The University of Florida has received an $846,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop a model program to help students with learning disabilities achieve academic success in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively referred to as STEM.
“Students with learning disabilities can have a more difficult time in STEM majors because of impairments such as math or reading disabilities,” said Consuelo Kreider, Ph.D., one of the grant’s co-principal investigators and a lecturer in the department of occupational therapy at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, part of UF Health. “So you can imagine how difficult it would be to go into engineering if you have a math learning disability, for example. But we know it’s possible for students with learning disabilities to learn the material affected by their specific learning disability. In fact, the further these students get in school, the easier it becomes for them to master and excel in their fields.”
Students with learning disabilities comprise between 46 and 61 percent of college students who have a disability, making learning disabilities the most widely diagnosed disability in this population. Learning disabilities include dyslexia (reading disability), dyscalculia (math disability) and dysgraphia (writing impairment). Conditions that can contribute to a person having a learning disability include auditory or visual processing disorders, attention deficit disorder and language processing disorders.
Depending on the type of learning disability, students can have trouble with test anxiety, reading and writing reports, listening to lectures and other communication issues. They may also experience problems with certain life skills, such as time management, coping with stress, problem solving and communicating their academic and personal needs to others.
All of these issues can pose serious barriers to developing the scientific literacy skills necessary for educational success in STEM at the college level, Kreider said.
For UF’s new project, Comprehensive Support for STEM Students with Learning Disability, or CS3LD, researchers will create, implement and validate a model for improving the learning, participation and graduation of college students with learning disabilities in STEM majors.
“Most interventions for students with learning disabilities occur only in the classroom, but our model is unique in that we address multiple levels — individual, interpersonal and institutional — to impact success for our students,” Kreider said.
For the study, 50 UF undergraduate students will be matched with a mentorship team that includes a graduate student in STEM, a STEM faculty member, a UF Disability Resource Center counselor and one of the study’s principal investigators. In addition, students will receive support in development of self-advocacy for academics and health, and personal and professional development. Project leaders will also create a campuswide network of STEM faculty, staff and graduate students to help facilitate the academic needs of students with learning disabilities.
Training instructors on how people with learning disabilities learn best, for example, could lead to more labs and classrooms that are learning disability-friendly, Kreider said.
“When you teach students with learning disabilities a new concept, you may need to give a roadmap — a lay of the land — then teach the specifics and turn around and point out again how those specifics fit into the map,” she said.
CS3LD will launch a council of representatives from UF’s academic and health units to foster coordinated support for students with learning disabilities. The council will collaborate with UF’s Innovation through Institutional Integration, or I-Cubed, a program that links UF’s National Science Foundation-funded, student-oriented programs in order to enhance the professional preparation of STEM students.
“One of the important strengths of CS3LD is the cross-campus collaboration, with faculty and graduate student involvement from several UF colleges and student support services,” said principal investigator William Mann, Ph.D., a distinguished professor and chair of the UF department of occupational therapy.
The project’s core team includes UF faculty members from both health and STEM disciplines. In addition to Kreider, the co-principal investigators are Anthony Delisle, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the department of health education and behavior, Susan Percival, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and interim chair of food science and human nutrition, and Chang-Yu Wu, Ph.D., a professor in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment. Jim Gorske, M.Ed., UF assistant dean of students and the director of the Disability Resource Center, and Mei-Fang Lan, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at UF’s Counseling & Wellness Center, round out the team of academic and student service collaborators.
If CS3LD is successful, the UF research team anticipates using the model to help students with other disabilities and disseminating the findings to other universities to achieve greater participation in STEM. For more information, visit stemscholar.phhp.ufl.edu.