Black Students with Disabilities to Benefit from New STEM Career Program



By Linsey Maughan
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Illinois Institute of Technology Associate Professors of Psychology Eun-Jeong Lee and Nicole Ditchman are collaborating to develop a new 10-week online educational curriculum for Black students with disabilities, which is aimed at helping them advance in careers in STEM fields. Lee and Ditchman’s project launched in September 2021 with the receipt of a $600,000, three-year award from the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), and the researchers are now focused on the first organizational phase of the project.

The intervention program, called Tech-Jobs, is based in part on social cognitive career theory (SCCT), a theory that explores aspects of career development. The program also draws upon educational products that Lee and Ditchman have adapted from previous research. The virtual program will include video, online resources, and e-mentoring for students. Once the curriculum is finalized, it will be disseminated for use by employers, schools, and agencies. Fong Chan, an emeritus professor of rehabilitation psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is serving as a content and methodology expert on the project. Illinois Tech Trustees Sherrie Littlejohn (M.S. CS ’82) and Illinois Tech African-American Alumni Association Chair Lester McCarroll Jr. (EE ’83) will also be involved as motivational speakers. In addition, Systems and Programming Resources (SPR), a technology modernization firm in Chicago, and the Illinois Tech Center for Learning Innovation will be involved as technology-related workplaces for virtual field trips. The Illinois Tech chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers and Black Student Union are also committed to support this project.

“We wanted to do something focused on promoting career development of Black college students with disabilities because we know that they may not have much opportunity to engage in internships or job interview opportunities,” says Lee, the project’s principal investigator. “This is responding to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, and because a lot of tech companies like Google and Apple want to increase diversity in the workforce. Illinois Tech is a natural place to support Black college students with disabilities within STEM. We want to develop an intervention for Black and ethnic minority students to improve academic self-efficacy, career self-efficacy, and outcome expectancy and help  crystalize STEM interest and success in finding and retaining entry-level professional tech jobs.”    

For this project, “disability” is broadly defined. Lee and Ditchman say college students with physical, learning, mental health, and developmental disabilities can benefit from participating. One barrier to providing help to these students is their tendency not to disclose disabilities, Lee says.

 “We’re hoping this type of intervention is more accessible to students who don’t necessarily disclose their disabilities,” she says.

The researchers are now focused on making connections with tech companies that might like to collaborate on the program, and they are also establishing a community advisory team that can help them develop the 10-week curriculum and provide feedback over the duration of the three-year project. In addition, they are collaborating with the Illinois’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, which is helping them develop training materials for rehabilitation counselors who will work with the students, as well as City Colleges of Chicago’s disability resource centers, which are helping them recruit student participants for the pilot program. The pilot, expected to launch in the summer or fall 2022, will provide Lee and Ditchman with an opportunity to gather feedback from students participating in the trial run.

“We know that Black and other minority students with disabilities are less likely to finish their degree,” Ditchman says. “We want to promote the retention of students and the connection of their education to career paths in STEM. We’re trying to look at how can we build an intervention program that will enhance outcomes for that population. We know that a college education is the best way to get a path into middle-class earning potential, especially for young people interested in technology jobs with high earning potential. Our project is broader than just Illinois Tech, but one of our target populations is students at Illinois Tech who meet the criteria for project inclusion.”

When the pilot is complete, Lee and Ditchman will use data and feedback collected from the participating students to refine a manual for the 10-week program. Then they will recruit another group of 15 students for a randomized controlled trial. An additional 15 students will be recruited to be waitlisted while the first group completes one semester, including pre- and post-assessments. The waitlisted group will then become the intervention group.

“That two-cycle group is going to add up to our sample size,” says Lee. “We will spend the final year analyzing data, prepping a final report, and planning to develop a manual and training module for service providers.”

Research reported in this article was supported by funding from the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research under award number 90IFDV0026.

Photo: [From left] Associate Professor of Psychology Nicole Ditchman and Associate Professor of Eun-Jeong Lee (photo from March 12,2020)