How to Create STEM Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

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(Image credit: Joan Dragonfly/Creative Commons)

Throughout my career as an educator, one statistic I had seen stuck in my head: 80% of people living with disabilities are between the ages of 24-64. they are unemployed. Especially given the lack of support in public education for students with disabilities, I knew I wanted to do something to make a difference, which is why, in 2014, I started Catalyst at North Carolina State Universitywhat do you think opportunities in STEM for students with disabilities.

joann blumenfeld

Today, Catalyst is a program within the university that aims to open opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math for high school students with disabilities. We now have a class of 40 students with various forms and types of disabilities, from muscular dystrophy to dyslexia. And we’re working hard every day to ensure that those students don’t fall for this 80% statistic and unemployment record, but instead explore hands-on research and even engage in internships.

The path to this level of success and support for the disability community did not happen overnight. It took my experience and knowledge to put together this program and curriculum. But investing time and resources in this important work is critical to creating opportunities for those facing disproportionate impacts from unemployment. So how can we do better? I’ll take you back to the beginning of the journey.

Issues Facing STEM Education in Public Schools

I taught grades pre-K-12 as a special education and science teacher in Wake County Public Schools for 20 years, and 98% of my students were from low-income communities and people of color. From this experience, I saw firsthand the benefits of high-quality STEM and technology education, and learned how it helps students with disabilities transcend educational inequity by training them for high-demand careers so they can succeed in a career. competitive workforce.

But in the public school system, I fought to make my vision a reality.

Perhaps the most critical element I discovered during my two-decade tenure in public schools is that hands-on learning is the best way to teach STEM. However, at the time, I was only given a budget of $1.50 per year per student. This meant that I had to write and apply for grants to keep these programs funded and running on my own.

Beyond the lack of budget and available resources, students with disabilities face other significant problems in public school systems, including:

  1. Lack of practical learning.
  2. Text-based learning.
  3. Teaching for state exams.
  4. large classes
  5. Limited experience teaching students with disabilities.
  6. Special education teachers with limited STEM experience.

Ultimately, the barriers to increasing interest in STEM education and opportunities for students with disabilities are not because of them, but because of the educational boxes in which they learn.

That’s exactly what we’re looking to solve with Catalyst.

catalyst for change

Driving positive change requires setting clear goals, having a defined approach for students to experience hands-on learning, and working to slowly shift stigma through partnerships with corporations and people with disabilities who are already part of the tech workforce. .

The four main components of Catalyst are STEM content and skills; workforce readiness skills; college preparation skills; and a paid STEM internship. Catalyst has a week-long summer session and Saturday sessions during the school year. We typically look for a three to four year commitment so that we can develop students’ skills and knowledge. We have won four national awards since 2014, and more importantly, all students are doing well on STEM educational pathways in college.

5 STEM Goals for Students with Disabilities

In our quest to get students with disabilities interested in STEM fields, we laid out a plan.

  • Prepare students with disabilities to enter post-secondary degree programs in STEM fields, such as solo 15% of people with disabilities have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Reduce the unemployment rate among people with disabilities. About 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed. Given the monetary requirements to meet basic housing, health care, and other necessities, helping people with disabilities become competitive candidates for career opportunities is critical.
  • Increase the pool of applicants for highly-skilled STEM workers in our state. Doing so will help end North Carolina’s STEM workforce deficits by increasing the number of residents who have the proper content preparation to enter a STEM career. Current and projected STEM openings exceed the number of highly qualified applicants available to fill such openings.
  • Increase workforce diversity by inciting opportunities for industry innovation/growth. We also want to change the mindset of people with disabilities as “not the ones who need help”, but the ones who can make the world a better place and be an asset to industry, government and higher education settings.
  • Have students learn advocacy skills so they can proactively work toward better educational and job opportunities.

If we want an inclusive education system and resulting workforce, it is imperative to help students with disabilities develop these skills and achieve these goals. We cannot do this work alone. In the future, my hope is that Catalyst’s mission will inspire other states to implement similar programs, which will provide economic and educational opportunities for our underserved students across the country.

Joann Blumenfeld is one of 10 recipients this year of the new Verizon and TIME Innovative Teachers Awards for changing education in the US She is certified in science, special education, language arts, and environmental education. At North Carolina State University, she is director of the Catalyst and GIST program, which connects students with autism to geographic information systems. Contact Blumenfeld by email.


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