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Diversifying the Engineering Pipeline through Early Engagement of Neurodiverse Learners

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

NSF Grantees: K-12 Session 2

Tagged Topics

Diversity and NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Constance M. Syharat University of Connecticut

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Constance M. Syharat is a Research Assistant at the University of Connecticut as a part of the NSF Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (NSF-RED) project, "Beyond Accommodation: Leveraging Neurodiversity for Engineering Innovation". In her time at the University of Connecticut she has also worked as a Research Assistant for NSF CAREER project "Promoting Engineering Innovation Through Increased Neurodiversity by Encouraging the Participation of Students with ADHD" and has served as Program Assistant for the related summer program for middle school students with ADHD. Prior to joining the University of Connecticut, she spent eight years as a public school teacher in Connecticut, where she maintained a focus on providing a varied learning environment and differentiated instruction for all types of learners. She received her Master's Degree in Modern Languages from Central Connecticut State University in 2011. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic Studies and her teaching certificate from Connecticut College in 2001.

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Alexandra Hain University of Connecticut

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Alexandra Hain is an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Connecticut in structural engineering. She received her PhD in Structural Engineering in 2019 from the University of Connecticut. She has an interest in engineering education and served as the program manager for the REU Site: Research Experience in Cyber and Civil Infrastructure Security for Students with ADHD: Fostering Innovation during summer 2016-2019. She has also helped to extend the strength-based summer program model for students with ADHD to middle school and high school students.

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Arash E. Zaghi University of Connecticut

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Arash E. Zaghi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Connecticut. He received his PhD in 2009 from the University of Nevada, Reno, and continued there as a Research Scientist. His latest research endeavor is on creativity and engineering education, with a focus on the unique potential of students with ADHD. Supported by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation, his research was highlighted the American Society of Engineering Education's Prism Magazine. He received a CAREER Award in 2016 to study the significance of neurodiversity in developing a creative engineering workforce.

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While a large body of literature suggests that students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) possess significant creative and risk-taking potential, they have remained highly underrepresented in engineering programs. Past studies have indicated that students with ADHD have an extremely high risk of academic failure and dropout, and are more than twice as likely than their peers without ADHD to leave university. Traditional engineering programs are failing to attract and retain neurodiverse learners, and thus do not benefit from these students’ high potential for creative thinking. The disconnect between the traditional education environment and the abilities of students with ADHD is not unique to higher education. In fact, high school students with ADHD have significantly lower GPAs and are over eight times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers without ADHD. These students are thus significantly less likely to enter college or be admitted into engineering programs. To support the development of a more diverse engineering pipeline, efforts have focused on outreach to high school and middle school students with ADHD with the intention of boosting self-esteem and increasing interest in engineering. Specifically, two pilot programs for students with ADHD have been implemented as part of a research project funded by the Research in the Formation of Engineers program of Engineering Education and Centers of the National Science Foundation. Year one of the pilot program featured a two-week program for high school students with ADHD, while outreach efforts in year two focused on the implementation of a week-long summer program for ten middle school students with ADHD. Program activities featured a range of electrical, material, and structural engineering design activities such as wiring circuits and optimizing composites for strength and cost. These activities were complemented by esteem-building activities, including group roundtable discussions in which participants shared life and academic experiences with peers. The main goal of this program is to increase the participation of an underrepresented group of students in engineering programs by providing a strengths-based approach to ADHD in the context of engineering at a young age.

This paper presents an overview of the high school pilot program, including the design, delivery, reflection, and subsequent redesign of the program to meet the needs of middle school students. Major observations from the middle school program will be presented, along with key program components. It was found that: students with ADHD benefit from a personalized learning environment that is centered around student interests and features flexibility and choice; that interactions with role models and mentors with ADHD in the context of engineering can encourage students to consider engineering as a career path; and that roundtable discussions helped to build relationships between participants. A comparison of the middle and high school programs indicates that the age in which the students were introduced to a strength-based perspective toward ADHD was critical in shaping the participants’ perceived belief in their engineering abilities. This shows it is crucial to provide exposure to engineering and strength-based discussions of learning differences early in students’ academic careers. It is anticipated that providing such experiences for middle school students with ADHD will lead to larger participation of these students in the engineering pipeline and will promote cognitive diversity in the field.

Syharat, C. M., & Hain, A., & E. Zaghi, A. (2020, June), Diversifying the Engineering Pipeline through Early Engagement of Neurodiverse Learners Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34470

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