Discovery Learning Research Center

Students with Disabilities Put Adaptive Lab Resources to Test during Summer Program

June 24, 2013

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Six college students with disabilities are able to be active members of research teams where laboratory equipment can be adapted and assistive technologies added for their personal mobility and visual or hearing challenges as part of a Purdue University summer program.

"The United States needs more students studying science and engineering, and many interested and qualified students are discouraged from the biomedical sciences because of physical challenges in traditional laboratory settings," said Brad Duerstock, an associate professor of engineering practice and director of Purdue's Institute for Accessible Science. "There may not be room to maneuver or lab bench space may be inaccessible to wheelchair users, or people with limited vision can't use standard lab equipment, such as light microscopes and spectrophotometers. Through this program, we identify such challenges and then work with the research community to make adjustments so students can pursue an education and careers in science."

The IAS Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, which started June 2 and goes through July 28, matches undergraduate students, including two from Purdue, with a researcher and program of their interest. The participating areas of study are animal sciences, biological sciences, food science, biomedical engineering, and medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology.

"The institute provides financial support to the faculty member and assists with addressing any obstacles or providing assistive technologies specific to the students' disabilities," said Susan Mendrysa, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and principal organizer for the summer program. "Some accommodations we've made so far include machines labeled with Braille, printing tactile graph representations of data, a voice labeling system for equipment, and weight measurement tools that don't just show measurements but also speak them."

The Institute for Accessible Science is partnering with the Purdue Graduate School's Summer Research Opportunities Program, which is focused on enhancing diversity in science and graduate education. Through this partnership, the Summer Research Opportunities Program coordinates some essential program components such as travel, living arrangements, and a GRE preparation workshop.

"Thanks to them, this allows the institute to focus our efforts on addressing the specific accommodations or assistive technologies that are required by an IAS fellowship recipient in order for them to have a successful summer research experience," said Mendrysa who is assistant director of the Institute for Accessible Science.

The summer program gives the institute, which is in its third year, the opportunity to test assistive learning technology for student use. The Institute for Accessible Science is supported by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health Director's Pathfinder Award. The grant awarded in 2011 made it possible for the research team to collect information and study laboratory and research challenges for science students with physical disabilities. This information is often collected through the institute's hub at IASHub.org. The summer program's students also will maintain program blogs that are shared on the site, and information that Duerstock and his team learn also will be posted and prepared for journal articles and presentations.

"The goal is for the science community, especially at universities and colleges, to benefit from what we've learned so we can encourage more students with disabilities to pursue science careers," Duerstock said.

High school students' interest in STEM fields is comparable, at 18 percent, between the disabled and non-disabled. That interest drops, Duerstock said, for students with disabilities during their college years, partly because of few role models in STEM fields, lack of student research and internship experiences, physical challenges to using wet-lab facilities and equipment, and lack of awareness of where to find more information regarding STEM accessibility.

In addition to the summer fellowship program, the Institute for Accessible Science also created the Accessible Biomedical Immersion Laboratory, known as AIBL, which is located in the Discovery Learning Research Center. Using information from people with disabilities, Duerstock and his team are redesigning the traditional lab space. In this lab, the wet-lab space and the emergency safety area are reconfigured for people in wheelchairs. Other features include a motion-activated biohazard bin, adjustable-height lab table, and talking scale and pitcher that can report data for those with visual impairments.

Duerstock, whose academic appointments are in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Industrial Engineering, uses a wheelchair and has limited mobility. His personal experience inspired him to develop new technologies such as the AccessScope, which is a remote-controlled research light microscope for people with limited use of their arms. He also is working on redesigning the micropipette, a high-precision instrument used for dispensing minute amounts of liquids. They also are working with other Purdue researchers to assist students with disabilities in the lab using robotic systems.

"Our mission goes beyond just inclusion during education and while at universities. We want what we offer to carry over to the industry and professional practice," Duerstock said. "We are providing tools to help people seek employment in science and engineering fields, which is necessary for keeping people employed and increasing the number of those with disabilities working in STEM fields."

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