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Darlene Bhavnani of Dell Medical School and Bill Kohl of the College of Education join Talking Eds to discuss the importance of contact tracing for containing infectious disease, and how uneven policies and ongoing protests can complicate efforts to flatten the curve.



Yvonne: Hi, and welcome to Talking Eds, the podcast for all things education, produced by the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Since mid-March, Dr. Darlene Bhavnani, epidemiologist in the Department of Population Health at Dell Medical School, and Dr. Bill Kohl, professor of Kinesiology and Health Education of the College of Education, both at UT Austin, have been part of a team of medical personnel and academics responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, both of them working on contact tracing. Today, we’re going to talk a bit about contact tracing, what it is, why it’s important, and also about how the reopening of states and the current social unrest may be further complicating the efforts to flatten the curve.

First of all, thank you both for being here with us today. Dr. Bhavnani, you’re still relatively new to Dell Med and UT Austin, can you give us a little bit about your background and how you came to be here?

Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: Yes, so I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist. I’ve worked in global health for over 10 years, and I spent the last five years working in Central America helping to eliminate malaria. So, I was working to eliminate an old disease that has been around for over 100 years. And now I find myself at UT working at Dell Med, and it’s the opposite. I’m working very hard on COVID-19 to control a very new disease.

Yvonne: Thank you. Dr. Kohl, can you share your focus of your work?

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl, III: Certainly, Yvonne. While Dr. Bhavnani is new and has a lot of new ideas, I’ve been around a long time. You might wonder why a professor of kinesiology is interested in infectious disease. I’m also a professor of epidemiology in the UT Houston School of Public Health in the Austin campus. And I also worked for CDC for some years in Atlanta, which gave me the background and interest in infectious disease that we’re able to bring to this current crisis right now.

Yvonne: And how large is your team right now? How many folks are you working with?

Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: Yeah, so right now most of our contact tracers, I would say, are volunteers. We do have some reassigned Dell Med staff and we’re working with the University Health Services, with some of their stuff as well, but I would say the majority of them are volunteers. We just recently scaled up from a size of 100 contact tracers on our team. Now we’ve opened that up to 150 to 200. So, we’re looking to train more and more people each week to keep up with the growing number of cases in Austin.

Yvonne: Wow. So, let’s go back a little bit to earlier this year. It’s my understanding that the dean of Dell Medical School, Clay Johnson, kind of had his eye on the issue a little bit early, and was being in front of contact tracing from around January/February. Is that right?

Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: Yeah, I think we were inspired, and him in particular was very inspired with what some of these other countries in east Asia were doing. So, South Korea, China, and others, in the way they were doing the contact tracing. So, inspired by the success that we saw in other countries, Singapore included, I think he recognized the need very early on, and was very supportive of us developing a small contact tracing team that started off very small on campus, just around the cases that were coming to us in the UT community. And we grew, we grew to fulfill a need that existed and we’re happy to be doing that today.

Yvonne: So, let’s talk about contact tracing itself. Can you walk us through the process involved?
Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: Sure, absolutely. So, contact tracing starts when you have a lab confirmed positive case of COVID-19. It’s a technique that’s been used by public health officials and practitioners for many many years with other infectious diseases such as HIV, TB, and others. So, it’s not new but it does start when you have that lab confirmed positive. So, it’s dependent on having very good testing. Once we have a notification of a case, we get on the phone and call that person, and we talk to them about when their symptoms began.

We try to understand when their symptoms started because with this particular infection, we understand the infectious period to have started a few days before symptom onset, so that’s two days before and then 10 days out. That time period really represents their most infectious period, when they might have actually transmitted the infection to others. So, we try to talk to them about what they did during this time frame, where they went, who they may have been in contact with. We try to get information about those contacts, including the names and the phone numbers of those individuals, and then we follow up with those specific contacts by calling them and talking to them about exposures, when that exposure happened, how long we expect them to quarantine or isolate should they be feeling sick, and try to link them up to resources to either get tested or set them up for success as they quarantine.

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl, III: And Yvonne, one of the best examples of the system that Dr. Bhavnani put in place was just published this week in the publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, there is — I’m sure she will talk about it — but there was a cluster of UT Austin students, an outbreak, a cluster of cases among a group of students who went to Cabo San Lucas for spring break, and came back and started to have contacts with roommates, with community contacts and others, family. And with this aggressive contact tracing, they were able to minimize the, I guess leakage, if you will, to others — the infectious period to others — and contained the outbreak fairly rapidly. That, I think, is a model for, as they pointed out in the paper, is a model for opening schools in the fall, what to do, ramp them up and be ready with contact tracing as soon as it happens because you never know when the next outbreak is going to be, and it’s a very potent tool in the epidemiologist’s toolbox to help contain disease outbreaks.

Yvonne: I’m glad you mentioned the opening up of schools because that’s obviously on so many people’s minds. I’ve got a 14-year-old as well who’s eager to start 9th grade and to start high school, and to actually play sports. And so, we don’t know what that’s going to look like. I know that when you started your work, most of the states were on a pretty tight lockdown, and I would imagine that that makes the contact tracing easier to do because people aren’t milling about in lots of different scenarios and places. Can you talk a bit about the environment now that states have opened up as much as they have, as well as like, the protests and things and the unrest that has happened in the country, does that complicate the contact tracing?

Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: So, I would just say that contact tracing is really focused on those close contacts, and for public health practice purposes, we follow very closely the CDC definition of a close contact, so that’s 15 minutes within 6 feet. But you know, physical contact such as a kiss or a hug I mean, that would qualify to our contact tracers as being close as well. So, any kind of activity or movement that increases the number of close contacts and potential for transmission just really complicates our tracing as well, makes everything a little bit more difficult.

So, as we think about reopening communities and reopening schools, I think we just have to keep that in focus and make sure that we’re doing as much as we can to limit the potential for transmission. You know, things like sanitization, hand washing, masks, are important, but really it’s that distance that’s really going to make a huge difference as well. So, just making sure that we’re opening as safely as possible is going to be really important.

Saying that, those are individual level things that can be done, but I think at a higher-level, making sure that we’re very supportive of our cases, we’re making sure that we’re doing good, active case detection on campuses and in schools. That includes screening but also testing and making sure that we have the infrastructure and the resources in place to be able to act upon that data that’s coming in from those cases being tested and either contact trace, like we’re doing here right now, or investigate. Identifying and investigate clusters is going to be extremely important as well as just looking at the data, making sure we’re following the data and using the data to the best of our ability to make the best decisions possible.

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl, III: One of the really confounding things about COVID-19, or the coronavirus that results in COVID-19, is the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission of the virus. Many times when you’re sick you know it. With this particular virus, the best data we have are that there may be up to 40% — certainly close, maybe somewhere between 20% and 40%, of people — of cases who don’t know they’re sick, and therefore don’t see a need to isolate or self-isolate or even quarantine themselves during that time period, and that’s one of the more frustrating parts of policies that allow for gradual re-openings and so forth is that even people with the best of intentions. “I feel fine, I’m going to go out,” may not know that they’re carrying or shedding the virus. And so, policies, whether they’re institutional policies, city or municipal policies, or state policies, they have to take that into account, and testing, tracing, and isolation is the mantra, I think, that until we have a vaccine, which is not likely going to be for the next year or so at least, maybe half a year from now, we’ve got to continue to invest in those resources to try to get that done.

Yvonne: Thank you for that, you just said “testing, tracing, and isolation,” I think I heard you describe that before as like the “three-legged stool” that’s needed in order to flatten the curve, is that correct?

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl, III: Yes, and it’s absolutely critical, and early on we were low on testing. Testing kits and so forth are now a little bit more available; there’s saliva tests instead of nasal swabs that are starting to appear, but it’s still — the recommendations have evolved now. Usually it was if you’re sick you might be eligible to be tested a few months ago, now with more testing available, there’s a lot of asymptomatic people who are going to get tested as well, and that’s probably a good thing, particularly if 20% to 40% of people don’t know they are carrying the virus.

Yvonne: Right, my final question for you both is, what advice would you give to those who either must go out and be in the public, or feel compelled to in order to participate in demonstrations that they believe are vital to social change?
Dr. Darlene Bhavnani: So, I would say to think very carefully about that because as soon as you’re stepping out of your house, you’re not just putting yourself at risk but you’re putting others in the community as risk. So, I would just weigh those risks very carefully, but I would also say that there may be alternative ways to protest from your home. I know that just released in the media was a list of locally-owned businesses by African Americans or Hispanic community members.

You know, finding other ways to protest can be just as powerful without having to put yourself and others in your family or in your community at risk. So, I would say that’s something to keep in mind. At the same time, as much as we can physically distance, I would say, if we’re out there wearing masks, just trying to protect yourself and others from that transmission can really also help if you must go out.

Dr. Harold W. (Bill) Kohl, III: Yeah, assuming that most protesters are younger individuals who might not be as risk for the disease compared to older individuals is a false assumption. Young people, meaning 20 to 35 or so, are not as at-risk for as serious or a hospitalization due to the infection as other but there’s no evidence that they’re in any lower-risk of actually getting it so, isolating — you know, this is as old as infectious diseases (laughing), quarantine, isolation if you get symptoms or get sick, and limiting your interactions is the only tool — are the only tools we have right now, hand washing, masks, those kinds of things. And I agree with Dr. Bhavnani, think twice about protesting in a large group of people, certainly the social issues we’re facing these days are absolutely critical to bring attention to and to change, but there are likely other ways that the systems can change without exposing you or your family to a disease that is terrible. It doesn’t discriminate among young vs. old, Black vs. white, others.

Yvonne: Thank you for that, thank you. Dr. Bhavnani and Dr. Kohl, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I know you’re both extraordinarily busy, and thank you to our audience for listening to our podcast, Zoom cast. If you’d like to hear more Talking Eds, please visit us at
www. https://incontext.education.utexas.edu/ Take care to all of you, and stay safe.

The goal of the Department of Special Education is to be a bridge of expertise for families of children with autism, and for the community. We provide a space for our faculty to conduct basic and applied research. We also prepare our students to create and deliver best practices in a variety of environments: the home, community settings, and as researchers at other institutions. Mark O’Reilly, Chair, Department of Special Education

Basic Research

Baby Talk

Micheal Sandbank, assistant professor, is studying how typically-developing children and those withan illustration of a baby with a thought bubble containing jibberish words developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies may provide researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, eventually leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. They may also inform intervention practices for children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using something resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses.


What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a set of behaviors associated with specific differences in how the brain perceives and processes environmental input.

1 in 68
children have been identified with ASD.

Boys: 1 in 42 | Girls: 1 in 189
It’s around 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.
of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

Source: Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network


How is autism diagnosed?buckets that say social communication and behavior, with strands of paper in them

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed by looking at criteria in two categories: Social Communication and Behavior.

What are the major transitions in the life of someone with autism?

1. Diagnosis (Typically age 2-4)

Research has shown that most children are diagnosed with ASD around age 4, though a diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid, and stable.

2. Transition to Schooling (typically age 5-6)

Parents and guardians begin to navigate the school system.

3. Transition to postsecondary life (typically age 18-22)

Early interventions, public awareness and K-12 support have increased educational opportunities for children with autism. But what are the options for life after high school?

An illustration of the progression of a child's age

Applied Research

Bluebonnet Trails

The Department of Special Education collaborates with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services in Georgetown. This collaboration allows doctoral and master’s students to provide family-centered applied behavior analysis (ABA) in home and community settings for children between the ages of 3 and 15 who have a diagnosis of autism and live in Williamson, Travis and surrounding counties.

Programs are embedded into daily routines. Graduate students may accompany a family to the grocery store to work on making a successful shopping trip, or to the library to follow rules in the community related to staying with a parent.

This collaboration offers families interventions that reduce challenging behaviors and increase and improve communication, daily living skills, and abilities related to health and safety. They also increase social opportunities that children and young teens have through their relationships at home and in the community.

The result is long-lasting change. Parents learn to implement strategies rooted in behavioral principles that are supported by applied research in the field of autism, behavior analysis, and special education.

“Families get immediate solutions to challenging behaviors that may be occurring throughout the day. Our children learn skills and behaviors that support higher learning at home, in the community, and at school.” – Suzy Albarran, BCBA Second-year doctoral student, Field Supervisor, Bluebonnet Trails


“Everyone I worked with helped my family so much. My child is now able to take care of his basic needs without my help because of their guidance and interventions.” – Noemi,mother of child with Autism

Next Generation Research

Special Education graduates are leading research at major universities across the country, including:

A U.S. map with a star in texas and numbers throughout the country

  1. Wendy Machalicek, M.Ed, ’04, Ph.D., ’08, University of Oregon—Effective behavior analytic assessment practices and interventions addressing the behavioral and educational needs of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
  2. Mandy Rispoli, M.Ed. ’04, Ph.D. ’09, Purdue—Functional behavior assessment and function-based intervention for challenging behavior in children with ASD and developmental disabilities
  3. Helen Malone, Ph.D. ’05, Ohio State University— Teaching new skills to individuals with severe to profound disabilities and assessment/ treatment of challenging behaviors
  4. Colin Muething, Ph.D. ’16, Emory University— Novel treatments for severe problem behavior, the mechanisms that mediate their effectiveness and reporting large outcomes from these treatments
  5. Tonya Davis, Ph.D. ’08, Baylor University— Treatment of severe challenging behavior among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Beyond Autism

Faculty in the Department of Special Education and its associated centers provide research across the spectrum of learning and behavioral disorders—focused on topics like intensive math and reading interventions, design and evaluation of assistive technology, supporting bilingual students, and the transition to post-school employment for people with disabilities.

Research on learning and behavioral disorders is a growing need. In 2014–15, 13 percent of all public school students—ages 3–21—received services for learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders.  Learning disabilities in particular are the most prevalent; children with learning disabilities represent more than one-third of all school-age students with disabilities.

It can be difficult for those with a fine motor disability to complete certain gestures. An undergraduate researcher is studying how different forces or force combinations may be more strenuous to conduct than others. By having volunteers perform specific motions, his research has the ability to assist physical therapists in demonstrating therapy processes to patients.

Pinching motor skills apparatus

Motor Skills Apparatus

Jacob Vines, senior Kinesiology and Health Education student, was awarded the Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research for spring 2018. His novel exploratory project titled “Digit Force Magnitude and Inter-digit Force Coordination Effects on Performance of a Complex Low-Level Force Pinch” examines motor function in adults.

Inspiration for Research

While working in the Motor Coordination Lab led by Professor Lawrence Abraham, Vines was inspired to pursue this research after seeing the crossover between the research of hand and finger motor control and the process of rehabilitation of hand and finger injuries in physical therapy.

Research Overview

In his research project, volunteers perform a complex coordination task to determine the dexterity of right-handed adults aged 18 to 30 years with no known neurological or musculoskeletal disorders of the right hand or arm.

Photo of Jacob Vines

Jacob Vines

“The complex coordination task was to use the right thumb and index finger to move a cursor counterclockwise around a diamond shape that was placed in four locations on the computer screen (up/down/right/left). For this task, force with the index finger moved the cursor vertically and force with the thumb moved the cursor horizontally,” said Vines.

“The choice of doing the index finger and thumb is to imitate general fine motor control like unbuttoning a shirt, and the use of the diamond task is to have varying forces between the thumb and index finger, which occurs in everyday life activities,” said Vines. “By using different finger combinations or a different task, the result would change completely from the current study. It would also not be as applicable to everyday life activities.”

Advice for Students Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Vines credits the research with helping guide him in pursuing a professional career. He has been able to better understand the process of scientific research as he decides whether or not he wants to pursue physical therapy and research different physical therapy techniques.

He advises students who are interested in conducting research to “formally and confidently email different labs doing research that you find interesting. Also, talk to any professors who teach classes you enjoy and ask if they have any open undergraduate research positions.”

Our faculty in the College of Education is devoted to improving educational opportunities for marginalized groups, through research of inclusive learning practices.

Black students often face educational disadvantages that prevent them from achieving academic success. This is due in part to limited research that allows teachers to better connect with their students.

As we close out Black History Month, it’s an important opportunity to take a look at examples of the work our faculty have done to expand research and support the success of African American students at all grade levels.

Repository for Research into Education of Black Males

Photo of Dr. Louis Harrison and Dr. Anthony Brown

Professors Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown

African American males face many obstacles in education: disproportionate dropout, expulsion and suspension rates, overrepresentation in special education, and underrepresentation in gifted education.

So how can existing research be easily accessed?

Professor Louis Harrison and Associate Professor Anthony Brown have established The Black Male Education Research Collection to assist researchers, journalists, and policymakers with researching the issues of black males in education. BMERC is a collection of scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals, interviews, reports, and monthly videos that cover a wide variety of topics from the nation’s top scholars on black male education.

Book Highlights Early 20th-Century African-American Education Intellectuals

Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown

Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown

Associate professors Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown answer questions regarding their book about three black education leaders’ ideas. “Black Intellectual Thought in Education: The Missing Traditions of Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain LeRoy Locke,” analyzes the contributions of these education leaders and a counternarrative for black students.

For Men of Color, High Academic Motivation Does Not Bring Academic Success

Composed of 453,000 student responses nationwide, the Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges was produced by the College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) to analyze the academic outcome for men of color in comparison to white male students. This study questions the negative effects of stereotyping and academic testing readiness among different races of men.

“Despite Black and Hispanic males reporting higher aspirations to earn a community college certificate or degree than their White peers, only 5 percent of those who attend community colleges earn certificates or degrees in three years, as opposed to 32 percent of White males,” says Kay McClenney, CCCSE director.

Caring for Black Male Students Requires More Than Good Intentions, According to Education Study

A student holds up a book in a classroom

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Studies show that black male students are struggling in school because they lack a connection with their teachers. Assessing how to better engage with students is a beneficial way of encouraging learning.

Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil describes the use of politicized caring, “when teachers acknowledge the ways schools reproduce racialized and gendered stereotypes. These teachers then cultivate relationships with marginalized students in ways that acknowledge their oppression and their developmental needs as children and as learners.”


Sara Bearman and Erin Rodriguez

Sarah Kate Bearman

Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Psychology

Erin M. Rodriguez

Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Psychology

Children need and deserve mental health care that has been tested and found to be effective. Sarah Kate Bearman is nationally recognized for the study of dissemination and implementation of psychosocial interventions for children and families in schools, clinics, and primary care settings. Erin Rodriguez studies family and sociocultural influences on children’s health. Her work focuses on understanding cultural and developmental processes in children’s coping with stress, with the goal of informing culturally relevant interventions to reduce health disparities.




Text messaging and phone calls make it easier for new moms in Quito, Ecuador, to care for their newborns and for themselves. Results from research conducted by a faculty member in UT’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE) are driving new protocols for this population.

Julie Maslowsky is an assistant professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her focus is health and health promotion for children and adolescents, in the U.S. and abroad. For 11 years, Maslowsky and her colleagues have conducted studies on ways to improve maternal and child health in Quito, in partnership with Ecuador’s Ministry of Public Health.

In an ongoing series of studies, the team has examined various processes, including the continuum of care before, during and after hospitalizations.

Photo of Julie Maslowsky

Julie Maslowsky

“We identified follow-up care as an opportunity to improve postpartum maternal and infant health,” she says. “Great care was taken in the hospital with patients and their needs but once they were discharged, new mothers didn’t have continuing support.”

The postpartum period is a key window of opportunity for health education. Various health issues may arise after mothers and newborns leave the hospital. For mothers, recovering from delivery, breastfeeding, postpartum depression, and accessing contraception are common concerns that arise. Mothers also need support in knowing what is normal and what is a serious health problem in their infant.

Maslowsky says, “We knew that mobile technology would be key to help solve these issues. More than 90 percent of adults in Ecuador have cell phones.” Maslowsky and her colleagues developed an intervention designed to support and educate new mothers via mobile phone.

The intervention had two parts. First, each mother received a phone call from a nurse 48 hours after she was discharged from the hospital. The nurse spent approximately 30 minutes talking with the mother and educating her about common postpartum concerns for mothers and their infants, including breastfeeding, family planning, safe sleeping, vaccines, fevers, and the newborn’s eating, sleeping and bowel habits.

After the brief educational session, the mother was then free to call or text the nurse any time during the next 30 days if she had a question or concern. In their most recent study, 178 women took part and were randomly assigned to the intervention or the control group.

The intervention produced significant improvements in health for mother and baby, which were measured when the baby was three months old. Compared to the control group, participants in the intervention group experienced positive outcomes:

  • Mothers were more likely to exclusively breastfeed their infants.
  • Newborns were less likely to have to go to a doctor for acute illnesses.
  • Women were more likely to bring newborns to well-baby visits.
  • Women used more effective forms of birth control, i.e. a long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) method rather than only a condom.

Maslowsky and her colleagues were thrilled with the results. “Our Ecuadorian collaborators are enthusiastic about the potential of this intervention to improve postpartum maternal and infant health,” Maslowsky said.

“We are planning the next phase of the study: universal implementation of this program for all new mothers in one of southern Quito’s health zones, which has a population of more than 400,000,” Maslowsky says.Group of people holding a Texas Longhorns flag

In 11 years, Maslowsky has traveled to Quito more than a dozen times. In a trip this spring, she was joined by Ric Bonnell, director of Global Health Programs in the Dell Medical School’s Department of Population Health program. They are exploring potential partnerships for Dell with Maslowsky’s program in Ecuador.

Maslowsky is one of many faculty in the College of Education whose research extends beyond the U.S. Read about the international projects changing the world in Mozambique, New Zealand, China and more.

The proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been around since the 17th century. Over three hundred years later, it’s still widely understood that play is important to rejuvenation and creativity.

Education researchers also understand that, for children, play is essential to learning.

Experts like Christopher Brown, an associate professor at the College of Education of The University of Texas at Austin, are alarmed by the sharp reduction in play time for kindergarteners.

In Brown’s recent op-ed, published in the Conversation and Yahoo News, “Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.”

This shift is alarming, says Brown, because, “focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.”

Christopher Brown during the recording session for Academic Minute.

Associate Professor Christopher Brown

Brown’s research-based perspective is becoming a call-to-action among the public. He has appeared on programs like the Academic Minute and most recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s On Point broadcast.

Says Brown, a former kindergarten teacher, “No one … is advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. … Kindergartners require more balanced learning experiences that nurture their development and their desire to learn and interact with others. This will improve their performance in school and assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.”


New research shines much-needed light on gay men’s use of Facebook to reveal their sexual identity

Educational Psychology Professor Aaron Rochlen and doctoral student Matthew Chester

The idea of a gay man coming out often evokes in the mind a certain scene: images of a family member or friend seated in an arm chair in a living room, while the gay son, brother, father or husband opens up about his closely guarded sexual identity. However, a new study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin suggests not only that social media may be disrupting this familiar tableau, it may also be helpful in lessening the negative ramifications for these men.

Educational Psychology Ph.D. student Matthew R. Chester and Professor Aaron Rochlen at the College of Education were part of a team of researchers that investigated the experiences of 12 gay men who came out online using Facebook. Their paper was recently published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services. The study fills a gap in the literature about gay men’s coming out experiences.

Coming out as a gay man is rife with risks. In fact, research shows that gay men face higher incidences of sexual prejudice than lesbian women or bisexual men, and increased violence, verbal abuse and crime. They are more likely to be perceived as mentally ill or as child molesters. To mitigate the effect of these outcomes, gay men may use a variety of methods to disclose their sexual identity, such as direct disclosure, clues, and speculation. Their methods of disclosure often depend on social contexts, such as whether or not the audience is a member of their family, work community, or friendship group. However, much of the research about gay men coming out only focuses on verbal direct disclosure.

Said Chester, the study’s lead author, “While taking a break from work one evening, I came across news articles about young men who were using Facebook to come out to their loved ones. The thought of coming out on social media intrigued me, and I began searching for scientific literature on the topic. To my surprise, no empirical articles existed about the phenomenon, so I decided to conduct a study.”

It turns out that coming out on Facebook is actually quite common. In fact, previous research revealed that more than 6 million Americans have come out on Facebook since 2014. Chester’s study sought to formulate a better understanding of gay men’s use of the social media tool for this purpose, to identify goals for coming out online, and investigate differences between disclosure methods.

“Overall, an interesting pattern emerged that gay men used Facebook as a way to avoid repeated, emotionally-taxing discussions about their sexuality,” said Chester. “The men in our study who came out online said it was a wholly positive experience in which they received significant social support that exceeded their expectations. Our research provides valuable information about the shifting landscape in which gay men are coming out to others.”

“This study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”

“Research in this area, like our use of social media in general, is evolving,” said Rochlen. “Matt has done an amazing job of using some of his own experiences and observations to contribute to a needed and novel research area with real-world implications. Even if on a small scale, this study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”   

Although the research only looked at gay men’s use of Facebook to come out, Chester said, “There are interesting trends—especially among young people—with regard to use of social media, specifically, engagement with social media well beyond Facebook with platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Twitter.  I would like to see future research focus on coming out in a digital age across all these platforms.”


Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio are deaf. They have lived the experience—as students and professionals—of working with accommodations and breaking down barriers. Their passion for changing the paradigm of the educational experience in the U.S. for deaf individuals has influenced their work as researchers.

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Cawthon is the director of a new center in the College of Education that has received a $20 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It is one of the largest grants awarded by the DOE to support technical assistance and professional development in education.

The center’s goal is to help change the climate, culture and expectations for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level”

“We want people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have access to more robust services—services that serve the whole person, and that have been, and that have been proven effective. We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level,” says Cawthon, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and an Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Education.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute, which will open in January, will be housed in the College’s Meadows Center’s infrastructure and nationally recognized expertise in translating research into practice.

“Dr. Cawthon will lead a strong collaborative national team of researchers and practitioners. The project is well-positioned to draw upon extensive experience, data-driven research, and scholarship in the field,” says College of Education Dean Manuel J. Justiz.

The center will support colleges and universities that work with organizations and public agencies across the nation to more effectively address postsecondary, vocational, technical, continuing, and adult educational needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“Ultimately, we seek to change the culture surrounding postsecondary outcomes for deaf individuals and create conditions for success in a way that recognizes and honors their experiences, perspectives, and abilities,” says Garberoglio, project Manager at the Meadows Center and a co-principal investigator on the team.

Currently, best practices for supporting educational outcomes after high school for deaf and hard of hearing individuals have not been studied rigorously or shared broadly, which means that uneven outcomes are common. The new center aims to change that.

The center’s researchers want to increase admittance to, persistence in and completion of college or post-secondary training without remedial coursework, as well as institutional capacity to implement evidence-based practices and strategies. The team also wants to increase the body of knowledge on ways to use technology to promote access and provide accommodations.

Says Cawthon, “I’m proud that we’re bringing together teams of people from education, business, and community organizations, as well as families, in an innovative and useful effort. We want to improve the research and find better ways for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to overcome challenges and be successful.”

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention latest report estimates that 1 in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. Those are daunting numbers, but there is hope. Produced by the Longhorn Network, this documentary focuses on three innovative researchers in the College of Education who are making an impact in the field of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Video by: Longhorn Network

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