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Rory A. Cooper

Michael L. Boninger

High School Students with Disabilities Need More Encouragement to Pursue Careers in Science and Engineering, Report University of Pittsburgh Researchers

PITTSBURGH, August 4, 2000 — High school students with disabilities often are not afforded the same opportunities to pursue careers in bioengineering as their unimpaired peers, and they often need special encouragement to do so, according to a report by two University of Pittsburgh researchers published in a recent issue of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology.

Rory A. Cooper, Ph.D., professor and chairman, department of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) and Michael L. Boninger, M.D., associate professor and research director in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, report that these students often receive limited opportunities to participate in scientific experimentation.

"The technical barriers to science education for high school students with disabilities need to be overcome," said Dr. Cooper. "Moreover, we must begin to effectively address the attitudinal barriers that discourage these students from pursuing a degree in bioengineering. There are too few engineers to act as role models for high school students with disabilities. This further discourages students with disabilities from applying to undergraduate engineering programs."

The researchers say that although several national health and science organizations have attempted through various programs to encourage students with disabilities to participate in science and engineering undergraduate studies, these programs have not had the degree of success they anticipated. This, they say, may be due to a lack of encouragement or awareness, a shortage of role models, and limited exposure to scientific experimentation.

"Although students with disabilities have the opportunity to enroll in biology, physics and chemistry classes along with their unimpaired peers, they often do not have access to scientific equipment and laboratories, allowing them to only act as observers in laboratory exercises," said Dr. Boninger.

The report includes their findings from a program they initiated four years ago to encourage students with disabilities to pursue careers in engineering or technology. Their goal was to create an educational program that would model an integrated work and learning environment where students with disabilities could interact with non-impaired high school and university students. The researchers focused their approach on local high school science competitions; in particular, the For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) competition, a national robotics challenge that brings together corporations, high schools and universities.

Students participating in FIRST are given six weeks to conceptualize, design and build a robot from an eclectic set of materials such as car seat motors, cordless drills and optical sensors. Students interested in participating in the FIRST competition complete a "Robot Academy" at a local high school, which allows all of the students, including students with disabilities, to participate more actively in the design and construction of the robot. The final competition is held at Disney World’s EPCOT Center in Florida.

Prior to the academy, students with and without disabilities are recruited from local high schools. Students with disabilities also are recruited through disability-based organizations such as the United Cerebral Palsy Association and TechLink of Allegheny County. Typically, the researchers recruit about five students with disabilities and 15 non-impaired students. During building of the robot, both engineers and students with disabilities work side-by-side with students and engineers without disabilities. This encourages interactions that may not normally occur.

"In the first year of competition, we took a student (to EPCOT) who required a wheelchair for mobility and a ventilator to breathe. This trip to Disney likely would not have occurred without his involvement in the team. Although this individual had extremely weak extremities and could not help build the robot, he was adept at Autocad and thus helped with design and necessary documentation," the researchers report. "These experiences not only help attract individuals with disabilities into engineering fields, they also help give our other students real-life experiences in working with individuals with different abilities."

Dr. Cooper and Dr. Boninger have found that over 90 percent of the students from the FIRST team go on to pursue an engineering or technology degree, with 5 percent of those students selecting bioengineering as their major.

"We must be more active in reaching out to high school students and we must make our teaching and research laboratories accessible to students with disabilities," they report. "Eventually, we will all benefit from these talented students and future engineers."

More information about SHRS can be found at http://www.shrs.pitt.edu.

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