A Community of Scholars

Veronica Chao

The following article appeared in the December, 1994 issue of Prism.

Mentoring is an important part of the precollege program that Sheryl Burgstahler has run at the university of Washington (UW) since 1992. That's why when she read that world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was giving a lecture in Seattle, she asked if he would meet with some of the high school students with disabilities who participate in UW's DO-IT Scholars Program. He was interested because the kids were all interested in science, Burgstahler says.

Using a computer and a speech synthesizer, Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease at age 21, spent two hours answering student's questions. While a few questions dealt with science and Hawking's education, wrote DO-IT mentor Kevin Berg in the program's newsletter, the majority of the students asked for advice on how to overcome disabilities. Hawking's answer, wrote Berg, a computer science undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University who has cerebral palsy, came down to one basic message: Maintain a positive attitude.

Supported by a three-year National Science foundation grant, the DO-IT (short for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Scholars Program seeks to recruit young people with disabilities into engineering, science, and mathematics study and careers. Hawking's summer 1993 meeting with DO-IT scholars supported one of the program's primary goals: to put its participants in touch with role models and mentors with disabilities who are accomplished professionals and students in engineering, math, and science. Along with learning more about careers in those fields, DO-IT students learn which science and math courses they should take to prepare for college - information DO-IT staff has found these students haven't typically gotten from high school teachers and counselors.

Ongoing Support

What makes UW's program distinctive may be not only its target group but also its approach. DO-IT involves students over a period of three years, a feature that is unique among the growing number of university-based programs for students with disabilities, says Beth Goodrich of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project on Science, Technology, and Disability. Students are selected - usually in the sophomore year of high school - on the basis of interest and ability in engineering, science, or math.

Technology is a mainstay of the program. The first thing Burgstahler and her staff do is set the scholars up with an at-home computer system - if they don't already have one - and any adaptive technology they need to use it. Through Internet network connections, DO-IT scholars communicated with other students in the program and DO-IT mentors throughout the year. They can also access the program's Gopher server, which can link them to information on engineering, science, and math and to resources on disabilities. Though Burgstahler checks regularly to make sure students are using the equipment, it usually isn't a problem to get them involved, she says. Students are particularly eager to share experiences with on another, she say, and they ask mentors about everything from planning for college and careers in engineering to coping with disabilities.

Summer Study

Two consecutive programs held during the student's first two summers in DO-IT give them a chance to spend a few weeks on the UW campus studying engineering, math, and science with faculty members in those fields. So far, summer workshops have covered such diverse topics as robotics, recycling consumer electronics, genetic engineering, creativity and entrepreneurship, and heart surgery. DO-IT staff help recruit and prepare faculty volunteers to work with the students, many of whom have significant disabilities including blindness, hearing impairment, and mobility or orthopedic impairment. The students themselves, are very up front about telling you what their difficulty is and what you can do to help, adds Gaetano Boriello, a computer science professor who led a session on the basics of digital hardware.

Boriello's observation about the DO-IT scholars' assertiveness points up another of the program's goals: to help students become their own advocates. In college, they won't have a parent or teacher to fill that role, says Burgstahler, who is also UW's assistant director or information systems computing and communications. The DO-IT program encourages participants to figure out what it is a faculty member needs to know about you for you to be a success in a class, she say.

Independent Projects

Throughout the school year, students work on independent projects, some of which are technical - one participant who is blind developed a computer - based CHAT system so the groups of students could converse together on the Internet. Other projects support the DO-IT program or help increase public understanding of people with disabilities. DO-IT scholars have planned their own field trips, for example, and have given talks on adaptive technology to together groups. All of the projects share a dual purpose, Burgstahler says: to teach students leadership skills and to give them experience working on a real project - something that many lack.

The program is important to engineering and even more important to people with disabilities, says Ray Bowen UW's dean of engineering. The tendency has been to educate people with disabilities at some minimal level, to channel students with disabilities into activities that are not as challenging as science, math, and engineering, Bowen says. Programs like DO-IT will make it possible for people with disabilities to work to their intellectual capacity and to be greater contributors to society.

As students make their way through the program, and go on to college - as several of the 36 students who have participated in DO-IT have already done - they can become mentors for new scholars. The program, Burgstahler claims, is an opportunity for people with disabilities to share experiences and encourage one another. We're creating a community here.

It's a community that Bowen hopes will endure. We hope this project will have a life span beyond three years, so that we can follow this cadre of students not only to the university but to employment.