Multi-university effort helps STEM students with disabilities
nabling choice for people with disabilities is at the core of Professor Jay Martin’s work with the Midwest Alliance. People with disabilities are severely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields due to perceptions that STEM work is not accessible. To address this issue, three universities are working together to brainstorm the system changes necessary to allow students with disabilities to make informed choices about careers in STEM fields.
The collaboration among UW-Madison, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Northern Iowa is known as the Midwest Alliance. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the collaboration began in 2005 and is the fourth project of its kind in the country. Since the alliance formed, it has offered mentoring, internship and placement support, and enrichment camps to students with disabilities in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.
Martin originally joined the collaboration to provide a technological perspective. Martin, who is also the director of the UW Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology, has been the principal investigator for the Midwest Alliance since 2007.
His extensive experience in designing devices for people with disabilities complements the accessible systems and services expertise of the other alliance partners. One recent project he and his students developed is a reading device that uses a Nintendo Wii remote as an infrared camera to project text onto any surface, enabling people in wheelchairs to more easily read.
In addition to devices that improve daily life for people with disabilities, Martin and his students also design recreational technologies to enhance quality of life. Their projects include an advanced lightweight, modular wheelchair with a hybrid power system and airbags that could go as fast as 18 miles per hour and a sit-ski used in the 2009 American Birkebeiner national cross-country ski race. “The objective of our work at UW-Madison is to enhance the interaction between the person and the technology so that the technology will in fact allow the person more choice than they’d have without it,” Martin says.