Deaf and Hard of Hearing Virtual Academic Community Uses Tech to Help STEM Students Succeed

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When Chris Brucker started his graduate degree in architecture at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), none of his classmates were deaf or hard of hearing (D/HH). That was tough, he says, because he was used to an undergraduate environment where he had access to more robust support resources. That was until he discovered the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Virtual Academic Community (DHHVAC). 

[Above: Philip Rubin and Chris Brucker present at NTID’s 50th anniversary alumni reunion on June 29, 2018, on RIT’s campus]

Based out of RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), DHHVAC is an online community that supports “the learning needs of students who are deaf and hard of hearing in … [STEM],” according to the project’s website.  

Brucker’s experience isn’t unique. People who are D/HH account for only 1.2 percent of master’s degrees earned in the United States, according to a recent American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, more than 50 percent top out at a high school education or lower. 

Lisa Elliot
Lisa Elliot

For Lisa Elliot, PhD, an RIT professor who works at NTID, one step on the path to improving those numbers is making sure STEM students who are D/HH have the resources they need to succeed in their classes. She is the principal investigator for DHHVAC, which provides accessible resources, tutoring, and mentoring as well as a community of support for
D/HH STEM majors. 

Elliot says that the idea for DHHVAC grew out of a 2008 summit examining how to create cyber communities to support these students. The concepts floated at the summit evolved during focus groups — funded by NSF — conducted between 2009 and 2011. 

Researchers learned that D/HH students who are interested in STEM fields sometimes show up for college underprepared and often have never known someone like them in their desired field. It also became clear through the focus groups that many of the free online resources available on STEM topics are not accessible to individuals with hearing disabilities, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to self-study. 

“So while there’s a huge amount of information available to the general public,” says Elliot, “people who are
D/HH were not able to access that information, and if you can’t access it, it makes it more difficult to learn about it and to dream about it.” This issue, she adds, prevents many of these students from completing a STEM degree or from even pursuing those fields in the first place.   

A partnership between RIT, Cornell University, and Camden County College, DHHVAC opened its virtual doors in 2012 with the long-term goal to increase the graduation rates of D/HH STEM students. The community uses a three-pronged approach to help them succeed. Organizers curate STEM resources that are accessible to these students, provide tutoring, and connect them with professional mentors in their respective fields. Students at the three partner institutions are able to access these services and support. 

In the beginning, organizers focused mainly on synchronous online tutoring — in which both student and tutor are live via video chat — and the development of a website where DHHVAC participants could access general STEM information as well as information tailored to the D/HH community, such as American Sign Language STEM terms. 

Elliot says that these online opportunities are essential to DHHVAC’s effectiveness. While D/HH students at RIT have access to in-person tutoring, those at the other partner institutions do not. And even when available, face-to-face counseling presents challenges for students juggling work and study schedules across large campuses. To Elliot and her fellow researchers, moving these conversations online seemed to be the answer.

The key to facilitating such tutoring, Elliot says, was to find affordable, easy-to-use, remote communication technology that gave tutors the flexibility to use different pedagogical methods. “When you’re talking about STEM concepts, it’s often very visual,” she says. “So, you might need to look at a whiteboard … and have a visual of the professor or the tutor and … use text chat at the same time.” Google Hangouts turned out to be a good solution, although Elliot says they’ve also used other platforms intermittently over the years.

Another goal of the project was to ensure that the website complied with World Wide Web Consortium accessibility guidelines, which Elliot says took a lot of investigation. As part of that process, DHHVAC asked students to help with the development. “Because we were working with students who had the needs that we were trying to address,” she explains, “we had a better handle on creating [a website] that was usable.”

In addition to the resources provided by DHHVAC, students have access to private social media groups where members communicate about resources they encounter elsewhere. 

Currently in its sixth year, the project has shifted some of its focus to mentorship, with a program now firmly established. Brucker says it’s the aspect of DHHVAC that has benefited him the most. He was paired with an established architect, Philip Rubin, who is deaf and has focused his career on creating architecture that is more accessible to those who are D/HH. “Having a mentor is really helpful [for] paving the path for me to [achieve] my goal,” says Brucker. 

Elliot believes that the mentorship program benefits students by giving them professional insight and emotional support. It also gives D/HH professionals the chance to engage with the next generation. Rubin says he’s found the experience to be rewarding, particularly since he’s an NTID alum himself.  

Elliot hopes that eventually, the mentorship program will result in an ongoing cycle of DHHVAC mentees graduating, entering successful careers, and then returning to become mentors. “We’ve had a number of success stories where a student has previously felt very frustrated in their chosen field, and they were able to work with a mentor who has given them guidance and [they] have become colleagues,” says Elliot. 

In line with its goal to establish a model that will improve graduation rates for D/HH students studying STEM, Elliot says that anecdotally, DHHVAC is seeing success; students who have previously failed STEM classes multiple times have passed after using DHHVAC’s tutoring services. 

As for its becoming a model for other schools, Elliot says she doesn’t know of any other universities that are currently replicating the initiative in full. However, she believes the beauty of the project lies in its multifaceted approach to supporting D/HH STEM students on their path to graduation — which includes tutoring and resource curation — and the fact that institutions can adopt aspects of DHHVAC al a carte.●

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information, visit This article was published in our September 2018 issue.