Raleigh teacher Joann Blumenfeld wants her students to live in a world “that doesn’t limit what they can do,” especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math.
“I always said, ‘It’s not the kid, it’s the box,'” Blumenfeld said. “We have to create a new box, that’s the real key.”
Blumenfeld set out to create a “new box” through two programs that help students with disabilities gain skills and experiences for successful careers in STEM.
Last week, she gained national recognition when TIME magazine named her one of the 10 most “innovative” teachers in the country. The educators were selected from hundreds of applications to “go beyond expectations to improve the learning experiences of children who need it and solve the problems facing schools today”.
Five years ago, Blumenfeld created Catalyst, a program for high school students with any disability who want to work in STEM. She also directs ESSENTIALa program that helps grade 9 and 10 students with autism learn about geospatial technologies, including piloting drones.
Blumenfeld, 60, worked as a special education teacher for more than 20 years in Wake County Public Schools, K-12. During these years she taught at Longview School, Dillard Drive Middle School and Brentwood Elementary School. She also ran a special kindergarten at Shaw University. Prior to working full-time in the Catalyst program, Blumenfeld taught at Broughton Magnet High School.
Nearly 26% of the US population has a disability, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a “red flag” when Blumenfeld first learned of the stat. In North Carolina, that number is well over 200,000, she said.
“It’s millions of people. We are doing a huge disservice,” Blumenfeld said. “I strongly believe that everyone should contribute to society and that everyone has a purpose.”
About 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Times are changing, Blumenfeld said, and more companies are diversifying their workforces.
“We want parents to see their children as breadwinners and not someone they have to support,” Blumenfeld said. “I think employers are starting to realize that these kids have a lot of skills.”
believe in children
Students in the Catalyst program spend nearly four years in labs conducting research, participating in STEM field trips, and mentorship opportunities. Catalyst, which is also a partnership with NC State in The Science House, consists of a week-long summer session and several Saturday sessions during the school year and a paid internship opportunity in research or engineering labs. university engineering.
“My goal is to prepare them for the STEM workforce and also prepare them for college,” Blumenfeld said. “And also help them with self-advocacy skills. We really believe in children.
There is also a journey. This year, students are heading to Houston, Blumenfeld said.
“We were invited by NASA to the Johnson Space Center,” she said. “They’re doing a special program just for us and they’re very interested in showing kids that they too can be included.”
With GIST, children participate in a week-long summer session and, during the school year, participate in 20 individual lessons and eight Saturday classes at NC State to learn how to fly drones. The end goal is for students to get their license to operate drones.
“They have a lot of drone programs across the country, but we’d love to have one that specifically addresses the needs of students with autism,” Blumenfeld said.
Between GIST and Catalyst, Blumenfeld said students need three things to succeed: STEM and workforce readiness skills, businesses to hire more people with disabilities, and changing people’s mindsets. to believe in them.
The first batch of Catalyst students in 2014 have just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, Appalachian State, NC State, and Wake Technological Community College. Students who complete the program and high school also attend UNC-Pembroke, Northeastern University, and William Peace University.
After school, children continue to work in a range of STEM fields or pursue more degrees, Blumenfeld said. Many of them end up earning paid internships at companies like SAS, Fidelity, Biogen, and IBM.
‘I can’t just think, you have to do’
Blumenfeld, who is certified to teach science, said she wants to see her students committed to doing things on their own and living in a world that doesn’t limit what they can do.
“A lot of people tell people with disabilities what they need instead of letting them use their own voice,” she said. “People talk a lot about diversity, but you can’t just think, you have to do.”
Blumenfeld said she wants to see more programs like Catalyst and GIST created across the country.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the kids,” she said.
While working in public schools, Blumenfeld said she wrote several grants to get money for students with disabilities. Her budget was $1.58 per student per year for supplies, she said.
“If we don’t give (people with disabilities) the skills to be employable, we’re not helping these children enough,” she said. “If they want to become nuclear engineers, we have to give them the skills to do so.”
This story was originally published June 17, 2022 11:29 a.m.