STEM and People with Disabilities

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[Kayla] When I was in high school, science was always one of my favorite classes. You know, I loved biology.
[Yomara] I like equations and graphings, good with a calculator. I just like math like in general.
[Megan] I was hoping to pursue environmental science, or marine biology. I'm not sure.
[Narrator] Science, technology, engineering and mathematics-- or STEM-- are burgeoning fields, filled with exciting new opportunities. Yet, although technology has opened up these fields for people with disabilities, inadequate academic preparation, paired with issues of access and acceptance, have prevented many from entering STEM careers.
[Instructor] These cells start to get active and as the drug stays on they get more and more and more active.
[Julie] I think it's important to instill an interest in those areas in young children. If you wait until they're in junior high or high school, they don't have the basis for it and they don't have the natural love of it.
[Narrator] That's why programs funded by the National Science Foundation encourage students with disabilities to pursue STEM fields and help teachers prepare these students for a future in STEM.
[Narrator] Some of these programs are residential summer programs on college campuses. High school students participate in academic lectures and labs, live in residence halls, and practice skills that will help them become independent and successful in college.
[Instructor] So the axons are just firing randomly by themselves?
[Kayla] I think for any student, you're kind of skeptical about going to college. Like it seems like this huge deal and you're not sure if you can actually be successful in that. And so to kind of participate in a program with other students who also have disabilities, and you're kind of all learning this together. It was great because my confidence level just skyrocketed at that point.
[Yomara] I've never stayed away from home. That's why it's, like a, a fear of like, you depend on somebody so much that it's scary just to like think about leaving, and then when you're actually here and you have to, like, do it on your own. But you're like, well, that's real life. I mean I can't live with my parents until I'm, like, 40 or something.
[Narrator] Students like Kayla and Yomara benefit from practice in independent living and the value of academic exposure is immeasurable. In college prep programs, professors also introduce high school students to college level academics.
[Martha] In this workshop, we've had a group of six students with differing abilities, and we wanted them to get a sense of what neurobiology was like.
[Martha] These kids were fantastic. They wanted to know how things work, and so I think they got a lot out of it, and it was extremely satisfying for them and for us, I think.
[Instructor] Oh look right here OK these guys?
[Student] Take all the?
[Martha] We don't want students to be interested in science just because they could be a scientist or get involved. We also want people to appreciate the world around them. And once they appreciate the world around them, to appreciate the fact that they live in this world and they impact it and it impacts them. So, having science literacy is extremely important to our society.
[Narrator] Educators can work with students to devise accommodations. Students with disabilities benefit from practice advocating for themselves, so that they can become experts on their abilities and on what accommodations work best for them.
[Instructor] Colors?
[Megan] No because the earthquake first, right, and then tsunami.
[Narrator] Megan Phan has Tourettes Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable tics and vocalizations. Megan has learned to advocate for herself.
[Megan] What I do is I explain to the students -OH- before the class starts. Like, "Hey, guys, just a brief announcement. I have Tourettes" and then they'll, there's more of that -OH- awareness instead of just mystery. Just lay it out all on the table. And also, you know, ask the teacher if I can do that. It's not hard for me to just say, "Hey, this is what I need and hope you can help me and, you know, communicate."
[Alex] I guess being my own advocate is probably the best thing I ever did for myself. But it's also the biggest piece of advice I would give to other people in the same situation, because it's, like at first I was really shy about it and I didn't want to bring attention on myself, but I figured out later that I was a lot more successful if I got the things I needed, and that other people were not just willing to help me but usually they wanted to. And so I wasn't really inconveniencing anybody, I was actually just making the whole situation better.
[Narrator] Alex MacKenzie is legally blind, yet she works at a very detailed job, making DNA libraries for sequencing.
[Alex] When I first started working I was always really worried, it's like, did I just miss a really important detail because I didn't see it? But just, as I gained more experience, I realized that that wasn't the case, and that if my experiments failed, most of the time it was for any of the other really common reasons that everybody's experiments fail. So I guess it was just I needed to build confidence. But part of that building confidence is figuring out how I'm making up for the fact that I can't see as well as somebody else. And so there's a lot of things in lab that I can do because I can compensate the not being able to see by being able to do it by feel, or by listening for certain details to confirm that I, like, have the right volume in the conical tube as opposed to watching the water level rise. Most of the population counts on their vision to do tasks, it's like their primary sense, but there's almost always a work-around as long as you keep trying.
[Student] Is that good?
[Narrator] The earlier that students, including those with disabilities, are exposed to and encouraged to pursue math and science, the more successful and confident they will be. Academic preparedness is key for success in STEM careers.
[Erik] I feel really confident about it, and I feel that, like, if it's a math problem put in front of me that I can do it and that I, like, really enjoy it; and it's like really fun to me, sort of like solving puzzles or doing puzzles or playing games is for somebody, that's sort of what math is to me.
[Instructor] How are you guys doing?
[Narrator] Some programs give students the chance to visit working laboratories and meet scientists. The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute invited students to learn about global health issues.
[Theresa] It's one thing to build a space physically that encourages all walks of life and all thoughts of mind to come in and get involved in research and science. It's another to have training opportunities that are engaging, inviting and encourage everybody to have a great time while they're learning. We have the type of program that not only had the right spaces so that two young women who are doing the program today are in wheelchairs are actually able to do microscopic investigations and interact with other students who are interested in futures in science.
[Narrator] At the Research Institute, students get hands-on experience in state of the art laboratories that no high school could afford. Pairing students helps them learn to work as a team; together they draw on individual strengths.
[Teryn] There are many programs around the area that will provide for different experiences that we maybe can't provide in the classroom and I the most important thing I think a teacher can do is to put their feelers out and try and access and utilize their community, because each community has a unique opportunity for our students to really dig in to learning about real life, because that's what that's what's going to serve them in the long term. It's not sitting down and doing a worksheet. It's really getting their hands dirty.
[Narrator] Academic preparation lays the groundwork for STEM careers. For students with disabilities to perform on a level playing field, STEM learning environments must be designed to fully include them and reasonable accommodations need to be provided. in my classes helps all students. For example, for final exams, I know that some students are not very good at written exams, so I'll give them different options such as, a written exam would be one option, oral exam another option, special project would be a third option, and also class participation may be an option for a grade. And I found that this is a more fair way, a universal way, to get the knowledge that I'm trying to seek from students.
[Narrator] Universal design takes into account different ways students learn and interact with others, the environment and technology. Its application to learning environments requires that teachers think about creative ways to design instruction so that all students learn.
[Instructor] So how do you guys want to build this?
[Narrator] It's important to consider that some students may have learning disabilities that are not readily apparent. For example, Zach Hagstrom has dysgraphia, which affects his ability to write.
[Zach] I use the computer, which I use the spell check a lot, and grammar, along with the Microsoft Word. Sometimes I use a tape recorder for in the classroom, because writing it down on paper would ruin the notes. I wouldn't be able to understand what I wrote down. So I have the tape recorder for that. And then I also, if the teachers allow it, they print me off copies of their notes.
[Lia] I really appreciate it when my students come to me at the beginning of the course, and they introduce themselves and they tell me what they need. I try and include written material, visual material, audio, talking and looking at things. Any time I can have something to, to put our hands on, I think that's helpful as well.
[Lia] OK Good job on your observations of the intertidal organisms today. I'd like to now give you, before you leave, our class notes from our discussion, so you have that to refer to when you're studying for Friday's exam.
[Narrator] With full access to learning opportunities and solid academic preparation, students with disabilities are poised to succeed. But one final piece of the puzzle is acceptance. Negative attitudes have been identified as the single greatest barrier faced by individuals with disabilities who are pursuing a career in STEM fields. Educators, fellow students, employers, and co-workers who embrace the diversity that individuals with disabilities bring, find themselves working with gifted people whose abilities far outweigh their disabilities.
[Instructor] Yeah, you thought this was going be easy didn't you?
[Theresa] And we've realized that they're often smarter, have more stick-to-itiveness and more diligent, diligent about enduring problems than we can even imagine, and by providing outlets and pathways that simplify their inclusion in our community it's only going to enrich the biomedical workforce field.
[Narrator] Academic preparation from an early age, self advocacy, universal design of learning and work environments, and acceptance by educators, employers and peers,it's a recipe for success in STEM for individuals with disabilities. The result: a more diverse group of talented people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the enhancement of these fields with the unique abilities and perspectives of people with disabilities.
[Alex] I think the most important part of not being intimidated when you're entering the workforce as a disabled person is just to have confidence in your abilities, know your strengths and your weaknesses, because everybody has weaknesses. And just as long as you can find ways to get around those, even whether they are related to your disability or not, you'll be a stronger job candidate.
[Megan] So, I'm not sure if I want to help Mother Earth, or nature or children or adults or young girls, young women. But I do know that I want to help. And I like the environment. And, a lot, so we're living on it so [laughs] why not?
[Laughs] Right?
[Yomara] I read this one book, I totally forget what it's called but it had, like, a motto. This girl would always say, "I'm a rock and nothing can move me." So, I was just like, "I'm a rock, nothing can move me." Not true, but it was just to make you feel better. 00:09:16,686 --> 00:09:20,036 [Al] Applying universal design principles