Enabling College Inclusion in a Special Education STEM Program for Students with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia


A challenge for the country is that colleges are not contributing enough graduates in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the STEM fields (Kuenzi, 2008). In particular, business firms demand graduates knowledgeable in STEM for increasing innovations. To address this demand, the authors argue for broadening the student demographics of STEM to include higher-functioning (i.e. less-impaired) individuals with disabilities, as recommended in the literature (Ladner & Israel, 2016). Colleges have historically not included individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum as matriculating students, as the individuals frequently have inappropriate individual education plans (IEPs) instead of diplomas from high schools.

However, an increasing number of these students have been finishing if not graduating from high schools (Diament, 2016). Aided by the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE), the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the Office of Postsecondary Education (Plotner, & Marshall, 2014), these students (free from disruptive disorders) have been insisting on inclusion in college as a natural next step (Canright, 2014). As digitally literate millennial students, they may desire an authentic college experience (Perry, 2014) as STEM students. College may help them to be future scientists at entrepreneurial and established organizations increasingly receptive to students with disabilities having STEM skills.

This paper presents a STEM initiative piloting for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum at a major metropolitan university.

The Special Education STEM Program at Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University

The special education STEM initiative, in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University, is designed as a certificate, non-credit, non-degree program in computer science and information systems to be completed over 3 years. The initiative is modeled on the Think College! College Options for People with Disabilities, already existing in more than 250 university programs (Grigal, Hart, & Weir, 2012).

There are currently an average of 2-3 students a semester, or 12 students in the overall STEM program, which is the normal number of students with developmental and intellectual disabilities in an inclusion program. The students have been placed in 12 courses with a network of 17 professors since 2013.

The program is a partnership with AHRC New York City, a family organization for helping people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and the source of the students.

Curricular Features of the STEM Program

Courses determined by the person-centered plans of students with developmental and intellectual disabilities are the core of the STEM program; these plans are developed by the AHRC New York City organization with the families of the students and the school (Weir, 2011).

The courses begin with University 101, and continue with the elementary and intermediate courses in computer science and information systems listed below:

  • Basic and Intermediate Microsoft Tools;
  • Community Empowerment through Information Systems;
  • Creating with the Interactive Web;
  • Introduction to Computing Technology;
  • Introduction to Information Technologies;
  • Introduction to Programming;
  • Multimedia and User Interface Design;
  • Problem Solving Using Lego Robotics;
  • Social Media Networking Technology; and
  • Web Design for Non-Profit Organizations.

The courses are computational in their approach to the discipline of information systems, and afford opportunities for collaborative and individual problem-solving and critical thinking.

A set of intermediate courses in the liberal arts blend STEM inquiry with issues of diversity (Causton-Theoharis, Ashby, & DeClouette, 2009):

  • Communication and Popular Culture;
  • Contemporary History;
  • Intermediate Psychology;
  • Psychology of Women; and
  • Wars in the Asia-Pacific Region.

The curriculum thus moves beyond STEM in integrating information systems and liberal arts in an experience of learning, in order to help in holistic life planning, and to attain skills for STEM and non-STEM positions (Scientific American, 2016).

Professors do not lower their expectations for student performance, but may modify some of the class processes (e.g., scheduling of tests) at the request of students with disabilities, based on the needs indicated in the person-centered plans. The full inclusion of students with developmental and intellectual disabilities, who are given the opportunity to interact with professors and students without disabilities, is a highlight of the program.

Extra-Curricular Features of the STEM Program

The extra-curricular program in the Seidenberg School is also shaped by the person-centered plans of the students, developed in collaboration with the AHRC NYC organization. The programming focuses on a range of topics, and includes the following events:

  • Big Data Innovator Labs;
  • Boot Camps in Computer Science;
  • Career Networking Nights;
  • Computing Nerd Fights;
  • Conservatory STEM Summers;
  • Cybersecurity Innovation Labs;
  • Disability Film Festival Focus Groups;
  • Django Hacking Nights;
  • Entrepreneurship Mobile App Pitches; and
  • Gaming in the Cloud Fests.

Since 2013, students with disabilities have participated in 141 STEM and non-STEM focused events.

As part of the program’s holistic approach to student success, these extra-curricular experiences integrate recreation with socializing in order to develop the interpersonal and other soft skills needed for networking and team-playing, activities essential to many STEM and non-STEM positions. They also serve to lessen the isolation and marginalization endemic to these first generation students with disabilities (Jehangir, 2010a).

The combination of hard and soft skills makes students competitive for such lucrative STEM-related positions as:

  • Computer Developer;
  • Data Modeler;
  • Digital Editor;
  • Internet Security Engineer; and
  • Multimedia Design Specialist.

The full inclusion of students with developmental and intellectual disabilities alongside students without disabilities is a continuing highlight of the program.

STEM Program Supports

The STEM program services in the Seidenberg School are focused on mentoring and technology support.

Each of the 12 students with developmental and intellectual disabilities is assigned a current or former student peer without disabilities, who provides one-on-one mentoring and who shadows the student with disabilities during course days. The mentoring focuses on course preparation and progress as well as extra-curricular socialization activities, and thus has a positive impact on the mentee’s school life overall (Rieske, & Benjamin, 2015) in addition to supporting academic success (Hill, & Maxam, 2016). Since 2013, 7 peer students without disabilities have mentored the 12 students with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The student mentors are information systems or liberal arts students who have previously taken a community engagement course (taught by the second author of this paper), through which they have learned about disability sensitivity; their participation in the program is funded by the non-profit organization. The student mentors are partnered with their student mentees with the approval of the professors and mentee families.

The students’ learning is supported by an e-Portfolio platform, where they record reflections and personal narratives as they work through their projects over the course of the semester (see Zatta, 2015). Through their writing, students are prompted to think critically about their academic identities, learning in STEM, cultural and lifestyle norms in a university context, job literacy skills in STEM, and student sociality. By the end of the class, the e-Portfolio provides evidence of their skills in STEM, serving as an electronic resume. The work collected here is not only useful for students to present themselves online, but also bolsters their pride, demonstrating their progress in the program.

In their person-centered plans, students in the program may request the support of additional technologies, including:

  • Apps on iPads;
  • Artificial Intelligence Devices (e.g., Alexa Echo from Amazon);
  • Assistive Communication Devices;
  • Micro-Blogging Social Networking Sites (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter); and
  • Reminder Wearables.

Such technologies—funded by the AHRC NYC organization in conjunction with the Seidenberg School of Pace University—are akin to state-of-the-art tools for people with disabilities (Guernsey, 2011). They make possible the inclusion of students with disabilities in university learning and sociality spaces (Hung, & Yuen, 2010). They provide a foundation for students with disabilities to become as effective, efficient, and independent as students without disabilities.

STEM Program Results

The results of a 2016 study of the program indicate an increasing sense of academic identity among participants with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum, increasing success in content learning and performance in STEM, and increasing sociality.

Based on student blogs, reflection journals, and course projects, as well as report samples of focus groups and individual interviews, professors (15 of the 17 professors) and students (11 of the 12 students) indicate increasing student performance in not only STEM, but also in non-STEM disciplines and in soft skills that are increasingly marketable occupational skills (Vozza, 2016). These results are consistent with scholarly inclusion literature (Gerstein & Friedman, 2016). Of the 12 students with disabilities in the program, 5 of them are now in industrial, non-menial, semi-professional positions. The STEM program in the Seidenberg School is essentially furnishing a good mix of hard skills in STEM and interpersonal, non-STEM soft skills.

The results of this research-in-progress study are further indicating the importance of national postsecondary special education programs for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum (Diament, 2015). The program at Pace is successfully fostering independent life-planning skills in conjunction with practical STEM skills, enabling students to be productive in occupational positions. Furthermore, the students with disabilities are learning personal presentation skills (for self-advocacy), team-playing skills, and time management, in order for them to be included in society and to be successful like students without disabilities.

Finally, professors in the program confirm successful learning and performance among students with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum, with cumulative A- grading in information systems and cumulative B+ grading in liberal arts in the semesters since 2013.

Key Lessons Learned – Summary

Lessons learned from the study of the program in the Seidenberg School include the following:

  • The program is aided by an established culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities at the school, which provides a foundation for federal funding (Heasley, 2015, & Heasley, 2016); but it also receives critical support from continued political sponsorship (e.g., Dean for Students and Dean of Seidenberg School).
  • The program is concurrently and continually enabled by an embryotic but empathic network of proactive STEM professors in information systems in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, and of non-STEM liberal arts faculty in the Dyson School of Arts & Sciences.
  • The program is enabled by the motivation and the passion, and the inherent smarts, of the students with developmental and intellectual disabilities (factors cited in the literature as important to these programs; see Grigal & Hart, 2010), who will become future generators and innovators of STEM technologies (Ladner & Burgstahler, 2015).
  • This program is feasible with the encouragement of passionate mentor STEM or non-STEM students with or without disabilities, in partnership with the non-profit AHRC New York City organizational staff; this collaboration helps the students with disabilities in the program to succeed in the university.
  • Lastly, this program is feasible with the engagement of the internal Office of Disability Services and the internal Department of Technology organization of the university, even without incremental investment, and with the engagement of the non-profit organizational staff. These entities support participating students with occupational possibilities (e.g., industrial start-ups) upon successful completion of the program (Grigal, Hart, & Wier, 2013).

Though maps of postsecondary programs for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities are not customized and are frequently generic at institutions of higher learning, the lessons learned in the Seidenberg School are a good guide for STEM programs for this niche population of students (Tinto, 1997).

Key Lessons Learned – Summary

The STEM program in the Seidenberg School furnishes eligible students with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum an experience in learning and performing in an inclusive university setting.

Inherently smart, these students are encouraged through the curricular and extra-curricular features of the program as they learn and perform practical STEM and non-STEM skills. They are motivated to learn and perform by virtue of being in a “location of possibility”–an institution of higher learning, where they’ve been able to recognize their potential and passion and persevere in their study (Jehangir, 2010b). This is important for establishing inclusiveness for first generation students with mild disabilities, as they may be often dissuaded from postsecondary programs due to negative stereotypes (Kolodner, 2016).

The outcomes of the program piloting in the school are particularly pronounced in skills for organizational and societal success in STEM; and the program results of the recent study offer suggestions for other schools pursuing STEM for students with disabilities at mid-spectrum. Overall, this program in STEM, in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University, is an investment in the lives of marginalized but smart students. It benefits not only the students with developmental and intellectual disabilities at mid-spectrum, but also the larger society.


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