This 3-year project, titled "Encouraging the Participation of Neurodiverse Students in STEM Graduate Programs to Radically Enhance the Creativity of the Professional Workforce," is funded by grant 2105721 from the National Science Foundation. The goals of IGE are to pilot, test and validate innovative approaches to graduate education and to generate the knowledge required to move these approaches into the broader community.
This project aims to:
1) increase neurodiverse students’ awareness of their unique strengths and challenges enhances their self-efficacy and self-advocacy
2) provide opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction enhances the sense of belonging and experience of neurodiverse students in STEM graduate programs
3) provide writing interventions to enhance their writing productivity
The project is led by a multi-disciplinary team of investigators from the School of Engineering, the Neag School of Education and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). The research team is supported by a graduate research assistant from the Neag School of Education.
Arash Zaghi, PhD, PE, SE
Principal Investigator (PI)
Civil & Environmental Engineering
Richard Christenson, PhD
Civil & Environmental Engineering
Rachael Gabriel, PhD
Curriculum & Instruction
Tom Deans, PhD
Director, University Writing Center
Joseph Madaus, PhD
Professor, Educational Psychology
Director, Collaborative on Postsecondary Education and Disability
Curriculum & Instruction
Neurodiverse individuals, including those with ADHD, dyslexia, and frequently co-occurring conditions like dysgraphia and dyscalculia, have unique skills that may be assets in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields such as risk taking, divergent thinking, and spatial visualization. Encouraging the participation of these students in STEM graduate programs will significantly benefit the creativity of our professional workforce, which in turn will help to identify groundbreaking solutions to the large-scale and complex scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. In addition to supporting national prosperity and competitiveness, increasing the participation of neurodiverse individuals in graduate programs will significantly benefit the well-being of these marginalized individuals who are currently highly underrepresented in STEM education. This National Science Foundation Innovations of Graduate Education (IGE) award to the University of Connecticut will embrace a strength-based approach towards neurodiversity. By identifying the nature of the challenges that neurodiverse students face in the prevailing one-size-fits-all model of STEM graduate education, this project aims to pilot and test innovative approaches to improve the sense of belonging, productivity, and overall experience of neurodiverse graduate students. In doing so, this project will generate knowledge that informs the development of more inclusive educational practices that capitalize on the unique talents of neurodiverse individuals. These practices will support the academic success of neurodiverse students and empower these individuals to contribute to future scientific and technological advancements. Changing the paradigm of disability, dysfunction, and disorder to one of diversity not only enhances the participation of nontraditional learners in STEM education but also benefits society and the nation at large.
By adopting a strength-based approach toward neurodiversity, this project will be at the forefront of efforts to promote a culture of inclusivity in STEM graduate education. Toward this end, the project employs a theory of change model with four integrated activities to pilot and test easy-to-implement interventions with high potential to support the success of students with ADHD and dyslexia in STEM graduate programs. Activities will encourage participation of these populations of students by adopting a strength-based approach toward neurodiversity. This project aims to evaluate three core hypotheses: 1) increasing neurodiverse students’ awareness of their unique strengths and challenges enhances their self-efficacy and self-advocacy, 2) providing opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction enhances the sense of belonging and experience of neurodiverse students in STEM graduate programs, and 3) providing writing interventions focused on students’ metacognitive skills enhances their writing productivity. The data from the integrated research plan and formal evaluation will generate critical knowledge for the scale-up of the proposed activities and inform future enhancements of STEM graduate education. This project will generate data on the efficacy of evidence-based approaches and interventions that are inspired by the framework of positive psychology to inform the development of an inclusive graduate education environment. This knowledge will be shared with engineering educators through a workshop at the ASEE annual meeting and formal publications. Supported by a strong institutional commitment, the multidisciplinary team of principal investigators and the diverse project advisory board composed of university administrators, researchers, industry leaders, philanthropists, and graduate students will guide the recruitment, data collection, data analysis, dissemination, and outreach activities of the project.
The Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) program is focused on research in graduate education. The goals of IGE are to pilot, test and validate innovative approaches to graduate education and to generate the knowledge required to move these approaches into the broader community.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs
Introduction: Despite efforts to increase the participation of marginalized students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), neurodivergent students have remained underrepresented and underserved in STEM graduate programs. This qualitative study aims to increase understanding of the experiences of neurodivergent graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in STEM. In this analysis, we consider how common graduate school experiences interface with the invisibility of neurological diversity, thus contributing to a set of unique challenges experienced by neurodivergent students.
Materials and methods: In this qualitative study, 10 focus group sessions were conducted to examine the experiences of 18 students who identify as neurodivergent in graduate STEM programs at a large, research-intensive (R1) university. We used thematic analysis of the transcripts from these focus groups to identify three overarching themes within the data.
Results: The findings are presented through a novel model for understanding neurodivergent graduate STEM student experiences. The findings suggest that students who identify as neurodivergent feel pressure to conform to perceived neurotypical norms to avoid negative perceptions. They also may self-silence to maintain stability within the advisor-advisee relationship. The stigma associated with disability labels contributes a heavy cognitive and emotional load as students work to mask neurodiversity-related traits, navigate decisions about disclosure of their neurodivergence, and ultimately, experience significant mental health challenges and burnout. Despite these many challenges, the neurodivergent graduate students in this study perceived aspects of their neurodivergence as a strength.
Discussion: The findings may have implications for current and future graduate students, for graduate advisors who may or may not be aware of their students’ neurodivergence, and for program administrators who influence policies that impact the wellbeing and productivity of neurodivergent students.
KEYWORDS: neurodiversity, ADHD, autism, burnout, graduate education, STEM, masking, invisibility
Syharat CM, Hain A, Zaghi AE, Gabriel R and Berdanier CGP (2023) Experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs. Front. Psychol. 14:1149068. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1149068
Burnout: The Cost of Masking Neurodiversity in Graduate STEM Programs
A growing body of literature suggests that neurodivergent individuals, such as those with autism, dyslexia, and ADHD possess unique abilities that may be assets in STEM fields. Despite the potential of neurodivergent students to leverage these abilities to contribute to innovation in their field, they face a multitude of barriers and difficulties as they navigate rigid educational environments. While there has been research on the strengths and challenges of neurodivergent STEM students at the undergraduate level, there is a lack of studies at the graduate level. This paper details findings from a qualitative study on the experiences of neurodivergent graduate students within their STEM programs. Findings from a series of 10 focus groups suggest that neurodivergent students face pressure to mask their neurodiversity-related traits and hide the challenges that they often face within their graduate program. Neurodivergent students often experience variations in attention, motivation, time management, and other elements of executive function; these variations may pose distinct challenges for neurodivergent students as they shoulder heavy workloads while attempting to maintain a healthy work-life balance. The findings from this study suggest that the additional pressure placed on neurodivergent graduate students to mask their experiences contributes to an unacknowledged cognitive and emotional load that may significantly impact their mental health in the form of anxiety and burnout. These findings have implications within the context of the advisor-advisee relationship, as variations in advising practices and communication styles may impact graduate students’ perceived need to mask their neurodivergence. This paper aims to highlight the neurodivergent students’ experiences with masking and the mental health challenges that neurodivergent students face as they navigate the demands of graduate-level STEM programs. It is anticipated that these findings may foster the adoption of inclusive advising practices for faculty advisors and program administrators and to enhance the educational experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs.
Syharat, C.M., Hain, A., Zaghi, A., Berdanier, C. “Burnout: The Cost of Masking Neurodiversity in Graduate STEM Programs” 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, June 25-28, 2023.