One troubling aspect about the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field is its lack of diversity. Much attention is paid to the gender gap in STEM fields, as well as the underrepresentation of non-Asian minorities, but another important demographic to consider when diversifying the STEM workforce is people with disabilities. In fact, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched funding for research studies on STEM education and STEM workforce development for persons with disabilities.
Some of the STEM education programs for people with disabilities are programs designed specifically for those who are blind or visually impaired. Three top universities have played important roles in developing these programs. Read on to learn more about them.
At the University of Arizona (UA), a team of faculty members received grant funding from the NSF to start Project POEM. With faculty members from the UA College of Education and the UA College of Science as the principal investigators, the project aims to expose teens with visual impairments to STEM-focused careers. Students from across the state of Arizona take part in this 14-month program.
The program starts with a week’s stay at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, an astronomy center affiliated with the UA College of Science. The SkyCenter offers Sky School, a program that introduces students in grades K-12 to a variety of scientific topics including astronomy, geology, ecology, and tree ring science. As part of Project POEM, this Sky School program has been modified for those who are visually impaired.
During the school year, participants will learn from a specially designed curriculum emphasizing astronomy and planetary science. One important element of this curriculum is the use of 3-D models of the craters the students will be learning about. Whereas most students learn about what the craters look like by observing pictures, the students in Project POEM will touch and feel models of the craters instead. These models have been made in UA laboratories using data from UA research projects in astronomy.
Additionally, Project POEM includes structured mentoring for the student participants. Each student is matched with two mentors: one, a UA student majoring in a STEM field, and the other, a STEM professional who has a visual impairment. These professional mentors work in such STEM fields as oceanography, math, software engineering, biomedical engineering, and organic chemistry. Students and mentors will communicate with each other virtually throughout the program.
Pennsylvania State University is one of the many sponsors of Summer Academy, a free program for high school students who are blind or visually impaired in the state of Pennsylvania. The aim of Summer Academy is to prepare students with the skills and independence they’ll need in a post-secondary educational setting. In particular, the three-week academy highlights skills training in areas such as traveling independently, professional networking, and daily living activities.
Recognized by the US Department of Education as an emerging best practice in transition services, Summer Academy also offers a weeklong addition to the standard programming that focuses on STEM education and STEM workforce preparation. This extra week emphasizes hands-on activities in the STEM field and introduces students to various STEM careers.
Alumni of the academy are eligible for the Summer Academy Student Association (SASA), which provides opportunities for ongoing networking and mentoring. Some of the highlights of this program are the opportunity to strengthen self-advocacy abilities and teambuilding skills. This annual event consists of four days of interactive programming.
Researchers affiliated with the Center for Global Soundscapes at Purdue University have developed the soundscape camp curriculum Your Ecosystem Listening Labs, or YELLs. Some of the highlights of the YELLs curriculum include using 3-D models and introducing technologies for recording sound. After careful study, YELLs researchers found that the program develops student abilities in ecological and scientific knowledge as well as abstract thinking. Additionally, the program contributes to appreciation for nature and motivation for active listening. Finally, the program increases interest in joining the STEM workforce.
Beginning in 2014, the YELLs curriculum was implemented at five-day camps on the Perkins School for the Blind campus. Although the in-person camps concluded in 2017, the YELLs curriculum is still available online. It is suited for students in grades 5-8, and while originally intended as a 5-day camp experience, the activities can also be completed separately. Areas of focus in the curriculum are physics, animal communication, and sound.