UW DO-IT Scholars visit the CSNE

Wayne Gillam

Over 40 high school and college students with disabilities recently visited the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) from the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) Center at the University of Washington (UW). The students were part of the DO-IT Scholars Summer Study program at the UW, and their visit to the CSNE happened to coincide with DO-IT's 25th Anniversary Celebration.

This annual visit to the CSNE was facilitated by CSNE Diversity Manager and DO-IT Program Manager, Scott Bellman. It was part of a larger, ongoing partnership between DO-IT and the CSNE to engage and empower students with disabilities to pursue education and careers in neuroscience, neural engineering and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

"For a lot of the students, Summer Study is a life-changing experience," Bellman said. "Many of them have never been away from home, they've never been surrounded by like-minded peers with disabilities who want to go to college. A lot of them are from rural areas, or areas where they may be the only student with that disability in their high school, or the only student with a disability at all in their high school. So, coming in and being part of this leadership program can have a huge impact."

The visit began with the group gathering in the CSNE's classroom space for an overview of the Center by the CSNE's Executive and Education Director, Eric Chudler, who then led the students in a recently-invented game of "Neuro-Jeopardy!"

Students divided into four teams and competed to answer 25 trivia questions placed in categories named with neuroscience in mind, such as "All About the Neuron," "The Mighty Brain," "Neurological Disorders," and "Come to Your Senses." Questions were posed as answers, just like on the popular TV show, and ranged from easy (Q: Another name for a nerve cell, A: What is a neuron?) to difficult (Q: Free nerve endings, Pacinian corpuscles, Ruffini endings, A: What are sensory receptors in the skin?).

There was quiet murmuring among the teams deliberating about what the answer to each question might be, as well as laughter and good-natured joking when the answers were finally revealed. The students were fully engaged and enjoying the game, even singing the Jeopardy theme song during the "Final Jeopardy" question. The winning team received three copies of Chudler's and the CNSE University Education Manager's, Lise Johnson's, book, "Brain Bytes: Answers to Quirky Questions About the Brain."

After the game was over, Chudler gave a short talk encouraging the students to pursue careers in neuroscience, neural engineering and STEM fields, advising the group to let their own interests be their guide when choosing a field of study and possible career. The visit concluded with the students exploring hands-on exhibits that were focused on learning more about the brain.

Changing perceptions and improving self-image

Students that participate in the DO-IT Scholars program have a wide range of disabilities. Many of the challenges they face actually have more to do with how they and the community at large views what they are capable of, rather than their innate intellectual abilities.

"I think some schools have lower expectations of students with disabilities, and it's a shame," Bellman said. "They'll place them in lower-level classes, for example, or fail to plan ahead for college. Even some parents and teachers can assume that these students are not capable, and they don't push them hard enough."

To further encourage students with disabilities to pursue engineering, the CSNE has created and leads AccessERC, a national initiative among National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) to engage in regular conversation about how to engage students with disabilities and create products, websites, facilities and events that are welcoming and accessible to everyone. The CSNE also makes a point to include students with disabilities in its educational programs, which take place in both classroom and lab settings.

For example, many of the DO-IT Scholars, like the ones at this event, have participated in the CSNE's Young Scholars Program (YSP), where high school students are given the opportunity to gain an authentic, hands-on neural engineering research experience at one of the CSNE's affiliated labs.

"Through the YSP program, many of our DO-IT Scholars begin to see themselves as a researcher for the first time," Bellman said. "For those students, it really begins to change their identity of who they are and who they could be, because it's their first time in a lab doing research on a college campus, so that is really cool."

The impact on self-image as related to success in future endeavors cannot be overstated. As quoted from a previous CSNE website article, Hannah Werbel, a DO-IT Scholar and YSP participant said, "When people go into college, there's so much that you have to adjust to. If you have previous exposure to research in high school and all the different skills they teach you in the YSP program, you're a step ahead of everyone else. For me, having that [research] experience in high school and having the confidence to do that [research] is really helpful. I wouldn't have emailed those 10 bioengineering professors for research that next summer if I hadn't done that program."

To shift perceptions and help reinforce the CSNE's ongoing commitment to diversity, Bellman tries to create regular reminders for all CSNE-affiliated faculty, students and staff, through events like this one, that these young students are very capable.

"These students have great potential," Bellman said. "The DO-IT program started 25 years ago, with teens, and some of them now are more than 40 years old. They have college degrees and careers, and lead very interesting lives working in a wide variety of fields. Given the right technology, the right expectations and the right mentoring, these students can excel."

For more information about diversity at the CSNE and the UW DO-IT program, contact Scott Bellman.