Kaitlyn Engelhart, a senior undergraduate majoring in Speech Pathology and Audiology, and Associate Professor Hayley Arnold, Ph.D., worked together through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program to study the correlation between stress levels in pre-school age children and stuttering frequency. To help improve communication skills in children, Kaitlyn is studying to become a clinician for early childhood intervention.


What kind of research did you conduct?


Kaitlyn Engelhart

Kaitlyn Engelhart: We were looking at preschool age children who stutter, and we were putting them through stressful tasks to see if the number of disfluencies, also known as disruptions in speech, changed depending on the conditions presented. There were verbal tasks and nonverbal tasks. For the non-stressful verbal control task, the children who stutter were given pictures to look at. In the preliminary testing, the children had to name a series of pictures that allowed us to determine their vocabulary level; the children were asked to name pictures of objects with words that were at their vocabulary level and at their own pace. Then for the stressful verbal task, they were asked to name pictures of objects with words that were above their vocabulary level while being prompted to go faster. For the nonverbal control task, they had to draw pictures on Zoom—random shapes without any feedback. Then for the stressful condition, they were to draw a perfect circle and mildly critical feedback was provided such as that it was not totally round. We were going to take the narrative speech samples and analyze them to see how many stuttering-like disfluencies each child had under each condition, and then compare the two. We expected that the stressful conditions would be associated with more stuttering-like disfluencies. However, this did not occur, and we did not find any significant associations between the two conditions.


Hayley Arnold

Dr. Hayley Arnold: Through Zoom, we had preschoolers complete two verbal tasks: one was designed to be stressful, and one was designed to lower stress. Then another two tasks were nonverbal, which also varied by stress level. What Kaitlyn was interested in doing after these stressful or non-stressful tasks was analyzing levels of speech fluency, that is, how much they stuttered after completing a stressful task and a non-stressful task. The thinking was, would they stutter more after the more stressful tasks? Would they stutter more after the verbal versus nonverbal tasks?


What impact do you hope this research will have?

Dr. Hayley Arnold: One of my goals as a researcher is to be a part of a conversation with other scholars, and the more we do this work, the closer we get each time to better understanding stuttering and what factors are associated with it. Ideally, the research helps us figure out ways to better assess and treat stuttering. With science, most studies are not about changing everything that we know. It is usually incremental, a little bit closer to understanding with each step. It is important to share what we have learned in this study even when we did not find any differences between the various conditions. It is still helpful for scientists to know about null results, because somebody who may have the same idea to look at the association between speech disfluencies and stress might want to choose more stressful tasks or a different method.


Has the SURE program helped you develop as a professional?

Kaitlyn Engelhart: Definitely. My communication skills improved by having to ask questions and solve problems on my own, but also understanding there are still people who can help me if I have questions. I know how to get support when needed. Talking to other researchers, learning about their experiences, and being able to integrate that into my own work has also been instrumental as a professional. Collaboration, I learned, is crucial. Even though I was doing my own research project, it did not mean I was working by myself.

Something I have been learning about is interprofessional practice, making sure that I am using active listening skills, and understanding the limits of my knowledge. During the SURE program, I had to identify when I needed help and how to integrate feedback from Dr. Arnold to make sure that my research was on the right track. I needed to be sure I was keeping her in the loop about everything I was doing and effectively communicating my goals. I think that will be very important when I become a professional speech-language pathologist.


What do you think have been some of your prouder accomplishments in your research?

Kaitlyn Engelhart: During the program I was able to submit an ASHA proposal (American Speech and Hearing Association). They have an annual conference, and since I was working in SURE this year, Dr. Arnold encouraged me to submit a proposal on our research to the conference and it was accepted. That is really exciting! I will be going there in November and presenting alongside Dr. Arnold about the work I did in the program.


Do you think the SURE program has helped you think about your future career?

Kaitlyn Engelhart: Yes. As I was working with her, Dr. Arnold taught me a lot about the field and what it takes to become a competent clinician. I think I want to work with children now after listening to so many narrative speech samples from preschoolers and really understanding the need for early intervention and supporting children with their communication development.


Do you have any advice for an incoming SURE participant?

Kaitlyn Engelhart: I think the research process can feel overwhelming. I know when I first started, I had no idea what was going on. It all felt almost like a foreign language, but I think that’s normal in a way. You have to be patient and understand that you're here for a reason. And even though you may not know everything, there are still things you can do to contribute, listening to what is going on in the project and finding ways to become involved. I found that the research process can be frustrating at times because there are setbacks, and things do not always go as planned. Be patient, listen to feedback and integrate that into your work. Trust the process.


How did you observe Kaitlyn grow as a researcher and professional in her field?

Dr. Hayley Arnold: In terms of growth, there are a lot of things that Kaitlyn has done in her research she has probably never done before, such as setting up a data spreadsheet that we would use to do the analysis or doing detailed coding of speech sounds. This is nice because she has already learned how to recognize different kinds of speech disfluencies. When we get into clinical coursework in her graduate program, where she will be learning about stuttering-like disfluencies, she is going to have a leg up; she will also be helping me teach that to her peers. She has gained a lot of knowledge and skill around recognizing what different types of speech disfluencies are like.

I am proud that we have gone through the full process of identifying research questions and gathering the data. Kaitlyn processed all of the data from our research and then analyzed and presented it. Kaitlyn has gotten to see some of the scholarly process, from questioning to dissemination of the findings. That is a really big thing that she gets to be a part of that I think most students usually do not. They mainly get to read about research that has been done, but to actually do it is a pretty valuable thing, and I am thrilled that she has been able to accomplish that during the SURE program. Kaitlyn continued to do some of this work afterwards; she just recently ran the analysis, and she extended it beyond the summer experience.


What do you think was the most beneficial experience you had in the program?

Kaitlyn Engelhart: I think the knowledge Dr. Arnold has given me about the research process is invaluable; not only on how to conduct experiments, but also how to use research as a clinician and integrating it into your practice to ensure that everything you do is evidence based so you can better help your clients in speech therapy sessions.

Dr. Hayley Arnold: One of the things that is beneficial is working with a very bright and motivated student, someone who is interested in learning how to do this work, is intelligent, and works hard. I also think I would not do much research if I had to do it all by myself, because there is a lot of work that goes into getting data ready for analysis. It is very helpful to have students who are usually my best collaborators assist in getting work done.

Written by: Evan Garrett