Think tank supports augmentative and alternative communication research

The Doctoral Student Research Think Tank in Augmentative and Alternative Communication supports the research community that works to improve outcomes for people with complex communication disabilities and their families.  Credit: Rob Peeler / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State recently hosted the Doctoral Student Research Think Tank in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) in order to support the research community that strives to improve outcomes for people with complex disabilities and their families. 

"For me, the Think Tank was an incredible opportunity to make connections with other doctoral students from all around the country who are passionate about supporting individuals who use AAC and who are also working hard to do so,” said Penn State doctoral student Salena Babb. “These are connections that will lead to future collaboration and are a support system as we all grow and continue in our careers.”

AAC systems, which often include computers, tablets or mobile devices, help both children and adults, whose speech does not adequately meet their communication needs due to autism, traumatic brain injury, ALS or other disabilities, to better communicate with their families and peers.

Funded by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on AAC, a federally funded research center, and the Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children's Communicative Competence at Penn State, the three-day event in May brought together doctoral students from across the country to meet researchers in the field, network with other doctoral students, and build research connections to advance the broader understanding of AAC. 

Event organizers included leading field researchers Janice Light, the Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children's Communicative Competence; David McNaughton, professor of special education at Penn State, with a dual appointment in communication sciences and disorders; and David Beukelman, Barkley Professor Emeritus of Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and senior researcher in the Institute for Rehabilitation Engineering and Science at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

According to McNaughton, “AAC, like many areas of education and health care, poses significant challenges in research and service delivery. It was exciting to see the doctoral students energized by the Think Tank. Seeing how others had addressed their own research goals gave the students renewed energy and new ideas for pursuing their vision for the field of AAC.”

Light added, “The Doctoral Student AAC Think Tank was all about connections — connections among doctoral students working to solve diverse problems; connections among these students and leading researchers in the field; connections among AAC research labs from across the country; and connections among ideas from diverse disciplines. Ultimately these connections will serve to propel AAC research forward to enhance understanding and improve quality of life for children and adults with the most complex disabilities and their families. The future is indeed much brighter because of the scientific knowledge and passion that these doctoral students bring to the field.”

Activities included presentations and discussions on establishing a line of research in AAC, developing important research questions, and building research teams; and small work-group sessions for participants to discuss their current and proposed AAC research activities and meet with other doctoral students who may have similar research interests.

"The Doctoral Student AAC Research Think Tank was a wonderful opportunity to learn from experts in the field and participate in a vibrant community of diverse researchers who are dedicated to making a difference in the lives of individuals with complex communication needs,” said Penn State doctoral student Jessica Gormley. “I am so grateful for the learning experience, the opportunity to share my ideas, and helpful feedback to launch my research career.”

For more information on the Doctoral Student AAC Research Think Tank, visit

Last Updated May 22, 2017