Radio Series Encourages Young Women with Disabilities to Consider Careers in Science

Access to Advancement

With funding from the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Research in Disabilities Education program, WAMC Northeast Public Radio (www.wamc.org) produced a series of ten feature-length radio stories that highlight the opportunities for, and achievements of, women with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Entitled Access to Advancement: An Audio Exploration of the National Effort to Increase the Role of Women with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the series is divided into two parts: Part One includes five stories about products, educational practices, and research designed to broaden the participation of women with disabilities in STEM; and Part Two includes five profiles of women with disabilities who have been involved with the products, practices, and research featured in Part One, relating their individual stories and personal achievements.

Access to Advancement builds on the success of five previous radio series produced by WAMC and funded by NSF's Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program, which examine the role of women in STEM education and careers. All of WAMC's "women in STEM" programming contributes to a nationwide effort to involve more women, people with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in the STEM workforce.

According to the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, data suggest that the U.S. world share of the science and engineering labor force is continuing to decline. Many researchers indicate that women, underrepresented minorities, and people with disabilities represent a largely untapped talent pool. Access to Advancement Principal Investigator Glenn Busby and Co-Principal Investigator Susan Barnett have worked with Independent Producer Allison Dunne to produce a radio series that provides the public, targeted audiences of women, students with disabilities, and educators, with information about what works and what does not to increase the quality and quantity of students with disabilities obtaining degrees in STEM and entering the STEM workforce.

The complete Access to Advancement series has been nationally distributed to the general public and to targeted audiences of women and students with disabilities, researchers, professors, teachers, guidance counselors, institutional and organizational leaders, and parents pursuant to a multi-media distribution plan. The series was broadcast on more than 300 radio stations nationwide, with the potential to reach millions of listeners, as well as to audiences throughout WAMC's listening area in the Northeast U.S., which serves nearly 400,000 monthly listeners in portions of seven northeastern states (NY, MA, CT, VT, NH, PA, and NJ). The series is available via Flash audio, podcast, and transcript on the WAMC Women in STEM website (www.womeninscience.org), which received more than 20,000 hits during the two-year project period and more than 16,000 podcast downloads. While compact discs (CDs) have become less popular in recent years, nearly 400 Access to Advancement CDs have also been distributed.

An independent evaluation firm, Action Research & Associates, conducted an evaluation of the Access to Advancement project to assist WAMC in its efforts to produce a stronger, better focused series of radio stories, and to assess the series' outcomes and impacts on target audiences. Focus groups provided radio producers with an enormous amount of insight that helped them to refine and improve the stories. Evidence from surveys and case studies indicates that Access to Advancement programming achieved its goal of positively impacting its primary target audiences of women with disabilities, parents, and educators. For example, the Access to Advancement stories significantly improved the women with disabilities' knowledge of career opportunities in STEM for women with disabilities. The data also suggest that Access to Advancement serves as an effective source of encouragement for women with disabilities to begin to consider careers in STEM. Listening to Access to Advancement also motivated some women with disabilities to take action to pursue further information about entering STEM careers, such as consulting with a university advisor about the idea of pursuing a career in STEM.

The surveys and case studies also found that Access to Advancement presented some effective role models who were women with disabilities in STEM fields, which stimulated the listeners to begin to consider STEM careers for themselves and other women with disabilities. There appeared to be exceptions to this finding, however. Some of the interviewee segments did not appear to connect as well with the test subjects. Listeners did not remember the information presented by some of the interviewees as well. There were other findings that indicate that additional research is needed to effectively understand, reach, communicate with, and motivate target audiences. For example, the women with disabilities who were tested through case studies and surveys were counter-intuitively less likely to report they would encourage other women with disabilities to enter into a STEM career after listening to the stories. The full Access to Advancement Formative and Summative Evaluation Reports are currently available to the general public on WAMC's Women in STEM website (http://womeninscience.org/resources.php). WAMC is investigating strategies for broadening the reach of the findings of the independent evaluation by publishing the results in public broadcasting, media, and education-related publications.

WAMC also internally collected data on project outcomes by inviting individuals to submit feedback through an online feedback form in exchange for a free CD. The feedback submitted online was overwhelmingly positive, with 88.5% of survey respondents describing the series as "Very useful." The majority of respondents (43.3%) identified themselves as educators (e.g., teachers, professors, school administrators) and 34.4% reported that the series informed their teaching practices. 85.9% of respondents said that they planned to share the series and/or website resources with students, friends, or family.

Overall, evidence from both the internal evaluation and independent evaluation of Access to Advancement indicate that the project has contributed to the national diversity in STEM effort by effectively communicating with target audiences information about products, teaching and learning practices designed for broadening the participation of women with disabilities in STEM education and careers. Furthermore, these findings represent a tremendous step forward on the path toward understanding the interests and listening styles of target audiences for future communication efforts designed to help build a more diverse national workforce.

Logos of project partners: AccessSTEM, DO-IT, and National Science Foundation