This app seeks to deepen insights into the achievements and challenges faced by students with disabilities pursuing STEM disciplines.
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Empowering STEM students with disabilities through SOAR’s inclusive approach

This app seeks to deepen insights into the achievements and challenges faced by students with disabilities pursuing STEM disciplines.

In a knowledge- and technology-focused economy, securing a university degree is frequently essential for career progression. Individuals with disabilities also aspire to higher education for their career goals. Yet substantial obstacles, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, impede their academic journey.

Despite the growing efforts to enhance educational inclusivity, such as initiatives like the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Eddie Bernice Johnson INCLUDES Initiative, data concerning disabilities frequently go unnoticed in evidence-based decision-making. This oversight can result in systemic barriers that obstruct students with disabilities from successfully completing their degrees.

Persons with disabilities are notably underrepresented in STEM education and employment, forming a significantly smaller proportion of STEM degree holders and professionals compared to their representation in the overall U.S. population. TAPDINTO-STEM adopts a collective impact strategy involving numerous partner institutions to boost the completion rates of associate, bachelor’s, and graduate STEM degrees for students with disabilities and facilitate their entry into the STEM workforce. By identifying and eliminating barriers, TAPDINTO-STEM aims to ensure that every student has the chance to attain their academic aspirations and make valuable contributions to the scientific community.

The importance of collective impact

To foster collective impact for underrepresented groups in STEM education and employment, researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City have created a dynamic data portal. This platform seeks to deepen insights into the achievements and challenges encountered by students in these disciplines.

Credit. Midjourney

How does shared measurement help?

Shared measurement is a pivotal component among the five core elements for achieving impactful collective efforts. It begins with the dedication of key stakeholders who share a common agenda and establish shared metrics to tackle specific social issues. Alongside shared measurement, collective impact advocates for ongoing communication and depends on a robust backbone organization. The SOAR portal emerged from an alliance backbone team dedicated to aligning and coordinating mutually reinforcing initiatives while fostering collaboration.

To empower individuals with disabilities and promote broader societal understanding, the backbone team constructed a resilient data collection system in alignment with Universal Access principles. Researchers acknowledge the significance of addressing the entire system in their research endeavors.

The SOAR portal emphasises systematic data collection, aiding each college or university within the alliance in customising their support for individuals with disabilities. This approach entails interacting with students, faculty, and institutional data at critical stages: connection, entry, progress, and completion.

How the SOAR portal works

The SOAR portal has two main functions: gathering data through customized surveys and presenting it via a dashboard with dynamically generated charts. Its design tailors the interface to users’ roles, providing a personalised experience. Survey form creation is enhanced with a dynamic generation application akin to Google Forms but more versatile, supporting various question types and features like speech-to-text interfaces, encryption, and automatic validation.

This approach not only addresses the unique needs of individual campuses and programs but also aligns with the reporting and evaluation standards of the U.S. National Science Foundation. The system’s flexible survey form design accommodates various data collection methods, ranging from multiple-choice questions to scale ratings and file uploads as responses. Features like automatic survey scheduling, anonymous nickname generation, and dynamic interface adjustments for new or modified forms showcase SOAR’s adaptability and innovative user engagement approach.

What makes the SOAR portal approach innovative?

By leveraging the user-driven design and advanced technology, SOAR streamlines not only the collection and analysis of vital data but also the customisation of the alliance’s mentoring programs to address the diverse needs of students with disabilities. Each month throughout the semester, students are prompted to assess their feelings regarding typical challenges college students encounter.

Research indicates that personal factors, such as a sense of belonging, a growth mindset, and salient goals and values, significantly lead to greater academic success. The monthly check-in forms prioritise these factors. Using the Power of Transfer and Thinking Culture, these SOAR forms empower students to transition from passive information consumption to independent thinking and self-directed learning. This innovative tool shows significant potential for bolstering academic support and cultivating success for all STEM learners.

What do students want faculty to know?

Students utilising the SOAR portal to provide insights into their college experiences offer advice for faculty. “Focusing on questions related to student success rather than their limitations can be incredibly helpful in identifying what will be most beneficial,” wrote one student. Another adviser advised, “Patience and understanding are crucial when assisting stressed-out college students. Remember, you were once a student yourself.” Students also assist alliance staff in understanding their needs, urging them to “take a more proactive approach in scheduling events, meetings, conducting check-ins, or distributing resources.”

Inclusion by design

By integrating evidence-based strategies into the SOAR portal, the backbone team strives to foster a more inclusive environment, empowering individuals with disabilities to realise their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

What was your design approach?

The SOAR portal prioritised user-driven design to bridge communication gaps between students, faculty, and the backbone team. To tackle these challenges, the project placed significant emphasis on effective stakeholder communication as a cornerstone of its design process. To facilitate this, three distinct communication roles were established within the project framework. Firstly, a human-to-human communicator with expertise in higher education management was tasked with engaging directly with stakeholders. Secondly, a content-to-content interaction expert facilitated seamless communication between different content elements. The third role focused on content-to-machine communication, with an expert in computer science responsible for implementing the automation of the portal design using data warehouse technology.

The future

As we look ahead, the transformative potential of SOAR in educational settings extends beyond its current applications. By expanding its reach to include a diverse range of institutions and disciplines, integrating further technological innovations for improved accessibility, and conducting comprehensive research on its effectiveness, we can further enhance its impact.

The path toward establishing an inclusive and equitable educational environment for students with disabilities, particularly in STEM fields, is both demanding and fulfilling. The introduction of the SOAR portal marks a significant advancement in directly confronting these obstacles. The backbone team driving the development of the SOAR portal aims to enhance support for college students with disabilities and foster meaningful contributions to the future workforce.

Steps to enhance the success of students with disabilities

  1. Student-Driven Programme Design: Involve students in designing programs to empower them to steer their successes. Utilise a user-friendly survey app to gather their input efficiently.
  2. Regular Communication Across Stakeholders: Foster ongoing communication among faculty, students, researchers, and administrators. Share evidence-based information through concise emails to ensure everyone stays informed and engaged.
  3. Inclusive Data Collection: Ensure that data collection efforts recognise students with disabilities as a distinct demographic, similar to ethnicity or gender. This recognition is essential for informed decision-making and targeted support initiatives.

By implementing these steps, colleges and universities can create more inclusive environments that support the success of students with disabilities.

The Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking, and Transition Opportunities in STEM (TAPDINTO-STEM) is supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF Award 2119902. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.

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Journal reference

Petri, A. N., Ho, D. H., Wang, Y., & Lee, Y. (2023, July). Surmounting Obstacles for Academic Resilience: A Dynamic Portal for Supporting an Alliance of Students with Disabilities. In International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 356-376). Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-35897-5_26

Alexis Petri is an Associate Research Professor and director of the Office of Research Development at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is an educational leader passionate about social justice, inclusion, access, and public policy. Alexis has extensive experience with transitioning to university and careers for non-traditional students and taking leadership roles in building and directing university-wide high-impact learning programmes and the campus-community partnerships that are their foundation. Dr. Petri’s research focuses on access to post-secondary education, urban education, civic engagement, service-learning, storytelling, and broadening participation in STEM.