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 Profiles in Excellence 

Trying to Fit In

Lisa Johnson
Lisa Hansen Johnson, '03

Learning to negotiate social situations is tough for most middle-school children, but having a disability compounds the problem, said Lisa Hansen Johnson, who is visually impaired.

"I know it's hard to fit in because I experienced it," Johnson said.

Johnson is interested in the social difficulties disabled children and adults face. She believes the problems evolve in stages as a child grows up.

"Disabled people often feel they are just like everyone else when they are in the early grades in school. Then by fifth grade they start to realize they are not the same," Johnson said. "Socially they become aware they are not welcome in the social cliques that are forming. By high school, they are very aware of the social differences."

Looking at social development of people with disabilities is now the basis of Johnson's doctoral dissertation, but her research into this problem started during her senior year in college. Johnson took a required education class with Dr. Katherine Rhoades, a former professor of education who is now a professor and dean emerita and the interim coordinator of women's studies at UW-Eau Claire. As part of the class, the students were required to do a semesterlong research project and present it at a research exposition.

Johnson chose to study the social implications of being disabled. Around the state, she interviewed disabled adults, college students and children in various grades. She made an hourlong documentary showing disabled characters in social scenes from movies such as "Forrest Gump," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "At First Sight," interspersed with clips from the interviews with the adults, college students and children about their social experiences. In addition, Johnson had disabled high school students keep a journal where they recorded their emotions regarding social issues for one week. Her presentation included the documentary, a display of these journals and a 35-page research paper.

"Lisa did an extraordinary job on the project," Rhoades said. "I think it was a life changing experience for her."

Johnson also did research with Dr. Karen Havholm, a professor of geology."I was used to using slides of geological features to explain concepts — for example, a photo of a U-shaped valley to illustrate an effect of a glacier on the landscape," Havholm said. When she encountered Johnson as a student in her class, she realized her methods of teaching didn't work.

Havholm suggested she and Johnson research ways to present class material other than visually.

Johnson's research had a major impact on Havholm's approach to teaching.

"A major concept I learned through Lisa's research was the idea of universal design for learning," Havholm said. "This is the notion that you should design anything to accommodate as many people as possible, and in theprocess you actually help everyone. For example, a sighted novice learner in geology might look at the photo of a U-shaped valley and not notice the U shape that you, as the expert teacher, think is obvious. By using descriptive language when you show the slide, you accommodate the person with visual impairment, but at the same time any number of sighted learners in the classroom may also have a better learning experience."

Johnson translated her research on universal design into a poster presentation, which earned her first place at UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day in 2002. She also presented the poster at the national conference of the Geological Society of America. From there, she was recruited to do a project for NASA, evaluating NASA educational materials to make the information accessible for all students.

Johnson went to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum, where she made suggestions and also evaluated learning materials. As part of her job, Johnson traveled to the Kennedy and Johnson space centers and was in mission control at the Marshall Space Flight Center during the 2003 Columbia space launch.

Johnson's research also helped her to become one of the 20 students nationwide to be named to USA Today's 2003 All-USA College Academic First Team. The award recognizes significant academic endeavors at the undergraduate level and is given annually by the USA Today newspaper. She was the first UW-Eau Claire student to receive the national honor.

The research and resulting opportunities to work for NASA prepared her for her later work on a master's degree from UW-Eau Claire, which she received in 2006, and for her current doctoral work at the University of Minnesota.

"I am a better researcher and a better student because of those experiences," Johnson said.

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