Growing up, Shalece Kohnke often heard her teachers say they enjoyed their jobs because “learning has always been fun.” As a student who deals with challenges presented by multiple learning disabilities, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

In fact, it was her own experience as a student with disabilities that spurred her decision to pursue a degree in education. Now, not only is Kohnke about to graduate with a doctoral degree in exceptional education, she’s also preparing to step into a new role as assistant professor of exceptional education at Auburn University in Fall 2023.

Kohnke has dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), dyscalculia (difficulty with math), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and central auditory processing disorder. Although having the necessary accommodations has been crucial, her success is also a testament to her own effort and perseverance. Despite the many challenges that come with her disabilities, Kohnke says that they’ve helped her develop a strong work ethic.

“I wanted to pursue a doctorate because I want to educate future teachers while ensuring that the perspective of someone with disabilities is portrayed in the classroom.”

“My learning disabilities are one of the very first things I tell people about,” she says. “Even when I was teaching, I’d tell my students, their parents and my colleagues because it’s a big part of who I am and why I teach. But it’s also something that I’m very proud of.”

Kohnke received her bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and her master of education degree with a specialty in learning and behavioral disorders from the University of Louisville. The Kentucky native soon found herself searching for her next step. After she found the exceptional education doctoral program in UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education, she took a leap of faith and made the move to Orlando at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her experience as a doctoral student sparked a newfound love for research, with an emphasis on STEM education and increasing its accessibility for all students, especially those with disabilities. Her dissertation, The Effect of Extended Reality on the Science Achievement Gap Between Students With and Without Disabilities, serves as a pilot study examining how extended reality — an umbrella term for virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality — impacted the science achievement gap between students with and without disabilities in a high school biology setting.

Kohnke chose a 360-degree, browser-based virtual reality program that is free for all users and works on any device with an internet connection. With this tool, students could explore the inside of a cell and its parts to observe all the different processes happening within it.

The results showed that students with disabilities demonstrated a larger learning gain.

“We’re talking about things you can’t even see — maybe under a microscope, but other times it’s just so abstract,” she says. “For students with disabilities, that’s a big challenge when learning these topics. Using extended reality allows students to view an abstract concept in a concrete manner. It’s important to me that research is applicable to and can be realistically implemented in the classroom.”

To measure how the use of extended reality impacted students’ learning gains, Kohnke administered both pre- and post-tests. The results showed that students with disabilities demonstrated a larger learning gain, therefore decreasing the achievement gap between them and their peers without disabilities.

“What I really look for in my research is how to close the gap so we’re on a level playing field,” she says. “The research showed that’s possible, and there’s a lot of potential in discovering whether this applies to other content areas. Can I translate that to math, engineering or physics? There are so many different opportunities there.”

Kohnke’s strong work ethic also paid off last year after being named a 2022 DRK-12 (Discovery Research PreK-13) U.S. National Science Foundation CADRE Fellow. She’s  one of 15 scholars nationwide and the third Knight to have earned this honor. The Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE) fellowship program offers professional growth opportunities for students whose work focuses on diversity, inclusion, equity and justice in PreK-12 STEM education.

“It’s something that never would have been on my radar to apply for if I didn’t have the encouragement from Dr. Lisa Dieker to do so, or the preparation and the opportunities that I’ve gotten through this program,” she says. “I have had fantastic support not only from my mentors, but also from the other doctoral students. They represented many different careers and career paths, and that exposure was something that I didn’t have in my other programs.”

As she leaves UCF, Kohnke is looking forward to continuing her research at Auburn University and using her latest work as a stepping stone for future larger-scale research.

“I feel very strongly about my mission of wanting to support students with disabilities and help them believe that they can do anything,” she says. “It’s really what drives me. I enjoy the work, and the research is an additional element to that because it helps us find effective ways to support teachers in the classroom. People with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as people without, and you do have to make some waves to make it easier for people who will come after you.”