Community, People, Research

EdD student helps create a more inclusive student experience

October 29, 2021

Stephanie De Franceschi, to the left in the second photo, looks at a robot that plays videos, reads text and takes notes. (Submitted photo)

One graduate student is breaking down barriers to create a more inclusive post-secondary education experience for students with developmental disabilities.

Stephanie De Franceschi, a third-year Doctor of Education student, recently purchased robots to support them at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario. The robots play and transcribe videos, reads text and takes notes for students as well as follows them to class.

“Some of my students can’t read,” she said. “As a result, I can input an exam into the robot and it will read the test questions to them.”

De Franceschi’s work is part of her Dissertation in Practice. She’s looking at post-secondary school inclusion through the Community Integration through Cooperative Education (CICE) program. CICE is in 13 colleges across Ontario and it helps students with developmental disabilities gain college and work experience.

“It's still considered a new arena for administrators, faculty and non-disabled students to have students that have developmental disabilities at college and experiencing post-secondary life,” De Franceschi said.

De Franceschi’s involvement with CICE began when she was invited to conduct a cyclical review of the program. As part of the review, she looked at the curriculum and realized that not many people on campus knew about CICE.

“I looked at some of the data and I really thought, ‘wow, if I spend my time doing something like this, it could be very meaningful work and very rewarding,’” De Franceschi said.

After she became program coordinator, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that provided an opportunity for De Franceschi and her students. The pandemic prevented CICE students from having field placements. Instead, the program turned to the Enactus student group at St. Clair College, to fulfill the students’ course requirements – they developed financial literacy modules on an app. This was the beginning for the project called “Endure” with the Enactus Team collaborating with the CICE students.

What was meant to fulfill course requirements instead turned into relationship building between post-secondary students.

“The students in the CICE program made these meaningful connections with their non-disabled peers,” she said. “I had students for the first time say, ‘I actually feel a part of the college.’”

The financial literacy app’s success didn’t stop there. Professor Michael Spadotto (Faculty Advisor for Enactucs) suggested to De Franceschi that robots were the next technological idea for the Endure Project. Robots give students options to remove socialization or academic barriers that students with developmental disabilities experience, De Franceschi said.

After she defends her Dissertation in Practice, De Franceschi hopes to continue to work with the Enactus Team and the Endure Project to create a formal peer mentorship program, add professional developments sessions to increase awareness about the CICE program and help faculty learn how to make their courses more accessible.

“I’m thinking about faculty getting more training on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) so this idea would benefit everyone,” she said. “We know many students have accommodation plans in other programs across the college. UDL is a concept that is necessary for some, but benefits all students, not just CICE students.”