Millicent Musyoka.

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