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Ga. Tech to host disabled STEM students in Second Life

Students with disabilities "show a strong capacity for science and math," researchers say.

Colleges and universities have shown concern about the growing gender gap in science, technology, education, and math (STEM), and Georgia Tech has found another group often left out of STEM studies: students with disabilities.

The university announced Feb. 23 that it would create and oversee a STEM training program hosted in the Second Life virtual world where disabled students would create avatars and receive free help from educators and experts in every STEM field.

The project, known at the university as Georgia STEM Accessibility Alliance (GSAA), was launched with $3 million in funding over five years, and will be available to students in high school, college, and graduate school, according to the school.

Robert Todd, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech and a leader of the GSAA, said the STEM virtual tutoring would be tailored for student with “learning disabilities, blindness, motor skill problems, or cognitive issues,” along with other disabilities.

Todd said recent research has shown that many high school and colleges students deemed to have learning disabilities actually have “superior intelligence, but are hampered by specific cognitive processing issues.”

These students, he said, “experience sensory or physical limitations, but likewise show a strong capacity for science and math.”

Students enrolled in the GSAA program could create avatars that “reflect” their disability, Georgia Tech said in its announcement. This could include blind students who would make an avatar complete with “glasses and a cane or a guide dog.”

Students will also be able to create avatars that have “nothing to do with their disability,” the school said.

GSAA activities won’t be confined to the virtual Second Life platform. Georgia Tech officials plan to connect the project to prevalent social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, where students in the alliance will get reminders of upcoming STEM training sessions in Second Life.

“Our project is being designed to serve all these students through training, self-advocacy exercises, and most important, pairing students with mentors chosen to meet their needs,” Todd said, adding that the STEM program could also be used by students who don’t have disabilities. “We’re designing our resources to promote better education for all students who need help in STEM.”

The university said it hopes to make GSAA a national model for virtual STEM courses, but for now, the program will be limited to students at Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Georgia Perimeter College, and high schools in Georgia’s Greene, Clarke, and Gwinnett counties.

Georgia Tech is the latest campus to get involved in STEM education, which has been plagued by consistent gaps in the number of minority and women students who pursue the four fields.

Arizona State University launched in November after receiving a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2006.

The site, more than just another web resource with studies on how few women are entering STEM fields and finishing degree programs, offers advice and encouragement from women who have succeeded in the four STEM professions in an effort to close this gender gap.

Female college students are 37 percent less likely to pursue a degree in a STEM field than their male counterparts, according to a 2009 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Women comprise about one-fourth of the current STEM workforce.

NBER research showed that “while professor gender has little impact on male students, it has a powerful effect on female students’ performance in math and science classes, their likelihood of taking future math and science courses, and their likelihood of graduating with a STEM degree.”

The CareerWISE website, aimed at women pursuing their doctorate degrees in STEM fields, has hundreds of “HerStory” video clips of women who have navigated the difficult STEM road and established careers.

Videos include details on a wide variety of STEM fields, meaning women can find others from their particular profession, not just someone with a general STEM career, said Bianca Bernstein, an ASU counseling psychology professor and principal investigator of the CareerWISE research program grants.

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