OSA Mentoring Opportunities: A Promising Practice in Increasing a Feeling of "Belonging" in STEM

Date Updated

Ohio’s STEM Ability Alliance (OSAA) at Wright State University (WSU) was funded by the National Science Foundation program to address the underrepresentation of individuals with disabilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Beginning in 2009, this program undertook interventions to recruit, retain, and graduate students with disabilities in STEM. These interventions include academic and professional development as well as interventions inspired by research showing the importance of social dynamics and feelings of inclusion.

Underrepresented groups pursuing STEM, including students with disabilities, may ask, “Do I see people like myself succeeding in my desired field?” or “Is there somebody who can relate to me and that I can relate to?” Some students with disabilities feel isolated in STEM fields because they don’t know other individuals with disabilities in those fields.

OSAA created a program to provide information, resources, and success strategies/planning through one-on-one consultation and organized professional development workshops for students with disabilities. Peer-to-peer communication, support, and guidance promotes the development of student success, confidence, and self-determination. As students progress through their education and careers, they can mentors those following in their footsteps.

Mentoring in OSAA occurs in a variety of formats, including:

1) Office of Disabilities/OSAA Peer Mentoring Program

This effort matches peer mentors and mentees by STEM major and provides training to mentors on OSAA goals, action plans, and guidelines for sharing their “STEM story and path to success.”

2) Tutoring Opportunities

At WSU, the Student Academic Success Center trains undergraduates to serve as tutors. Most tutors do not have knowledge or experience working with students with disabilities. OSAA members have found that it is often beneficial for students to get tutoring from a student who has the same disability or someone otherwise familiar with it, especially when it comes to learning strategies, time management, study techniques, and assistive technology.

3) Leadership Opportunities

At OSAA on-site meetings, older students share their accomplishments and experiences with younger students. These presentations focus on topics such as successful internship or research experiences, navigating the graduate school application process, or transitioning to employment or graduate school.

Through these opportunities for OSAA engagement, younger students gain mentors, role models, and friends. Mentors, meanwhile, build their resumes and expertise as they develop skills related to supporting students with disabilities in STEM, one-to-one communication, public speaking, and explaining technical knowledge. Industry representatives often participate in participant meetings. Students have responded enthusiastically when these representatives have disabilities themselves. These personal stories resonate with students who have not yet met successful professionals with disabilities in their field of interest.

OSAA is a promising practice in increasing the feeling of belonging in STEM fields. Taking advantage of interventions that are positively correlated with higher levels of the confidence and self-determination. OSAA offers multiple interventions that allow STEM students to meet and engage with mentors and role models with disabilities. Others should consider employing similar practices to increase the participation of students with disabilities in STEM.