INVEST IN STEM EDUCATOR PIPELINES
Among the numerous barriers BVI students face with STEM-access, is working with teachers that are underprepared or intimidated by their own ability to teach STEM skills. One study showed that some teachers did not feel well equipped to teach Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics to their students, especially at a higher level. Another study stated that 70% of blind children are at least a grade level behind where they should be in math, and of that 70%, 20% were at least five grade levels behind.
Despite advances in assistive technology, relatively few visually impaired students participate in computer science courses. Significant factors in this underrepresentation include lack of pre college preparation, access to resources, and the highly visual nature of computing. An exploratory study of blind software developers supports the notion that the lack of exposure to developer tools within their educational experience was a significant hurdle.
Exploring the perspectives of TVIs regarding accessible K-12 computing education, researchers found that TVIs were often modifying the curriculum to provide more accessible formats, limiting BVIs full participation. For example, tactile graphics -- often described as “unequal to their print counterparts” -- are sometimes omitted from learning materials, causing inequalities in the information being received between BVI and sighted students. Even within the magnitude of online open-source tutorials for STEM education, a recent study found only 2% contained graphical descriptions.
In science, BVI students are often not allowed to independently complete science experiments. This reinforces low expectations (from sighted peers and teachers) that true scientific skills can be acquired with a visual disability. These poor attitudes may explain why very few BVI students enter into STEM-related pursuits. Less than 2% of STEM doctorates are earned by students with disabilities, so fewer people with disabilities are employed in these careers.
In one study, out of 69% of blind students who found science interesting, only 8% said they would seek a degree in the sciences in college. The same study mentioned above showed that the lack of hands-on experiences in STEM fields afforded to blind people may lead to lower belief in their capability to succeed in these areas. Without the right support, BVI students will keep falling into “learned helplessness”and struggle with gainful employment. Further, STEM education and technology training without adequate support and the proper balancing of soft-skill training (especially self-advocacy) will impede success in the workplace for individuals with disabilities which leaves them out of high paying jobs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, STEM occupations provided a median annual wage of nearly $89,780, whereas the median annual wage for non-STEM occupations is below $40,020 in the United States. STEM is one of the fastest growing job fields worldwide, and there are currently more work positions in STEM than there are enough qualified STEM individuals to fill them.
Though increased numbers of K-12 schools now offer computer science courses, systemic failures in addressing accessibility gaps continue to result in students with disabilities experiencing accessibility challenges.
In support of the disability movement’s core mantra “Nothing about us without us!” FFF funded the 2021 National Coding Symposium co-hosted by the American Printing House (APH) Connect Center and California School for the Blind. The goal of the symposium was to motivate and encourage BVI populations to consider the possibility of a career in programming as well as to help TVIs overcome inaccessible learning platforms and confusing coding lessons.
Just as BVIs lack role models, URMs increasingly lack minority adult role models -- particularly minority male teachers -- and often lack access to qualified teachers of any background, because white teachers avoid schools with large percentages of minorities. In fact, within the STEM Educator Workforce the ratio of teachers of color to students of color is 1 to 50.
If FFF is going to support the development of a vision science workforce and prioritize URMs, we need to increase student grit and persistence and improve URM student success rates in higher education as well. Currently, more than a third of Black (40%) and LatinX (37%) students switch majors before earning a STEM degree, compared with 29% of White students. Another 26% of Black STEM students and 20% of LatinX STEM students dropout of college altogether—13 and seven percentage points higher, respectively, than white STEM students (13%), according to a recent study.
Not having minority or disabled teachers is often cited as a key reason for achievement gaps and, ultimately, unequal occupational and life outcomes for URM and disabled students.