STEM, NCLB, MIDWEST & UD: What's With the Acronyms and Our Nation's Future?

By Alice Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In Washington, D.C., debates continue on how to encourage students to seek careers in science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM). At the same time, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) drives the election agenda. I see this as a conundrum and question where we’ll find new scientists if the process is driven through NCLB. Riddles we need answers for include:

  • Are we losing our edge in competitiveness in the world because we can’t interest students in STEM pathways to learning?
  • If so, is K-8 the right time and place to develop student interest and skills in the STEM fields? Are high school interventions too late?
  • Do students with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary education (estimated at 9% of the total postsecondary student population) represent an underutilized resource as we struggle to meet our STEM demands?

It’s common for students to struggle with complicated concepts in science, technology, engineering, and math, but if you are a student with a disability, the struggle is compounded. Imagine being blind, visually impaired, or color blind and trying to participate in experiments to demonstrate why leaves change color, or exercises that require reading pH level indicators, or are based on measuring the hues of long and short wavelengths. What would it be like to travel by wheelchair to collect soil samples or lake algae? Imagine being deaf and viewing uncaptioned videos that explain fluid mechanics. For many students with disabilities, these and other barriers greatly hinder them from pursuing a future in STEM academic programs or careers.

Even though students with disabilities are naturally creative and master problem-solvers as they constantly decipher how to negotiate their daily environment, they often are discouraged from entering STEM disciplines because of these barriers to study. STEM curricula are not only technically-based, they also depend on teamwork, cooperation, and communication. Students need self-advocacy skills to know how to ask for modified chemistry experiments, lab benches that are adjustable, captioned videos, and passage through other gateways to learning science. The challenge of transforming instruction includes changing mindsets, teacher and class attitudes, and promoting teamwork that encourages cooperation rather than competition.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and the University of Northern Iowa have formed a consortium of educators, scientists, and student service providers – the MIDWEST Alliance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Together, the consortium is taking action to remove barriers and to boost the numbers of students with disabilities entering – and remaining – in STEM fields.

MIDWEST is the latest alliance to join three other NSF-funded STEM regional alliances that are working together to level the playing field for students with disabilities. MIDWEST’s collaborators include:

These more seasoned regional alliances are invaluable to MIDWEST for resource sharing, and for strategizing ways to promote an increase in the number of students with disabilities who will succeed in STEM academic programs and careers. Together, we refer teachers and students to a searchable knowledge base and collaborate to identify common data elements for program participants.

“We will infuse resources and teaching tools at all levels, from middle school to the university level, and also will help students transition more smoothly into the workforce,” says Mark Leddy, who is on leave of absence to direct the Research in Disabilities Education Program at NSF. When I took over Mark’s position in September, I focused on “starting early” and am continuing efforts to develop a mentoring program that includes a network for students and their families, research paid internships, and other activities.

The student mentorship model at MIDWEST relies on face-to-face mentoring, online computer mentoring, and a hybrid of the two – whatever works for the student. This mix of approaches is unique to the MIDWEST Alliance. MIDWEST researchers work with middle school and high-school teachers to better anticipate the needs of students with disabilities in STEM curricula. The project administers grants and scholarships to students, regional educators, and care providers to promote student participation or make housing or classroom settings more “disability-friendly.” The program helps new graduates secure paid internships at prestigious research venues such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Instructors, support staff, counselors, and employers receive training for creating accessible facilities and electronic resources to fully include students with disabilities. This project is underway as part of a larger Universal Design (UD) initiative/intervention. When universal design principles are applied, products and environments meet the needs of potential users with a wide variety of characteristics. For example, one person might have English as her second language, be five feet tall, female, fifty years old, an excellent reader, primarily a visual learner, and deaf. All of these characteristics, including her deafness, should be considered when developing a product or learning/work environment. UD engages different learning styles, abilities, and disabilities and benefits all students.

Recently, Dr. Jon Gunderson of UIUC was at UW-Madison and more than 100 participants came together (via webcast and in person) to explore the Illinois Accessible Web Publishing Wizard, a tool that simplifies creating accessible and standards compliant Web versions of Office documents. FAE, The Functional Accessibility Evaluation Tool, was shared among conference attendees to help mark up Web resources. Tools and gatherings such as these are the fruits of the partnerships of the MIDWEST Alliance and represent the future directions of its endeavors.

Watch for presentations, seminars, conferences, meetings, and other opportunities at the MIDWEST Web site. In the meantime, as you develop curriculum and instructional strategies to meet rich and varied individual skills, learning styles and preferences, gender, culture, abilities, and disabilities, the following resources will be useful:

Alice Anderson is the Director of MIDWEST Alliance for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and also serves as director of the Technology Accessibility Program, Division of Information Technology (DoIT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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