Students Link Up With Computers

Gale Metcalf

The following article is reprinted with permission from the August 16, 1993 issue of the Tri-City Herald.

Irene Hays has long dreamed of helping students with disabilities become scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

"DO-IT" may do it.

The University of Washington pilot program that helps students with disabilities explore careers in the sciences has found a supporter in Battelle Northwest. Hays is manager of the Science Education Center for Battelle.

"The ability to connect our scientists with students with disabilities is a dream I've had for years," Hays said.

It's now happening in the Tri-Cities and statewide through DO-IT.

Just 20 students in the state have been selected to inaugurate Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT). They are now at a two-week summer camp at the university in Seattle.

Katie Bonner, a junior at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, and Rachel Allen, a junior at Hanford High in Richland, are among them. They return for the live-in program at the university for a second summer next year. At camp, DO-IT participants participate in labs ranging from oceanography, chemistry and physics, to seismology and engineering. They also get computer training.

The students return home to continue year-round networking with mentors. Linking the two Tri-City teens from their homes to outside mentors throughout the world are computers, modems and software installed in their homes by the University of Washington.

"The systems are individually designed for the students," Hays said. Students with visual or dexterity needs, for example, find keyboards and the rest of the system set up to compensate for those disabilities, she explained. The same with any other disability.

Bonner, Allen and the other high school students can communicate with one another, college students, practicing engineers and scientists. Some have disabilities themselves.

"We've got a long list of mentors," Rachel's mother, Donna Pearson, said. They are from all over the world, including places like Scotland and Russia. Some with disabilities and some not.

Katie, the daughter of Joyce and Robert Bonner, was born with severe to profound hearing loss.

Allen, the daughter of Donna Pearson and stepdaughter of Ray Pearson, had a brain hemorrhage in 1987, followed by a massive stroke. She has overcome much of the disability but still has some limitations.

Project director Sheryl Burgstahler, a UW professor in the College of Engineering, Computing and Communications, said individuals with disabilities are successful in the scientific fields, but are underrepresented.

She told those attending camp: "Each of you was selected...because of your aptitude and interest in science, engineering and mathematics, your potential for pursuing a four-year college degree in these areas, and your motivation."

Her hope is these students will one day be mentors.

Hays said a visit in December to UW introduced her to Burgstahler's program funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.

Reaching out to youth interested in the sciences is not new at Battelle. It is philosophically and financially committed to programs advancing students' interest and knowledge through on-site work and education programs. Most are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. It was harder to apply to students with disabilities, however.

"Often (the Battelle programs) require they be mobile," Hays said. "We were just challenged to find out how to do that."

She saw two roles for Battelle in DO-IT

"One was to provide a way for the students to connect to Internet without paying a long-distance charge," Hays said. "The students would have to bear the cost (of long distance) and that could become costly and eventually prohibitive."

Battelle's "computer wizards," Jerry Johnson and Walt Descenza have designed links through Battelle allowing free-flowing communications for Allen and Bonner without cost. Discenza is manager of Battelle's Information Systems Department where Johnson works.

"My goal also was to connect our scientists with the students," Hays said.

Many of the 15 on the Staff Disabilities Committee, a special committee of employees with disabilities, are interested to participate when the program really gets off and running after summer camp.

Frank Cuta, a blind engineer, already is involved.

"He's working with a blind student in Seattle," Hays said.

Mentors don't have to have a disability. Nor is it required the blind work with blind students or the deaf with the deaf.

For more information on the program, write to: Sheryl Burgstahler, Project Director, University of Washington, JE-25, Seattle, WA 98195, or call 206-543-0622.