EAST's Undergraduate Research Fellowships: A Promising Practice on Access to Research Fellowships for Students with Disabilities

Date Updated

Undergraduate research fellowships (URFs) can have a transformative effect on students with disabilities entering science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields. At the Eastern Alliance for Students with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics2 (EAST-2) URFs were funded opportunities for students to propose research and collaborate with faculty mentors at the University of Southern Maine (USM). Although opportunities for mentored undergraduate research have increased over the last decade, students with disabilities are less likely to have these experiences.

Merely granting a URF to a student with disabilities, however, does not automatically guarantee success. In fact, EAST has found that many factors present barriers and that it is critical to approach URFs from a universal design perspective. Some strategies and supports that EAST put in place to support student success included:

  • providing students with adaptive technology (i.e., LiveScribe pen and Dragon Naturally Speaking software to allow notes to be dictated and then transcribed later, Kurzweil reading software to facilitate the reading of dense scientific articles, the use of a personal data assistant to track meetings and deadlines); and
  • developing supportive one-on-one mentoring relationships between students and their faculty supervisors.

Universal design considerations in URFs are a promising practice because inexpensive, (sometimes no-cost) widely available tools and supportive relationships can promote student success. It should be noted that students may need to budget time to install the tools, learn to use them properly, and even train the tools. Dragon, for example, needs to be trained to recognize the voice of its user while Kurzweil needs to be adapted to recognize scientific words and symbols. Despite this, students at USM felt that the tools moved them forward in their learning, professional growth, and personal confidence.

This article was developed through the RDE Collaborative Dissemination Project (National Science Foundation Research in Disabilities Education Award #HRD-0929006) and RDE-RAD: EAST Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM- Phase 2 (National Science Foundation Research in Disabilities Education Award #HRD-0833567).