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Work in Progress: Bridging the Gap Between Accommodations Letters and Emerging Classroom Practices

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2019 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity


Crystal City, Virginia

Publication Date

April 14, 2019

Start Date

April 14, 2019

End Date

April 22, 2019

Conference Session

Track: Learning Spaces, Pedagogy, & Curriculum Design Technical Session 2

Tagged Topics

Diversity and Learning Spaces, Pedagogy & Curriculum Design

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Paper Authors


Alisha L. Sarang-Sieminski Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Alisha Sarang-Sieminski is an Associate Professor of Bioengineering and the Director of SCOPE at Olin College of Engineering. Their work focuses on understanding how local experiences, whether it be of cells or people, affect local and global responses. They are a convener of people an ideas working for equity within engineering education.

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Adva Waranyuwat Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Emily Ferrier Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering Orcid 16x16


Alison Wood Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Dr. Alison Wood is an assistant professor of Environmental Engineering at Olin College of Engineering. She is a distinguished researcher in the fields of both water and sanitation, as well as a researcher and practitioner in using interdisciplinary thinking and approaches to solving environmental and sustainability problems. Dr. Wood is also pursuing her interests in the areas of equity and justice through education and engagement with context and values.

In addition to her teaching and advising duties at Olin, Dr. Wood serves as the Director of the Babson-Olin-Wellesley Three College Sustainability Certificate Program, the Director of Olin’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program, on the Catalyst Board of the open source journal Murmurations, as a member of Olin’s Sustainability Steering Committee, and as a member of Olin’s Context and Ethics in Engineering Education Working Group.

After graduating from Harvard University with a B.A. in Dramatic Literature, Dr. Wood worked professionally in theater and wrote and recorded two musical albums. She then returned to school to study engineering, earning a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University. Dr. Wood then went on to earn a Master of Science in Engineering in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, while working with the Austin chapter of Engineers Without Borders as a volunteer and project lead for a project in Peru.

She has published and presented on incentivizing decentralized sanitation and wastewater treatment, on sustainability of coastal community water and sanitation service options, as well as on integrating liberal arts and STEM education, currently through the vehicle of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program. She has co-designed workshops oriented toward educational change for Olin’s Summer Institute and the joint Olin College-Emerson College event: Remaking Education.

Her love of learning was first fostered by an unusual elementary school education that was deeply interdisciplinary with a substantial arts curriculum, which has informed all her subsequent thinking about the potential for education to transcend conventional models.

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Daniela Faas Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Dr. Faas is currently the Director of Design and Fabrication Operations and Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Olin College in Needham, MA. Prior to joining Olin College, Dr. Faas was the senior preceptor in design instruction at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University. Dr. Faas was a Shapiro postdoctoral fellow in the Mechanical Engineering Department at MIT after receiving her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. Dr. Faas graduated from Bucknell University with her M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and joint B.S./B.A. in Mechanical Engineering and International Relations. Dr. Faas is currently a research affiliate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Her research focuses on developing low cost immersive Virtual Reality applications for products and systems, early stage design process and methodology and engineering education.

Research interests: virtual reality (VR) applications in mechanical design, design methodology and engineering education.

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Keywords: Disabilities, Undergraduate, Engineering

There is an increase in college students who have been diagnosed with invisible disabilities (e.g., ADHD, anxiety) and an overall increase in the neurodiversity of the college student population nationwide. Some students obtain diagnoses and receive accommodations in high school, while others seek accommodations when they get to college. Suggested accommodations are based on high school accommodations (if applicable) and best practices for a given diagnosis. Accommodations, in the form of letters shared with the faculty, typically recommend providing students with additional time on assignments or tests or providing resources for increased multimodal instruction (e.g., lecture notes). Students are then responsible for reaching out to their faculty to initiate their accommodation request; faculty cannot legally initiate this conversation. Furthermore, faculty are asked to meet these accommodations and maintain confidentiality and do not have the right to initiate a conversation with the student about their disability. The faculty should also understand that a reasonable accommodation should not “fundamentally alter” any course or academic requirement that students are expected to meet.

At the same time, within engineering education specifically, there is an increase in the adoption of project-based learning and studio-based pedagogies. These pedagogies aim to create a learning environment that promotes more autonomy and opportunities for multi-modal instruction. Such approaches often include significant teamwork, just-in-time learning provided in conversation with instructors and teaching assistants, and public presentations or demonstrations of completed project work. While these changes serve the intended purpose of enhancing the learning of many students, there may be unintended consequences for students with non-visible disabilities or who are neurodivergent. For example, the noise and visual distractions in studio-based courses can be challenging for many students. Additionally, it can be challenging in team-based project assignments to give students extra time.

We seek to bridge the gap between accommodation measures based on traditional pedagogical approaches trends in classroom practice by developing recommendations for course design and individual accommodations that meet the needs of students learning in these environments. We have begun to envision and implement some changes within our own institution, which has a heavy emphasis on project-based learning and studio-based environments. Recommendations include measures such as attention to providing space (physically and psychologically) for teams to move to a quieter area to work, capturing spontaneous verbal team feedback in writing, and scaffolding and normalizing creation of team agreements to help students advocate for their needs. For this presentation, we seek to convene a larger discussion with others to create a broader vision and practice aimed at making recommendations about how to bridge the gap between current accommodations practices and emerging pedagogies and how to assess their efficacy.

Sarang-Sieminski, A. L., & Waranyuwat, A., & Ferrier, E., & Wood , A., & Faas, D. (2019, April), Work in Progress: Bridging the Gap Between Accommodations Letters and Emerging Classroom Practices Paper presented at 2019 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity , Crystal City, Virginia.

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