Asee peer logo

Supporting Students with Mobility and Dexterity Disabilities in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates Summer Program

Download Paper |


2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Minorities in Engineering Division Technical Session 4

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Eric Michael Schearer Cleveland State University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Eric M. Schearer received a B.S. in mechanical engineering and M.B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, an M.S. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University . He is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Human-Machine Systems at Cleveland State University. He is a member of the Bioscientific Staff at MetroHealth Medical Center and a member of the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center. His research interests are in restoring reaching and grasping movements to people with paralyzed arms due to spinal cord injury and in training engineers to work with people with disabilities. He previously worked as a consultant at Exponent, Inc., and as an officer in the United States Air Force.

visit author page


M. Ann Reinthal Cleveland State University

visit author page

Ann Reinthal, PT, PhD has a PhD in neuroscience and practiced physical therapy in a variety of settings before taking a faculty position at Cleveland State University in 1997, where she is currently an Associate Professor. Her research interests are in the areas of motor control and learning, especially as these relate to developing clinical methods to facilitate more effective and cost-efficient motor practice. She is especially interested in integrating the use of technology into rehabilitation for neurologically impaired populations. Her work includes using various commercial video gaming technologies to improve upper extremity function as well as balance. She is also investigating the use of harness systems in balance training and moving this training out of the lab and into a community garden.

visit author page


Debbie K. Jackson Cleveland State University

visit author page

Dr. Debbie K. Jackson is an Associate Professor in the College of Education and Human Services at Cleveland State University. Dr. Jackson taught chemistry, physics, and physical science in two different high schools before joining the faculty at CSU in 2004. At Cleveland State University, teaching and partnerships are the focus of Dr. Jackson's efforts. Dr. Jackson has extensive experience in curriculum redesign within the teacher education programs and in STEM education. She is currently serving as Program Coordinator for Adolescent/Young Adult (AYA) and K-12 Foreign Language teacher licensure programs and teaches and supervises students in the AYA program for mathematics and science teachers. Dr. Jackson also is a co-principal investigator for several grants related to STEM education, teacher preparation, project-based instruction and computer science education. Dr. Jackson serves as the Network leader for the Metropolitan Cleveland Consortium for STEM Regional Ohio STEM Learning Network Hub and Co-Director of the Center for Innovation in STEM Education.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Introduction: People with disabilities are underrepresented in both engineering education and practice. This shortage is especially concerning in rehabilitation engineering, where the need for perspectives of people with disabilities is necessary. It is well-known that research experiences and other experiential learning formats are effective means for encouraging persistence of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Supporting students with mobility and dexterity disabilities is especially challenging as these experiences are generally unstructured, multi-faceted, and require students to participate in a variety of activities outside of the traditional classroom. This paper assesses the impact of a summer research experience in rehabilitation engineering on students with mobility and dexterity disabilities, identifies specific challenges these students faced, and assesses the impact of students with disabilities on program participants without disabilities.

Methods: Three students with disabilities, rising juniors and seniors in biomedical engineering or mechanical engineering participated in an undergraduate research program in rehabilitation engineering. Students had a variety of disabilities including thoracic-level spinal cord injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and arthrogryposis. One student used a motorized wheelchair, had significant dexterity impairments, and required an aide in the morning and evening. The program included daily work in research laboratories, seminars, living with students in the cohort, visits to local hospitals and assistive technology manufacturers, presenting to high school students, and later travel to a conference. To evaluate the program we gathered data from participants via a motivation and preparedness survey before and after the summer and via focus groups at the end of the summer.

Results: The students with disabilities generally participated fully and showed increased preparedness to pursue careers in rehabilitation engineering. Their self perception of preparedness to pursue a career increased in 18, 4, and 3 of 29 technical and interpersonal areas, respectively. However, there were many challenges in supporting students’ full participation. One student who had little experience away from their home environment was reluctant to commit to participate; the program staff worked closely with that student to ensure suitable travel, living accommodations, availability of aides, and workplace environments. Nevertheless, unanticipated challenges arose and were managed during the summer including caregiver scheduling issues and malfunctioning adaptive equipment. In addition, the students noted in the focus group that living and working alongside students with disabilities gave them a fuller view and enhanced their learning.

Discussion: Our experiences highlight the potential for students with mobility and dexterity disabilities to thrive in an unstructured and hands-on research environment. Support for these students needs to extend beyond standard accessibility requirements. Students’ success depends on the flexibility of the program as a whole. Full participation is less challenging when changes are easy (e.g. moving a seminar to accommodate a caregiving schedule) than when they are difficult (e.g. attending a previously-scheduled off-campus event). Engaging students with disabilities gave the other members of the cohort greater understanding and empathy for challenges their colleagues face. Impact on their career choices is unknown at this time, but the benefits for students with and without disabilities are plentiful in this program.

Schearer, E. M., & Reinthal, M. A., & Jackson, D. K. (2019, June), Supporting Students with Mobility and Dexterity Disabilities in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates Summer Program Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33327

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2019 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015