AccessSTEM Aims to Make STEM Careers a Reality for Students of All Abilities

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An AccessSTEM student leader looks through a microscope in professor Martha Bosma’s neurobiology lab on the UW campus during a 2015 AccessSTEM summer study event.

According to James Brown, executive director of the nonprofit STEM Education Coalition, the future of the economy lies with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In fact, opportunities in STEM are projected to create more than 9 million new employment occupations by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[Above: An AccessSTEM student leader looks through a microscope in professor Martha Bosma’s neurobiology lab on the UW campus during a 2015 AccessSTEM summer study event.]

However, for those living with a disability, the career outlook isn’t as promising. A report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) states that scientists and engineers with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or out of the labor force, while an article in Scientific American says that only 6 percent of science and engineering occupations are held by people with disabilities.

Despite these realities, there are many organizations dedicated to increasing opportunities for this underrepresented group, helping them overcome societal barriers and find their place within the STEM workforce.

AccessSTEM is a prime example of a longstanding program with a mission to diversify STEM fields by preparing students with disabilities for postsecondary studies and the workforce through education, accommodations, and mentorship. It began in 1992 as part of a collection of funded projects through the University of Washington’s (UW) DO-IT Center — short for the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology Center.

Students participate in an AccessSTEM workshop on UW’s campus in 2014.
Students participate in an AccessSTEM workshop on UW’s campus in 2014.

“AccessSTEM is a collection of projects and programs that help students with disabilities find success in STEM,” says Scott Bellman, DO-IT program manager. “We work with students to make sure they learn what they need to learn and are able to do what they’d like to do. The other half is helping faculty members learn how to ensure these students aren’t discriminated against.”

The project has two focus areas: the regional program, which provides workshops, events, and seminars for students through the Seattle area; and a strong online presence as a national resource providing articles, case studies, and best practices for students and faculty.

Regional Reach
The regional component of AccessSTEM is part of the Northwest Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM (Phase II), an NSF-funded project aimed at increasing STEM degree attainment at all levels for individuals with disabilities in the Seattle area. Through the initiative, UW is partnering with Seattle Central College, Bellevue Community College, and Seattle Public Schools.

A student with an AccessSTEM mentor during the annual trip to the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering in Seattle, part of AccessSTEM’s 2015 summer study
A student with an AccessSTEM mentor during the annual trip to the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering in Seattle, part of AccessSTEM’s 2015 summer study

One of AccessSTEM’s most popular regional events is the Elevator Pitch Contest, sponsored by the Mitsubishi Electric American Foundation (MEAF). The contest began as a creative way to help students with disabilities learn how to market themselves to employers under pressure.

Students are challenged with giving a 90-second presentation focused on their experience, skills, and career goals — anything employers would be interested in learning. Registered students receive an information packet instructing them on how to compose an effective pitch.

“We help students prepare, and we gather employers from the area to help them practice [by] conducting speed-dating-type sessions where students can engage with real-world [professionals],” Bellman says.

Industry representatives from Microsoft, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, along with others, have volunteered to participate. Presenting to these professionals gives students the chance to become more comfortable promoting their strengths and proving that their disabilities have no bearing on their capabilities.

In fact, many have reported learning something new from speaking with industry representatives and experiencing a confidence boost regarding their strengths.

“It’s a mad dash among many individuals, and so you’re running a race where [employers] already have a perception about you that may be inaccurate,” says Alfred Souma, disciplinary support service counselor and faculty member at Seattle Central College. “Preparing [students with disabilities] for a shot at employment is important, and this creates a foothold for individuals to get in the door.”

Another project supported by MEAF is a collective career book, which helps employers discover talent via a streamlined method. The book showcases graduates from UW and partnering schools, highlighting their areas of study, skills, interests, and accommodations. This way, when an employer is looking to diversify its staff, it has a simple way to search for someone with the necessary STEM skills.

“[MEAF] is working to shift the focus toward helping young people transition into the work world,” Bellman says.

Additionally, AccessSTEM leads quarterly networking meetings and monthly development workshops to give students more in-person experience with STEM professionals. The networking event is a casual gathering — usually involving pizza — during which students can mingle with industry representatives, ask questions, and share success stories and challenges in a comfortable, laid-back environment.

Students discuss school and other life events with each other and staff during AccessSTEM’s “Staying Connected” event last April.
Students discuss school and other life events with each other and staff during AccessSTEM’s “Staying Connected” event last April.

The development workshops assist with résumé writing, strategic interview preparation, and job searching and include visits with industry mentors. Students have visited representatives at companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, and Bellman says this experience gives them the chance to interact with people with disabilities who are succeeding in STEM careers.

“Just meeting and being exposed to those with disabilities is beneficial,” says Kayla Brown, a UW and AccessSTEM alumna who is now program coordinator for the project. “To talk with people with disabilities who are in careers brings out a level of confidence.”

Brown also says that AccessSTEM did more than help her compose an engaging résumé and learn how to speak eloquently in interviews — it also helped her find paid internships, which gave her early access to real-life STEM work.

“Getting help establishing your résumé and getting content on there can be tough when you have a disability,” she says. “Often, you’re excluded from opportunities from the start, but the assistance I received was beneficial in developing my résumé and that was huge.”

Access to Online Resources
While most of AccessSTEM’s events are limited to the Seattle region, its online presence gives it a global reach. Referred to as Knowledge Base, the project’s Web-based platform features more than 550 articles — ranging from case studies, Q-and-As, and best practices — that help both students and faculty be better prepared.

One of the most compelling practices used by the project is universal design: “the creation of a product or service involving the consideration of many factors, including aesthetics, engineering options, environmental issues, safety, and cost,” according to the AccessSTEM website. Sheryl Burgstahler, director of accessible technology and UW’s DO-IT Center, says the benefits of using a universal design approach in constructing programs is that it creates a more inclusive and effective learning environment for all students.

“It’s important to think about diversity within the classroom,” she says. “Many [people] just think about the average student.”

Implementing universal design in the classroom can include captioning videos, taping lectures to upload online, or using simple language when creating a syllabus. Burgstahler also says it’s important to make assignments inclusive of those with disabilities, citing engineering as an example.

“Take a project you’ve already assigned and add that the end product needs to be accessible for those who are blind, deaf, or can’t use their hands,” she says. “This way you’re training the next generation to understand and utilize universal design.”

Souma says that this practice doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as assigning a note taker for classes who will upload approved content online so that students unable to take notes efficiently still have access to critical information.

“This helps everyone,” Souma says. “It helps change perceptions and gives people with disabilities just as much of a chance to learn as anyone else.”

In addition to Knowledge Base, two listservs were created to extend the reach of AccessSTEM’s online community. The first is for students with disabilities seeking mentorship and can be accessed through the completion of a short application. Once in the group, students can join conversations or direct-message peer mentors to ask questions or express concerns about their disability or to provide support to other students.

“It helps to feel like you’re not alone and you have someone to talk to,” Brown says.

Faculty also have their own listserv, which provides an outlet for professors around the country to converse with one another, ask questions, and share information concerning teaching, employment, and accommodations for students with disabilities.

Although Burgstahler says there is still much to be done regarding accommodations, breaking unfair stereotypes, and training faculty to be better prepared — especially within STEM fields — her team is making strides in education toward growing a more “welcoming and accessible world for everyone.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.