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Access to scientific careers.


The National Science Foundation funded the Bridges Project in 2000 to develop a model to increase accessibility to scientific careers for students with disabilities. One aspect included supporting students with disabilities who pursue science and math related careers during their first year of college. A second aspect was a three-year collaboration between high school and community college teachers in science and mathematics with the project director to identify several organizational structures that are barriers to pursuing scientific careers for students. The barriers identified included students' limited pre-college academic opportunities and rigor, major institutional differences including expectations of independent learning, self-advocacy, time and pace of instruction and disabilities laws governing each level.


The National Science Foundation funded the Bridges Project in 2000 to develop a model to increase accessibility to careers in science technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for students with disabilities. One aspect of the project included supporting students with disabilities who were pursuing scientific careers during their first year of college and a second aspect was collaboration between high school and community college teachers in science and mathematics. During the three-year investigation the teachers and project director, who is a specialist in transitioning youth with disabilities, identified several organizational structures that are barriers to pursuing scientific careers for students with disabilities.

One organizational barrier is the requirement for students to have a minimum of two math and two science courses at the high school level. Forty percent of the fifty states have this minimum requirement and eight states leave such graduation requirements to local control (Education Commission of the States, 1998). While minimum requirements may seem laudable by enabling more students to achieve a high school diploma; it is not a sufficient foundation to pursue scientific and mathematical careers. Students with disabilities are often encouraged to take only the minimum of science and/or math courses and earn these credits outside of the challenges of the regular classroom. Science/math credits earned in a special education class usually are a curricula taught by special education teachers with limited subject matter knowledge in math and science (Gurganus, Janas & Schmitt, 1995). Further, in special education classrooms students often experience a diluted curriculum and lower teacher expectations (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Hamlet, 1989; Pugach & Warger, 1996, Cunningham, 1998). An additional barrier is the prevailing myth held by teachers and parents that students with disabilities are not capable of learning higher level mathematics or science (Cunningham, 1998 & Burgstahler, 1994). Even when students with disabilities are included in science classrooms, teachers may be inappropriately concerned with laboratory safety issues, thus limiting classroom activities (Fetters, 2002). These decisions have the same outcome: students with disabilities do not have access to the same level of information and experiences in the areas of math and science.

While in high school, the major emphasis of special educators and parents of students with disabilities is on earning sufficient credits to meet the graduation requirements with secondary attention to the educational foundation necessary for college and career training. Hence, any science or math course in which a student with a disability can pass for graduation credit is scheduled without regard for the foundation of knowledge needed to pursue college level work. Decisions made at the high school close career choices and access to higher-level courses. Most college level science and math courses require a foundation of knowledge, thus students with disabilities start at a disadvantage with only minimum requirements met at the high school level and are forced into remedial courses in college. According to Burgstahler (1994), students with disabilities are not encouraged to prepare for STEM careers and therefore do not take the prerequisites for continuing education primarily because their special education teachers and counselors are uninformed of the content requirements for certificate and degree programs in these areas. The impact of these decisions, which ultimately limits access to more advanced science and mathematics and provides less experience with higher level thinking and problem solving, has a daunting affect on career choice and the probability of attaining a postsecondary degree.

Adelman (1998) found students who need to take remedial courses reduce their probability of achieving a college degree: students with zero remedial courses had a 60% graduation rate, 2 remedial courses resulted in a 45% completion rate, and 5 or more courses a 35% completion rate. The Bridges Project worked with 25 college freshmen intending to pursue degrees in STEM careers. Only one student was able to enroll in college level mathematics the first semester, end only two could meet the basic level competencies to enroll in college level science courses. Of those two, one dropped the science course mid-semester due to the high expectations of independent work. Based on their college level placement tests, the remaining 23 students needed to enroll in one or two remedial courses each semester before they could meet the minimum competencies necessary for college level course work. What will the economic future of these students as well as others with disabilities be? McCabe (2000) found that 80% of new jobs in the 21st Century will require some postsecondary education end only 20% will be unskilled labor.

The transition to college from high school is fraught with challenge and anxiety for all students. However, these issues are even more intense for students with disabilities, who are entering colleges in increasing numbers. According to HEATH Resource Center, between the years of 1989 to 1998 there was an increase of 173% for students with disabilities entering college (Henderson, 1999). However, the percentage of successful students remains low with only 25% of students with disabilities awarded an Associate Degree after five years at a community college (Burgstahler, Crawford, & Acosta, 2001). This is partially due to the number of remedial courses students with disabilities take prior to beginning their college curriculum, as mentioned above, but also due to organizational barriers and expectations for learning between high school and college. The pace of instruction and the expectation for independent learning are major barriers to college success for students with disabilities (Vogel, S. & Adelman, P. 1993), as they differ significantly between high school and college. In a general analysis by the Bridges collaborative teams, both hours of class time and time spent on teaching major concepts, revealed serious institutional differences. In high school, science students meet approximately five hours per week for nineteen weeks and teachers expect about two to three hours of homework per week. In contrast, at the local community college there are six hours of class time per week for sixteen weeks. Typically college science classes are held in a two or three hour time block twice or three times a week, with an expectation of 15 to 18 hours of independent work per week. Thus, there is less in-class time at the college level and about five times the amount of independent learning compared to the high school in both mathematics and science. These comparisons were the result of independent findings by collaborative members of the Bridges team.

Another contrast was the amount of time spent on particular content topics. A difficult chemistry topic, like stoichiometry, would involve two full weeks of instruction at the high school level and one three hour class period at the college level. In biology, a unit on digestions at the high school level would consume four full weeks of instruction and at the college level two days or six hours maximum would be devoted to this topic. In sum, college students in science are expected to learn more independently, as well as, at a faster rate. In the above examples, learning at the college level is expected at nearly three times the rate as in high school. The math team found these same issues prevailed in mathematics instruction. While these are transitional issues for all first semester college students, they can become major obstacles for students with disabilities. Classroom issues, such as the amount of independent time spent out of classroom, the amount of detail expected within the classroom and the differences between instructional format of the high school experience and college-level are both overwhelming and challenging to most students with disabilities. This is particularly true when the student has a pre-college experience consisting primarily of special education classrooms or basic science and math classes (low track classes) in general education which often expect less productivity, less rigor, and with much a lower expectation for success (Wheelock, 1992).

Different federal laws bind the two-levels of institutions. High schools must work within the guidelines of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 1997), which entities students to supports and accommodations. Accommodations are adaptations that are made to the environment, the curriculum, instruction or assessment in order for students to be successful learners. They change how a student accesses information and demonstrates learning but do not change the instructional level, the content of the course, or the performance criteria. A modification, however, is a significant change in what a student is expected to learn and demonstrate. It does change the instruction level, the content of the course, and the performance criteria. Curriculum modification is possible and designated on the transcript. Students with disabilities are assigned to a special education teacher, who is responsible to oversee the implementation of their accommodations, and/or modifications as specified by their Individual Education Plan (IEP).

However, colleges work within the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 that requires the student to identify his/her disability and request accommodations. There are no curriculum modifications allowed at the college level for students in certificate or degree programs. The student must register each semester with the disability support services and must approach each of their instructors making their needs known. A college is under no legal obligation towards those students with disabilities who do not self-identify. Thus, these drastic differences between the two laws necessitate that students must enter college with the ability to self-advocate. Without this ability, their potential success is severely jeopardized.

According to Shaw (2002), the skills of self-advocacy and self-determination should be a primary focus for postsecondary disability personnel and other college faculty. While seemingly similar, the distinction between these two skills suggests that learners not only know and ask for accommodations (self-advocacy) but also are determined to engage in goal directed self regulated behavior (self-determination) needed for success. (Field, et. al, 1998). Sarver (2000) has documented that supports which foster self-determination have a positive impact on improving success for college students with disabilities. The Bridges team developed a list of recommendations for teachers, administrators, and students at both levels. In high school self-advocacy should be explicitly taught and practiced so that students with disabilities are prepared to assume this responsibility at the college level. College teachers should include a statement in their syllabi regarding the institutions' policy on accommodations and invite students to meet with them regarding their needs. The importance of independent learning outside of the classroom, which is not directly evaluated or graded, should be emphasized by instructors in both settings.

All teachers should expect active participation and demand accountability from all students. Teachers in the elementary grades have lowered their expectations and diluted the curriculum for students with disabilities thereby disempowering them as successful learners in both high school and college environments (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Hamlet, 1989; Pugach & Warger, 1996, Cunningham, 1998. Both secondary and college instructors need to provide students frequent feedback on their performance and offer them opportunities to experience a variety of testing formats. Instruction in both settings should use multiple formats of classroom assessment and incorporate models, demonstrations, analogies, storytelling, problem solving, and simulations within their teaching methodologies. Study tools, such as guided notes, can enhance the learning of all student, but are essential for students with disabilities who often have limitations in auditory and visual processing making accurate note-taking nearly impossible. These guided notes strengthen essential content assimilation end thus are necessary in both settings. While the above strategies enhance the learning of all students they are essential for students with disabilities. Additionally, students with disabilities need to exit high school with proficiency in using the assistive technology necessary to accommodate their learning. Many colleges are utilizing a Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) which includes a specific set of principles, such as those described above, to make learning more accessible to diverse learners (Shaw, 2002).

High school administrators and teachers must insist that students with disabilities have access to regular and advanced science/mathematics courses which are the foundation for certificate and associate degrees at the college level. In both high schools and colleges, a climate should be established that supports students seeking the assistance they need for academic success. Administrators from both the high school and the college should promote postsecondary education for students with disabilities so that they can be employable in the highly technical careers of today's society.

A high school has successfully prepared students with disabilities to transition to college only when the student can take responsibility for their educational needs by practicing self-advocacy and operating as self-determined learners (Izzo, M. & Lamb, M., 2002). Students interested in post-secondary success should develop the following skills:

* use available resources, such as organizers, study guides, and assistive technology.

* develop the habit of studying by making charts and concept maps even if the information is not directly evaluated.

* develop independent study skills: recopy notes, review frequently, reorganize content.

* strive to be an active participant in every aspect of the learning process by monitoring and evaluating performance.

* schedule study time daily and record due dates of assignments and tests.

* ask clarifying questions as the need arises in class or in meetings with instructors.

The development of all of the above skills will provide students with the strategies they need to be successful independent learners in college.

In conclusion, the Bridges Project identified vast differences in student and instructor expectations and the laws governing both institutions. Based on their investigation, the project director and high school and college teachers conclude that self-determination is a key to understanding one's disability and therefore needs to be explicitly encouraged at every level. To experience college success, the student must know how they learn best, be able to self-advocate and use the tools, resources, and technology necessary. Faculty and administrators in both settings must hold high expectations for students with disabilities and have a responsibility to ensure that their institution provides the necessary supports and accommodations to facilitate academic success. If educators are committed to meeting the challenge of the President's New Freedom Initiative announced in February 2001 which is to ensure that all Americans with disabilities have the opportunity to learn and develop skills, engage in productive work by integrating them into the workforce (, January 11, 2002) then the restructuring of the way educational systems are organized to address the learning of students with disabilities will have to begin now, for tomorrow will be too late for their chance at economic independence and an enhanced quality of life.

Note: This project was funded by The National Science Foundation Grant #HRD9906043 with input from the Bridges Collaboration Team: David Foy, Nan Jackson, William Petry, Kellie and Craig Huhn.


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Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools. New York: New Press.

Peg Lamb, Holt Public Schools, MI Mary Brown, Lansing Community College, MI William Hodges, Holt Public Schools, MI

Dr. Lamb is Holt Public Schools Director for the NSF Bridges Project. Brown is Professor of Science. Hodges teaches biology at Holt High School.
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Author:Hodges, William
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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