TTU's STEM Center launches NSF research project on students with learning disabilties

Learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics in college is tough enough for many students, but students with learning disabilities face even greater challenges with these subjects.

Four Tennessee colleges and universities have launched research funded by the National Science Foundation to determine factors that contribute to academic success in STEM classes of college students with learning disabilities. With TTU in the lead, Tennessee State University, Nashville State Community College and Roane State Community College have begun a three-year study.

"The fact that students have learning disabilities does not mean that they are not intelligent or capable," said Maggie Phelps, Oakley STEM Center director. "It means they process information differently than the majority of students.

"Students with learning disabilities who get to college are generally very bright," she said. "They have overcome obstacles and have successfully managed high school.

Phelps says these students need a different set of skills and different ways of accessing content.

"College is different. In high school, a student usually goes to class to get all the information they need," she said. "Most of the learning takes place in the classroom. But in college, most learning takes place outside the classroom in a much less structured environment."

For purposes of the study, learning disabilities include ADD and ADHD as well as dyslexia. Each partner institution works through its Disability Services office to choose participants. Phelps says they found a large percentage of those registered with Disability Services indicate they have learning disabilities.

Laura Graves, a TTU curriculum and instruction professor who holds a special education degree and taught in public schools for 18 years, serves as project facilitator. She says STEM classes present challenges to students that others might not perceive.

"Think about the concentration required to follow the steps of a math equation," Graves said. "For students with a writing disability, they may be concentrating so hard to write down the steps that they miss listening to the instructions.

"It's like driving along with kids in the car, the radio blaring, and suddenly running into a snow storm. You turn the radio down and ask the kids to be quiet so you can concentrate. These students need accommodations so that they can manage the 'noise' that inhibits them from doing their best."

The study involves a 20-member experimental group and a 20-member control group working with five faculty members at TTU and at least three at each of the other institutions.   Phelps says more specific details of the study can't be revealed because the information could influence the study results.

Graves says there are still some misunderstandings and misperceptions at the college level about learning disabilities but is encouraged by the amount of help and information Disability Services provides for the partner institutions.

"This is a wonderful study that will help us gain perspective at this level," said Graves.

This research grant brings TTU closer to the goal of establishing the Millard Oakley STEM Center as a place where university faculty and students conduct research and develop improved teaching methods in order to share that knowledge with area teachers, who then will be able to use the center for their own research and teaching plans.

"This marks a whole new direction for the center," said Phelps. "We are moving beyond outreach and services to establish our center as an originator of focused research initiatives.

"That is what will make us different and a leader in STEM education," she explained.