The Empowering Blind Students in Science and Engineering (EBSSE) workshop was held June 1-3, 2014 at the Talaris Conference Center in Seattle Washington, near the University of Washington. Details of the workshop including the program can be found at the EBSSE website.
The EBSSE workshop brought together three groups of people to foster mentoring and networking among blind students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The first group consisted of 18 blind undergraduates and graduate students in STEM fields who applied from a pool of applicants. The second group consisted of 17 blind mentors, some with PhDs, who are successful blind professionals working in STEM fields. Most of the mentors had extensive experience in mentoring blind students. The third group consisted of eight local leaders in industry, education, and government who attended for various lengths of time the second day. The leaders participated in mentoring and learned from listening to the successes and challenges of the blind students and mentors. Additionally, a professional in contemplative practices participated.
In total, there were 44 participants, 35 of whom were blind. Seven volunteers helped with guiding, meal and snack services, and other needed logistical tasks. The organizing committee included three of the blind mentors and two of the leaders.
The workshop program consisted of:
- Structured Plenary Sessions: The structured plenary talks each had a specific goal in mind. There were base concepts that we wanted to convey through the workshop that consisted of specific content best relayed through plenary talks. Examples include self-advocacy and accessibility tools for math, science and engineering. These talks served to give students information they need in order to succeed in different fields.
- Contemplative Sessions: A contemplative practices teacher led meaningful reflections and activities to deepen attendees’ experiences. Starting with introductions on the first evening, her activities paused the information flow to allow attendees to engage more deeply with themselves and others.
- Semi-Structured Breakout Sessions: Before the workshop, we divided the students into groups according to their field of study. We assigned mentors to facilitate breakout sessions consisting of semi-structured discussion about the career field. We knew that students would be coming with varying levels of experience and many different questions. The breakout sessions allowed students to ask questions we may have not covered during the program, for students and mentors with like-minded career goals to interact, and for cross mentoring among mentors and students through sharing of experiences and brainstorming creative solutions for problems brought up during discussion. Students and mentors met with their career-related breakout group twice during the workshop. Additionally, students could go to a choice breakout once to learn about another field.
The students and mentors participated in all sessions. On the second day, leaders participated in sessions that matched their interests and their availability. When leaders arrived, we invited them to introduce themselves and talk briefly about themselves and their professional leadership roles. Leaders participated in mentoring and were mentored as they participated in the activities. There were many one-on-one and small group interactions between the leaders and the students and mentors.
Three online surveys were done: one for students, one for mentors, and one for the local leaders. The response rates were 16/18 for students, 12/16 for mentors, and 3/8 for local leaders. Questions in the evaluation were developed in cooperation with the funder who provided primarily financial support. In addition to the surveys, four students and three mentors representing varying responses to the surveys were interviewed.
The surveys covered all the aspects of the workshop, plenary session, breakouts, and contemplative activities. Surveys assessed the extent to which students were mentored and the extent to which mentors were able to mentor students. A few highlights from the surveys:
- Almost all student and mentors felt the workshop fostered a strong sense of community.
- All but one student felt adequately mentored and all mentors felt they mentored a great deal.
- There were mixed reviews of the contemplative activities, although more than two thirds of students and mentors felt at least somewhat positive about them.
- The breakout sessions organized by discipline or interest were very successful because of the close contact between students and mentors. Generally, students felt they came away motivated to succeed in their respective fields.
- The plenary sessions were generally well received by the students. There were lots of questions during these sessions.
One of the biggest challenges was facilitating communication among blind students and mentors with the local leaders, given that these leaders were not able to attend the entire workshop. Although the local leaders underwent a remarkable transformation by spending a short time with the students and mentors, the students and mentors hoped for more direct communication with a greater number of the professionals. Given leaders’ busy schedules, it is important to structure workshops to make the most out of the limited time they have available.
Fetzer Institute provided the primary financial support for the workshop. The incremental cost was about $1,300 per participant not including those who attended locally. There were some fixed costs including about $15,000 for the program manager who organized the workshop. In addition, the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering contributed the time of two staff members to help with planning, registration, and logistics. AccessComputing provided support as well. Five graduate students and two other people who accompanied participants generously volunteered to help during the workshop. Finally, the staff of the Talaris Conference Center did an excellent job in preparing the site for a workshop with a large number of blind individuals.
For a workshop of this size it is vital to have a program manager who can help organize all aspects of the event. There was an organizing committee of very busy people who set the guidelines for the event, but a program manager is needed to make it happen.
All blind attendees were experienced travelers so there were almost no difficulties in getting them to and from the conference center. To save on costs, we used a car service to take multiple people between the airport and the conference center.
The conference center had never had so many blind people come at the same time. The program manager helped the conference center to prepare so that there were little or no surprises. One example of this was adding Braille labels to the rooms in the center. When people arrived on the Sunday before the conference, we were able to give them a tour of the conference center and nearby restaurants. We arranged for volunteers to help with serving food, guiding, and other necessary things during the workshop. These volunteers were students who do research in accessibility, so they benefitted from the experience of being around so many different blind people. One of the organizers served as volunteer coordinator to help with training and assignments of tasks.
- Empowering Blind Students in Science and Engineering workshop website
- Workshop Program Schedule
- Student Survey
- Mentor Survey
- Leader Survey
- Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Project
- Research in Disabilities Education Collaborative Dissemination
- STEM and People with Disabilities (video)
- Working Together: Computers and People with Sensory Impairments (video)
- Working Together: Computers and People with Sensory Impairments (publication)