Introduction: People with disabilities are underrepresented in both engineering education and practice. This shortage is especially concerning in rehabilitation engineering, where the need for perspectives of people with disabilities is necessary. It is well-known that research experiences and other experiential learning formats are effective means for encouraging persistence of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Supporting students with mobility and dexterity disabilities is especially challenging as these experiences are generally unstructured, multi-faceted, and require students to participate in a variety of activities outside of the traditional classroom. This paper assesses the impact of a summer research experience in rehabilitation engineering on students with mobility and dexterity disabilities, identifies specific challenges these students faced, and assesses the impact of students with disabilities on program participants without disabilities.
Methods: Three students with disabilities, rising juniors and seniors in biomedical engineering or mechanical engineering participated in an undergraduate research program in rehabilitation engineering. Students had a variety of disabilities including thoracic-level spinal cord injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and arthrogryposis. One student used a motorized wheelchair, had significant dexterity impairments, and required an aide in the morning and evening.
The program included daily work in research laboratories, seminars, living with students in the cohort, visits to local hospitals and assistive technology manufacturers, presenting to high school students, and later travel to a conference. To evaluate the program we gathered data from participants via a motivation and preparedness survey before and after the summer and via focus groups at the end of the summer.
Results: The students with disabilities generally participated fully and showed increased preparedness to pursue careers in rehabilitation engineering. Their self perception of preparedness to pursue a career increased in 18, 4, and 3 of 29 technical and interpersonal areas, respectively. However, there were many challenges in supporting students’ full participation. One student who had little experience away from their home environment was reluctant to commit to participate; the program staff worked closely with that student to ensure suitable travel, living accommodations, availability of aides, and workplace environments. Nevertheless, unanticipated challenges arose and were managed during the summer including caregiver scheduling issues and malfunctioning adaptive equipment. In addition, the students noted in the focus group that living and working alongside students with disabilities gave them a fuller view and enhanced their learning.
Discussion: Our experiences highlight the potential for students with mobility and dexterity disabilities to thrive in an unstructured and hands-on research environment. Support for these students needs to extend beyond standard accessibility requirements. Students’ success depends on the flexibility of the program as a whole. Full participation is less challenging when changes are easy (e.g. moving a seminar to accommodate a caregiving schedule) than when they are difficult (e.g. attending a previously-scheduled off-campus event). Engaging students with disabilities gave the other members of the cohort greater understanding and empathy for challenges their colleagues face. Impact on their career choices is unknown at this time, but the benefits for students with and without disabilities are plentiful in this program.
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