Thurston, L. P., Shuman, C., Middendorf, B. J., & Johnson, C. (2017). Postsecondary STEM education for students with disabilities: Lessons learned from a decade of NSF funding . Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability , 30 (1), 49–60.

Journal Article
Thurston, L. P., Shuman, C., Middendorf, B. J., & Johnson, C. (2017). Postsecondary STEM education for students with disabilities: Lessons learned from a decade of NSF funding. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 30(1), 49–60.


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Accommodation/s not specified; Disabilities Not Specified; Educator survey; Math; Multiple content; Postsecondary; Science; U.S. context




Accommodations were not specified. The successes and challenges of projects addressing the postsecondary education of students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields were examined through a review of documentary information sourced from the projects and from a survey of these projects' principal investigators. The work of disability services office personnel addressing the academic needs of postsecondary students with disabilities, especially related to academic accommodations, was emphasized in this summary.


Forty-three (43) principal investigators leading 51 projects—funded by the National Science Foundation (U.S.) during the period 2001–2011—provided documents and other informational materials for the project material review; 58 of 87 principal investigators responded to this study's online survey stage. The population of potential participants was 97 principal investigators leading 117 NSF-funded projects.

Dependent Variable

The Research in Disabilities Education Synthesis Project (RDE-SP) was an examination of 117 projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the NSF's Research in Disabilities Education (RDE) initiative seeking to improve the participation and retention of postsecondary students with disabilities in education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Two data-gathering components or stages comprised the RDE-SP: (a) annual and evaluation reports, academic research publications, and project website content; and (b) an online, multiple-choice survey soliciting more detailed information on the impact and contributions of their projects, as completed by project principal investigators.


At least six common challenges were reported by RDE project principal investigators; information on academic accommodations was emphasized in this summary, including: (a) at the postsecondary institutions in which the projects were housed, the principal investigators observed a lack of availability of accommodations for students with disabilities for use in STEM coursework including during academic exams; (b) academic resource centers provided for all postsecondary students did not seem to have specific knowledge on addressing the needs of students with disabilities, according to these students' statements to project principal investigators; (c) due to confidentiality rules, and because student self-report has been the only source of available student disability data, making their promotion of the projects to students for participation difficult. Solutions to these challenges that emerged were identified as successful practices for supporting postsecondary students with disabilities. (a) Principal investigators indicated that seeking collaboration with disability services offices was helpful. While disability services varied in staffing and availability of specialists across postsecondary institutions, nearly all (92%) provided individual assistance to faculty members on supporting students with disabilities, according to a 2007 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report. The report also indicated that the presence of academic accommodations varied among postsecondary institutions: extended exam time (93%), alternative exam formats (71%), adaptive equipment and technology (70%), and other instructional supports. (b) While principal investigators sensed the need to develop additional supportive services specific to students with disabilities majoring in STEM fields, further inquiry into institutional resources often resulted in discovery of existing services; partnering with these resources was more effective, including augmenting self-advocacy development. (c) Despite difficulties with engaging students with disabilities in STEM majors, using multiple strategies including relaying information to prospective students before their enrollment in postsecondary institutions were successful. Seven lessons learned were identified by authors, including: (a) identification of students with disabilities in the postsecondary population was problematic; (b) some faculty members had stereotypes of students with disabilities; (c) support resources were limited for students with disabilities; (d) postsecondary educators who became aware of academic needs of specific postsecondary students with disabilities demonstrated flexibility in making adjustments including making accommodations available; (e) substantial collaboration was needed when addressing access for STEM students with disabilities, especially if adaptive equipment was identified for students; (f) adjustments to routine data collection protocols were needed in order to include consideration of the needs of students with disabilities; (g) when best practices, collaborative processes, and coordinated support services were made available, student "success is possible" (p. 55).