Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are significantly underrepresented in engineering programs despite their high potential to impact the field through their strong divergent thinking and unparalleled risk-taking abilities. The current engineering education system has yet to realize the unique potential of these students and largely fails to attract and retain them due to the overemphasis on lecture-based learning and its discouraging evaluation methods. The abilities of these students are often overlooked in pre-college environments as well, where educators typically approach ADHD from a deficit perspective, which has detrimental impacts on the student’s confidence and self-image. To recognize the unique intellectual strengths of engineering students with ADHD and encourage them to continue in engineering careers, a specialized Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site titled “REU Site: Research Experience in Cyber and Civil Infrastructure Security for Students with ADHD: Fostering Innovation” has been funded by the NSF Division of Engineering Education and Centers. To extend the impact and findings of the REU program to pre-college students, two teachers, one fourth and one ninth grade, joined engineering research labs at the University of Connecticut as NSF Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) Fellows, and spent six weeks working with undergraduate student researchers with ADHD. In addition to taking part in the research activities, the teachers attended multiple roundtable discussions where the REU students shared their experiences in both their personal lives and their engineering programs. This provided a unique opportunity for the teachers to observe firsthand the performance of students with ADHD outside of a traditional classroom setting. A research experience gives the students interest-provoking task that actively demand creating thinking.
This paper presents the major observations and experiences of the teachers, principal investigator, and program manager after completion of the program. The program significantly improved the teachers’ perceptions of students with ADHD and the shortcomings of the current education system that puts this population of students with significant potential for innovation at high risk of academic failure and disinterest in pursuing higher education. Overall, the major observations from this REU were that: given the right environment, i.e. niche, students with ADHD can thrive; engineering research can be a stimulating and ideal environment for students with ADHD; and the opportunity to learn and interact with peers with ADHD can provide a rich and meaningful experience and help their confidence and ability as learners. It was noted that the education system needs to move from the idea of ‘accommodating’ for some, to differentiating for all. Employing a different approach to planning meaningful lessons and activities that support all learners’ contributions, necessarily implies utilization of more diverse evaluation methods, as well as teaching strategies. The uniquely attractive components of engineering, i.e., real world applications, the design process, and creative problem-solving, can capture the curiosity and imagination of these students who can solve the most complex and challenging problems facing our nation.
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