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Joann Blumenfeld Is Fighting to Get Kids With Disabilities Into High-Paying STEM Careers

7 minute read

Joann Blumenfeld wants to help her high-school students learn the basics of science and math, but she also wants to set them up for long-term success. “I can teach them all the science I want,” says Blumenfeld, a special-education teacher in Raleigh, N.C. “But if I don’t set them up with workforce readiness skills, I’m not really helping them totally.”

There are more than 7 million students with disabilities enrolled in K-12 public schools across the country. But just 19% of adults with disabilities in the U.S. are employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 80% of people with disabilities aren’t in the labor force, compared to about 30% of people without disabilities — a statistic that startled Blumenfeld when she first learned it.

So in 2014, she launched Catalyst, a program within North Carolina State University that aims to open opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to high school students with disabilities. The program now enrolls 40 students—including some with physical disabilities, like muscular dystrophy, or learning disabilities, like dyslexia—who complete hands-on research and internships, exploring topics from aerospace engineering to genetics to environmental science.

Blumenfeld, 60, was a public-school educator for more than 20 years and now leads Catalyst full-time. She launched a second program this year, Connecting Students with Autism to Geographic Information Systems and Technology (GIST), which introduces 9th and 10th grade students to the growing field of drone piloting, because many students with autism have strong visual acuity that can be especially beneficial when working with drones.

She hopes the programs will become a national model that helps expand educational and career opportunities for students with disabilities. “I would love to see this program replicated across the country,” she says. “Everyone can do what I did.”

Joann Blumenfeld aims to open opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to high school students with disabilities.Courtesy Photo

Blumenfeld spoke with TIME about her programs, and what comes next.

What led you to start Catalyst?

These kids have so many skill sets, and so much to give to the community in business, industry and government. We’ve just got to figure out a way to train them better. I saw in public school, when I taught science, a lot of science is taught through text-based learning. Teachers face large class sizes, and it’s hard for them to deal with everybody’s individual needs. I spent thousands of dollars of my own money [on supplies]. But not all teachers can do that, not all teachers have time to do that, so they’re not doing a lot of hands-on learning. The other major issue people face in public school is a lot of special-ed teachers didn’t have a science background. I thought, we can do something better for the kids.

The issue is never the kid, it’s the system that they have to work within. So that’s what I try to do: Develop a better system.

How did it come to be part of N.C. State, instead of your school district?

One of the problems with the public school system—teachers come up with a lot of innovative materials and ideas, but they have to teach to the test, or they’re not allowed that kind of autonomy to implement these kinds of things. So I came up here [to NCSU] and I said, ‘Look, I want to try this. Would you let me? This is a group of kids that you’re not serving, and we are not serving in the public.’ The university allows a more innovative kind of place. Plus, the kids have internships here. They get to work with professors, which really gives them a leg up when they enter college.

What are you hoping students get out of participating in this program?

When they leave Catalyst, they’re starting college with three or four STEM jobs on their resumes. We expose the kids to a lot of fields they just don’t get in high school. We do a wide range of STEM topics, from poultry science, to textiles, to all kinds of engineering and genetics. They learn problem-solving skills, collaborating skills, good communication skills, research skills, self-confidence.

The other thing we’re trying to do is break barriers in industry. Some of our neurodiverse students, for example, don’t interview well, but they have so many great skill sets. I really believe to lead innovation, you have to have an inclusive workforce. And that’s one of our goals: to develop an inclusive STEM workforce.

We also teach them failure is not a bad thing. People are always afraid of failure, and we want the kids to know that it’s OK if the path is rocky, but they can get there.

What are some projects your students have worked on?

Last year, we had a wide range of internships with NASA. They did everything from measuring ice melts in glaciers in Antarctica, to learning different software. We’ve had kids work in genetics labs. Next year, we have kids working in artificial intelligence. We have kids in chemistry labs. It’s a good way for them to see if that’s a field that they’re really interested in.

How many Catalyst students have gone on to continue their STEM education or find a career in STEM?

All my seniors have started college in STEM. We just had nine high school graduates this year from our program, and they’re all going on to STEM fields, from physics, to coding, to cybersecurity. This year, a lot of my [former] students have started graduating college with STEM degrees, everything from meteorology to engineering. Kids come to the program because they’re interested in STEM, and we just keep building those skill sets and their confidence, so they know they’re able to do it. I think breaking those barriers down in high school is a really important thing. And if we talk about an inclusive STEM workforce, eventually you want to start in pre-kindergarten.

Why is this something other educators or school districts should replicate?

If we want an inclusive school and workforce, we need to develop that. That’s one of the goals of public education. We need to do better hands-on STEM for every single student. Science is very engaging if it’s hands-on and problem-based. And if you look at the cycle of poverty—because I’ve worked with low-income students throughout my career—the best way to [break] that is to give them an upward-bound economic trend, and STEM jobs pay well, beside the fact they’re so interesting.

What’s next for Catalyst? Are you hoping to expand?

I would love to see this program replicated across the country, because it has been successful, and there are so many kids we can help. I actually had students from Virginia and Florida ask to join because there are just not many programs like this, and there need to be.

We want to expand across the state, and what we really want to do is become a national model. I would like the U.S. Department of Education one day to look at our program and look at other programs like it and start implementing them to really level the playing field, the economic opportunities and educational opportunities for these students. Everyone can do what I did. It’s nothing special. It’s just we need people to do it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com