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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

'The Gift of Independence.' Faculty Members Design App to Help Students with Autism

Written By Keegan Koberl

A new project in Cal Poly’s School of Education hopes to take students with autism on aquatic adventures — and help them reach goals in the classroom.

Leah Wood and Stephen Crutchfield, coordinators of the Special Education/Education Specialist (Special Education) Mild/Moderate Disabilities Credential Program, are developing the project, a self-guided app called GoManage, to help students with autism remain on task and self-assess their classroom progress.

“We wanted to develop an app that students could use to engage with self-management,” said Wood. “The management responsibility often is the teacher’s, but with this resource, we hope the student can gain valuable skills and the teacher is able to focus on additional responsibilities in the classroom.”

A manila folder labeled The Lost City displays prompts that help students stay on task in a screenshot from the GoManage app. At the bottom of the folder in military-style script a button reads Begin Training.
A screenshot from the GoManage app displays prompts that help a student self-assess their behavior.

In order to turn the project into reality, they applied for and received grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences Small Business Innovation Research Program (ED/IES SBIR), which provides up to $1.1 million in two phases: the first phase is for prototype development and the second is for product development.

The team partnered with Attainment Company, a business focused on helping people with cognitive disabilities succeed at school, work and life, to apply for the grant.

Once the GoManage team received the first phase funding, they had to prove the prototype app was successful in order to receive the second phase of funding.

To test the app, Wood and Crutchfield worked with teachers they had previously collaborated with on other projects. They also got help from the community of School of Education graduates working in local special education programs.

“Testing in the classroom during the pandemic was a big ask of our teacher partners and we made sure not to ask for things that were not reasonable or feasible for them during this challenging time,” said Crutchfield.

Though testing a new app during the pandemic was a challenge, it turned out to be beneficial for local teachers.

“GoManage gives my students the gift of independence and ability to regulate their own behavior and set their own goals that maybe they thought they couldn’t have before,” said Taylor Spainhour, who graduated from the School of Education credential program in 2020 and used the GoManage prototype in her classroom. “Allowing the student self-assess on the app saves a lot of time and paperwork for both the student and the teacher.”

A screenshot from the GoManage app shows a child named Max wearing a captain's hat and standing in a submarine. Outside the submarine windows are aquatic life.
A screenshot from the GoManage app.

And the prototype turned out to be so successful that the team received the second phase of funding, an additional $400,000.

“The ED/IES SBIR funding comes from the top research arm of the Department of Education and is very competitive as it is open to all educational programs, not just special education,” said Wood. “Securing this second round of funding was dependent on the success of our work in the first phase, which was done in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and working, teaching and learning from home.”

Over the next two years, Wood, Crutchfield and a team of graduate student research assistants will develop scripts and content for the GoManage app, as well as work on ways to gamify the experience for users. Attainment Company will then build the app using the content created at Cal Poly.

The team hopes to expand its testing in local partner school districts, train additional teacher participants and increase the number of students using GoManage. They also are planning for a series for focus groups with teachers who have used GoManage in their classroom, and have plans for experimental research trials in local schools. The grant will also support graduate research assistants across both years of the project.

“The goal is to create something useful and affordable with curriculum that students can learn from and are eager to engage with,” said Crutchfield. “Excitingly, we’re already hearing students say they can’t wait to play GoManage!”