DO-IT Scholars visit the CNT to learn about neurotechnology and its impact

Aleenah Ansari

This summer, high school students from the DO-IT Scholars Program visited the center to get an introduction to neuroscience and neural engineering. The visit helps to spark interest in neurotechnology, and it encourages students to see themselves as having the ability to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

On July 22, the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) was full of students participating in the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Scholars program, which prepares Washington-state high school students with disabilities for college and future careers. These students were learning about the basics of neuroscience from Eric Chudler, the executive director and education director of the CNT and research associate professor in the University of Washington (UW) Department of Bioengineering.

“The purpose of the visit is to orient students to the center and what the center has to offer,” Chudler said. “It’s also a fun time to get them interested in neural engineering and neuroscience and to answer their questions.”

Chudler began with a PowerPoint presentation that introduced neural engineering and the CNT’s mission to direct engineered neuroplasticity by using neural devices to rewire and heal the brain, spinal cord and nervous system after an injury. Chudler also shared some examples of end users who have benefitted from neurotechnology. For example, Chudler showed a video of a man who was paralyzed learning to control a cursor on a screen using his thoughts, and another video showed a man who was blind using a retinal implant that enabled him to recognize the shape of objects in front of him.

K. Wheeler, a program assistant for DO-IT and former DO-IT Scholar, said it’s integral that people with disabilities are involved in the development of neurotechnology like this.

“Being involved in all stages of research helps disabled people trust the technology,” Wheeler said. “That way, disabled people are saying, ‘this is something we need’ and the technology is being developed around the specifications they have.”

After their introduction to neuroscience, the DO-IT Scholars visited a series of interactive activities. For example, DO-IT Scholars matched real brains to the corresponding animals, deciphered visual illusions, and interpreted brain hieroglyphics that pictorially depicted different parts of the nervous system. Bellman said these activities can start conversations about how the brain works and encourage the students to explore neuroscience on their own.

“Sometimes, we’ll [also] talk about the problems that have not been solved in neuroscience yet,” said Scott Bellman, the associate director of diversity at the CNT and program manager at DO-IT.  “There’s so much that we don’t know, and we want young students to help uncover some of that knowledge and move the field forward.”

In addition to introducing neural engineering concepts, Chudler said that the visit to the CNT could prepare DO-IT Scholars for college, especially if they’re interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“In ninth or tenth grade, they can start thinking about what courses they want to take while they’re still in high school,” Chudler said. “If they take their biology classes or computer science classes before they graduate high school, they will be in great shape for college.”

Giving people with disabilities a voice at the table

The DO-IT Scholars are from all over Washington state, and the cohort includes students with a range of disabilities, racial and ethnic groups, and gender identities.

“The research being conducted in the center may directly impact some of these students,” Chudler said. “It’s possible that they will become users of this technology, but it is important that they become involved as developers and researchers of this technology because they can bring unique perspectives to the work.”

People with disabilities may face barriers or discrimination when navigating the world around them, so they often recognize opportunities for inclusion. Their perspectives are integral to the development of inclusive neurotechnology.

“People with disabilities are often good problem solvers and approach things in unique ways,” Bellman said. “Generally, there’s a lot of potential for being problem solvers, noticing exclusion or barriers and focusing on equity. They do that every day.”

Bellman said that the goal of this visit is to not only get students excited about the CNT’s research and programs, but also encourage them to be a part of the conversation.

“We want them to know that they can be an engineer, and there’s a lot of cutting-edge technology that has potential to impact their lives,” Bellman said. “If they are not an engineer, they may want to help as consultants in the design and development of these products so people with disabilities have a voice.”

The DO-IT center is an institutional education partner of the CNT, but its mission of promoting the success of people with disabilities has a global reach. It supports the creation of accessible resources as well the recruitment of high school students for summer programs like the Young Scholars Program (YSP) and YSP-REACH. Wheeler remembers hearing about Hannah Werbel, a former DO-IT Scholar, conducting research in Howard Chizeck’s CNT-affiliated UW BioRobotics Lab through the YSP.

“I knew I didn’t want to do STEM as a career at that point, but it was cool to see a tangible example of what research looked like in college,” Wheeler said.

Developing self-advocacy and negotiation skills

Beyond exploring future potential majors and careers, DO-IT Scholars also learn about disability culture and its history, develop self-advocacy skills and build a community. To do this, DO-IT Scholars live on campus, go on field trips and attend workshops with professors and human resources representatives about requesting accommodations.

Bellman said that self-advocacy and negotiation skills are a significant part of the program because students with disabilities may need to ask for accommodations when they arrive at a post-secondary institution like the UW. Once students arrive on a college campus, they are the primary drivers of conversations with professors and academic advisers about their needs. Wheeler said that advocacy occurs beyond academic settings.

“You might be advocating for yourself if your friends pick a place to eat and it doesn’t have a ramp, or asking if they checked if it was accessible. It could be when you’re flying for the first time and you have to ask how they [work with] people with disabilities,” Wheeler said. “Advocacy shows up in a lot of different ways, all the way up to advocating for laws to be changed.”

Mentorship is a significant cornerstone of the DO-IT Scholars program, which is why third-year participants, or “Phase III Scholars,” come back as staff interns and mentors for Phase I Scholars who are participating in the program for the first time. Wheeler said that past and present DO-IT Scholars share resources and knowledge during the program and beyond.

“By sharing your knowledge with another person, it’s reinforcing your own learning,” Bellman said. “As the mentors talk to students about being a good advocate and drawing people in as allies, they develop their own sense of being a leader. It builds their self-confidence to support someone else in areas that they’ve navigated.”

Ultimately, the DO-IT Scholars are empowered to recognize the strengths in their identity and see themselves as future engineers, designers, policymakers and agents of change in any field.

“It’s opening up a new world of, ‘I can do this research and help people in my community,’ which they may not have realized was an opportunity for them,” Wheeler said. “Through programs like DO-IT, they can get accommodations for classes they need. You can do [any] career; you just might have to do it differently.”

Learn more about the DO-IT Scholars program on DO-IT’s website or by contacting Scott Bellman.