A Summer of Work and Inspiration for ENTRY POINT! Interns
Frederick Reed III
As students pour back onto college campuses in the next few weeks, "What did you do during the summer?" will be a favorite first topic as friends reunite and catch up.
Sixty-seven students with disabilities who participated in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's renowned ENTRY POINT! internship program will have some jaw-dropping experiences to report.
They worked on projects with scientists and engineers at places like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), IBM, and Merck & Co. Inc. The students hail from 25 states, are studying in 31 different science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and represent 35 different disabilities and multi-disabilities.
Jacob Ling, an electrical engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, helped with improvements in the critical satellite network that communicates with NASA spacecraft. He is a wheelchair rider who is paralyzed from the waist down.
Statira Petersen, a meteorology major at Northern Illinois University, helped put information on NOAA's weather radio, which broadcasts National Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day. She has partial paralysis due to a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair.
Frederick Reed III's internship at IBM involved working on a key component for Sony's PlayStation 3, the futuristic video console that will go on sale in 2006. He is an electrical and computer engineering major at Ohio State University. Frederick has attention deficit disorder.
Melodi King, a University of Arizona chemical engineering major, joined a scientific team at Merck, the global pharmaceutical company. King, who has cerebral palsy, worked on a project called "Pharmaceuticals in the Environment."
Other students studied the behavior of killer whales, for instance, helped design the next-generation successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, helped develop computer software that allows multiple operating systems to operate on a single server, and joined the search for new drugs for high blood pressure.
ENTRY POINT! arranges the internships with businesses and government agencies, which provide competitive salaries and mentors who advise the students on future coursework and career plans. The internships are open to students with disabilities who are studying science, engineering, mathematics or computer science.
Science seldom requires great physical strength or agility, and most of the ENTRY POINT! class of 2005 worked effectively with few or no accommodations. When needed, the accommodations were simple and inexpensive.
"ENTRY POINT! is the premier program aimed at expanding and advancing opportunities in STEM fields for students with disabilities," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.
Since its inception in 1996, ENTRY POINT! has provided 442 internships for 334 individual students with strong academic records. Some 90 percent of the internship recipients are now working in science, technology, engineering or mathematics positions; or are pursuing degrees in relevant fields.
"We knew students with disabilities were excelling academically and getting the degrees," explained Virginia W. Stern, who founded ENTRY POINT! and directs the AAAS Project on Science, Technology, and Disability. "However, that was not enough to get employment."
With real-world work experience on their résumés and graduate school applicationsand bolstered self-confidenceENTRY POINT! interns have gone on to flourish in careers that might have been difficult to enter in years past.
"Ecstatic" is how Jacob Ling felt when selected for ENTRY POINT! "The internship certainly will be helpful in the next stages of my life," he said. "It allows students like me to attain the necessary credentials to prove our ability to be active and productive members of society."
ENTRY POINT! gave Melodi King greater confidence in her ability to live and work away from home. "Many times students with disabilities do not have enough confidence to push for an opportunity to gain work experience," she said. "Before I started interning with the help of ENTRY POINT!, I did not feel anyone would want me to work for them."
Summer internships open the door to full-time employment, as Frederick Reed noted. "ENTRY POINT! gives students a chance to prove their worth to potential employers," he said. "The employer and the employee both get a chance to try each other out. It is no surprise that many big companies do a lot of their hiring this way."
The internship at NOAA helped Statira Petersen realize the importance of getting a graduate degree and boosted her confidence. "I hope this internship shows that, yes, I might require the assistance of a wheelchair, but that I am smart and able to do any task that is put in front of me."
Mentors like Christopher D. Hill agree. "Statira was a joy to have working in our office this summer," said Hill, meteorologist in charge at the NOAA/National Weather Service office in Seattle. "She quickly became part of our everyday operations with no extra efforts on our part. Statira brought fresh new perspectives to projects assigned to her, and her productivity was simply amazing. If Statira is typical of the caliber of other ENTRY POINT! students, I would strongly recommend this program to other managers."
Just as students learned to apply classroom knowledge in real-world work environments and acquired other skills, mentors and managers benefited from contact with the scientists-to-be.
"The ENTRY POINT! program has opened our eyes to the wealth of courage and talents that can be utilized if we look beyond the students' disabilities," said Usha Varanasi, science and research director at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Many of the mentors there at first were concerned about how students with disabilities would manage in our laboratories and other situations.
"The students showed us that if we give this program a chance, they will give two hundred percent in dedication," she said. "They can do almost anything."
Students with disabilities represent a sizable pool of untapped talent that could help meet future needs of academe and industry, Stern pointed out.
In July, 15 major business groups led by the Business Roundtable called for doubling the number of STEM graduates by 2015. The action plan, Tapping America's Potential: Education for Innovation Initiative, included measures to encourage students to enter STEM fields and offering more opportunities for company employees to serve as role models and mentors for students.
Stern cited intense interest in STEM careers among students with disabilities. About 500 students, for instance, expressed interest in ENTRY POINT! internships this summer. The real-world work experience from an internship can be the key in solidifying that interest and opening doors to graduate study in a STEM field or employment, she added.
Malcom noted that ENTRY POINT! Is part of the AAAS's long-standing advocacy for the rights of individuals with disabilities. In 1976, for instance, AAAS became the first major scientific organization to make its national meetings fully accessible.
"Well before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, AAAS took a leadership role in promoting science, mathematics, and engineering education for students with visible or invisible disabilities," Stern said. "Our commitment is to mentor students with disabilities from pre-college through graduate studies, through the AAAS Resource Group and our ENTRY POINT! Program."
24 August 2005