20 McKay School students attended the CEC special education convention this year
The group at CEC in Tampa
The group at the CEC Convention in Tampa. Courtesy of Kurt Cottle.

The McKay School’s Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department sent 20 students to have the rare opportunity to participate in the annual Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Convention and Expo in Tampa, Florida. 

“It was cool just to see all the special educators come together with the same purpose,” said Kurt Cottle, co-president of the student branch of CEC at BYU. Cottle and his fellow students found themselves surrounded by 4,150 attendees from 20 countries.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came from BYU President Kevin J Worthen’s Inspiring Learning Initiative. Faculty could apply to the McKay School for these funds to support undergraduate students. Heidi Nelson—professor in the CPSE department—wrote the grant that allowed the special education students to attend the CEC conference, providing the students’ flights and registration fees for the convention.

Professors Ryan Kellems and Katie Steed also joined the students at the convention. Kellems was able to present with two students, Bruna Goncalves and Rachel Ferguson.

Together, Kellems and the students are exploring the use of live animation and virtual characters (avatars) as a method of teaching social skills to individuals with disabilities. Goncalves and others control the avatars to interact with kids with disabilities, helping the kids learn while avoiding sometimes-difficult exchanges with humans.

You can see an example of the avatar in action here.

Goncalves and Ferguson have worked on this project with Kellems for months. “It was literally research they had a hand in every single part of,” said Kellems. The presentation was a culmination of the students’ work, and a memorable highlight of the trip.

“My whole goal in being in special education is to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Goncalves. “I’ve seen that by working on this project and presenting in Tampa that it’s not only possible, but I’ve been able to learn how the process goes.”

Bruna Goncalves, Rachel Ferguson, and Ryan Kellems after their presentation. Courtesy of Bruna Goncalves.
Bruna Goncalves, Rachel Ferguson, and Ryan Kellems after their presentation. Courtesy of Bruna Goncalves.


The convention was described by many as inspiring, and Cottle came away from this convention with one powerful lesson: “Simply be an advocate for the students with disabilities.” He continued, “To be an advocate is to be someone to stand up for these children with disabilities. An advocate is someone with a strong voice and an ability to look for ways to help the students and their families to reach their goals.”

The students were also able to learn in a less formal way. Dean Mary Anne Prater of the McKay School attended the convention and took some time to talk with the students. “As a faculty member, it was really neat to see the dean interact with the students on that level,” said Kellems.

“It was an opportunity for all of us there to express our gratitude to her for all that she did in allowing us to come and have that experience in Florida,” said Cottle.

Dean Prater with students
Dean Prater with Kurt Cottle and Jordan Hollan. Courtesy of Kurt Cottle.


The time spent with Dean Prater wasn’t the only chance for the students to relax a little. An afternoon at the beach, a boat ride in the harbor, and a group dinner one night were just a few ways the group took advantage of their trip to Tampa.

This trip is a perfect representation of the Inspiring Learning Initiative promoted by President Worthen, funded by a grant meant to capture the spirit of the initiative. It was truly a trip that these students won’t soon forget.


Writer: Jake Gulisane

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922