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Enabling STEM Scholars with Disabilities

Posted on May 22, 2017
DO-IT scholars work on a robotics project as part of their in-person research experiences during the summer.  Photo credit: DO-IT, University of Washington
DO-IT scholars work on a robotics project as part of their in-person research experiences during the summer. Photo credit: DO-IT, University of Washington

At an early age, Alexandra Lewis loved learning how biological systems function. At the age of 13, she told her educators that she had developed Stargardt’s Disease—causing her to become legally blind and thereby covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law required accommodations for her continued college preparation in biological studies. She found support in a college-preparation program for students with disabilities called DO-IT Scholars. Based at the University of Washington, DO-IT, (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) (PAESMEM Organizational 1997), empowers high-achieving students with disabilities to realize their career dreams in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, founder and program director of the DO-IT Center for more than 25 years, says its purpose grew from the mandate of the ADA and her desire to support a more inclusive approach to academic excellence in STEM.  “Unlike Alexandra, some students with disabilities have expectations that are lower than they need to be. At DO-IT, we try to change that,” says Burgstahler.


Inventing e-Mentoring

As a changemaker, Burgstahler began DO-IT with a simple proposition, backed by unbridled determination. She wanted to test her notion that STEM mentoring could benefit students with disabilities across the country by bringing them and mentors together using the Internet.  “We take online communities for granted now, but in 1992, only research centers and places like Microsoft were on the Internet.  So, providing remote STEM mentoring to students with disabilities in communities across the country posed major challenges,” says Burgstahler.

Undeterred, Burgstahler wrote a grant proposal for the University of Washington and received initial funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to test her idea and build a network of public and private partners with Internet connections that linked students with disabilities as part of an early online mentoring community.  “We established a network of community organizations. We had to find modems for students so they could connect in their homes,” she recalls. “We managed to get the community organizations to agree because we provided them with a modem, too.  It was very much an experiment at the time.”

Fast forward to 2017. Burgstahler says DO-IT’s e-mentoring community “experiment” has blossomed into a large online mentoring community for students with disabilities across the spectrum. The Center also has eight other “Access” programs that serve to broaden the participation of students with disabilities in fields such as computer science, engineering, science and vocational-technical careers and for students with disabilities in other countries. 

“We have participants that had their first summer program in 1993 who are still a part of our community,” says Burgstahler.  “Even though the participants don’t necessarily meet each other, they have a common experience—participating in our summer experience, living in the dorms, getting ready to go to college,” she added.


The DO-IT Mentoring Approach

The DO-IT Scholars program employs three important aspects that reinforce student confidence in their abilities, according to Program Manager Scott Bellman. In addition to the e-mentoring community, Bellman says the program also organizes in-person “meetups,” a week-long summer program on campus for high school students, and maintains a robust digital content repository, featuring videos and essays by role models and other resources on the DO-IT website. 

“We spend a lot of time talking about what is unique about their disabilities and what they can do, what accommodations they need to request. We have a continuum that includes students in high school, in college, graduate school, and all the way through to professionals working in various STEM industries in the online community. So everyone has near-peer access,” says Bellman.

Alexandra Lewis says the support she received from DO-IT Scholars served her well throughout her STEM studies and career. “DO-IT summer study really helped prepare me for life on a vast and overwhelming campus, where even something as basic as campus navigation could be daunting,” says Lewis.  “The online community offers much more than just academic and career resources. In fact, I met my best friend, who also has a successful STEM career, during DO-IT summer study, and we stayed in touch through the online community.”

Bellman says the publishing component helps to provide role models for students with disabilities. “We have loads of videos of students who have achieved their goals in the program. The students see there are others like them who are achieving their STEM dreams. We also just released a book with essays of the students talking about their academic journey in STEM while navigating their disability,” says Bellman.

DO-IT’s website publishes essays, white papers and articles and guides for teachers and academic institutions to adapt to the needs of students with disabilities by using the concept of “universal design.” Universal design involves adapting the classroom and curriculum to accommodate the learning needs of students with disabilities. 

Burgstahler recently revised her textbook, Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, which updates educators about the latest technologies transforming the way education supports students with disabilities. Related research on academic coaching of students with disabilities is the subject of a practice brief by Burgstahler, Bellman and others, which was published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability.

The success of the DO-IT Center is documented by an ongoing study that measures its qualitative and quantitative outcomes. To date, DO-IT directly impacted the STEM advancement of more than 2,000 students since it began. Between 1991 and 2010, the study found that the number of students with a declared disability who earned a baccalaureate degree in STEM tripled over the period at the University of Washington.


Creating Opportunities

People with disabilities often need resources and tools to support their academic and vocational goals to fully participate in the labor force. To assist, DO-IT sponsors resume contests twice a year. The contests give participants an opportunity to write resumes and enhance their LinkedIn profiles, both tools that can lead to internships and employment. “We help them with how and when to disclose their disability to increase their ability to compete for positions they quality for,” says Bellman. 

Lewis’s determination and DO-IT’s support had multiple benefits.  Leveraging DO-IT resources to realize her ambitions, Lewis today has an enviable STEM career.  A graduate of the University of Washington, where she works as a research scientist, Lewis is developing innovative procedures and technologies to sequence genomes more efficiently at the university’s Department of Genome Sciences. 

This story demonstrates the passion and will to contribute to the technological prowess of our nation and the value of inclusiveness in broadening participation in STEM fields. 



Additional PAESMEM organizational and individual alumni have played a major role in supporting students with disabilities who pursue STEM careers. They include:


Dr. Tilak Ratnanather, Associate Research Professor, Center for Imaging Science, Johns Hopkins University (PAESMEM 2012)

Dr. Tilak Ratnanather—the first congenitally deaf individual in the world to earn a doctorate degree in mathematics—has a 25-year history of mentoring deaf and hard-of-hearing (D/HH) individuals in STEM fields.  His mentoring achievements recently culminated with the establishment of a global community network for D/HH scientists, largely comprised of hearing-impaired members of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (HI-ARO). The mentoring network he formed within ARO began with three members in 1992. It has grown to more than 60 members who collaborate to provide opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to be exposed to STEM fields and ultimately, serve as D/HH mentors themselves.


AAAS Project on Science, Technology, and Disability (PAESMEM Organizational 2001)

Since 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project on Science, Technology, and Disability has played a leadership role in supporting the advancement of people with disabilities in science, mathematics and engineering. The program encourages scientists and engineers to self-identify. As a result, the creation of the AAAS Resource Group of Scientists and Engineers with Disabilities produced a group of about 1,000 scientists and engineers who serve as mentors. The AAAS Disability Project developed into a new program--Entry Point! in 1996. Entry Point! provides support and mentoring for students with a wide range of disabilities as they pursue their science dreams. More than 600 Entry Point! students have been placed in paid summer research opportunities, with more than half of them located at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


Department of Science and Engineering Support (DSES) of the National Technical Institution for the Deaf (NTID) (PAESMEM Organizational 2001)

The Department of Science and Engineering Support (DSES) of the National Technical Institution for the Deaf (NTID) has provided access and educational services to hearing disabled/impaired students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for more than 30 years. Each year, the program serves 100 students who receive degrees in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, as well as students pursuing other majors, but enrolled in science and mathematics courses as part of their curricular requirements. NTID DSES provides mentoring through advising and counseling, tutoring, instruction, note-taking and interpretive services and serves as a liaison with host colleges as advocates for students.