Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Preparing Young Adults with Disabilities for STEM Careers:
The Pacific Alliance Model


Kiriko Takahashi

Kelly D. Roberts

Steven E. Brown

Hye-Jin Park

Robert Stodden

Employment opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the U.S. are growing at a rapid rate. Between 1950 and 2000 the STEM workforce grew 669% while the workforce as a whole only grew 130% (Lowell & Regets, 2006, as cited in Varma & Frehill, 2010). The U.S. Bureau of Labor (2007) projects job growth of 22% for STEM occupations as a whole between 2004 and 2014. However, there is a gap between the large number of STEM job opportunities and the low number of individuals who are attaining their college degrees in these fields even though postsecondary education is critical for many STEM occupations.

When considering students with disabilities, their participation in postsecondary education is lower than their representation in the U.S. population, and significantly lower in comparison to their peers without disabilities. For students with disabilities who are enrolled in postsecondary education, only 11% of those students in undergraduate programs are pursuing STEM degrees (Burrelli, 2007). This number drops to 7% in graduate programs in STEM, with only 1% earning a doctorate degree in STEM (Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, 2007) and only 4.8% entering the science and engineering workforce (Burrelli & Falkenheim, 2011). This low number indicates a need to encourage and support students with disabilities to enter and complete postsecondary education in STEM so they can compete in this growing job market.

Supporting the STEM Pipeline

The Pacific Alliance for Supporting Individuals with Disabilities in STEM Fields Partnership, based at the Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, is a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to increase the number of students with disabilities exploring, transitioning into, and succeeding in STEM education and careers. Pacific Alliance project staff work with students with disabilities who are juniors and seniors in high school, undergraduate students in two-year and four-year institutions, and graduate students. These students are either already in the STEM pipeline, not yet in the STEM pipeline, or undecided about STEM. Staff provide diverse and individualized types of support to address disability-related barriers, self-empowerment/exploration barriers, academic barriers, and employment barriers.

Communities of Practice in Action

To promote the STEM pipeline and support students with disabilities who are in it, Pacific Alliance has developed four Communities of Practice on local college campuses. Communities of Practice are teams of people who share a common concern or interest around a specific topic. They work together to identify goals, set priorities, cultivate resources, and access services and accommodations associated with the secondary and postsecondary education success and employment of students with disabilities in STEM fields. Each Community of Practice is key in guiding and implementing the following promising practices:

  • MentoringPeer-to-peer and mentor-protégé relationships provide students with career, psychosocial, and academic support. Mentoring is tailored to student needs, disability type(s), culture, and/or gender. Mentors are trained and mentoring is provided in person, via the Internet, and by phone.
  • Accommodations. Students are guided to connect with disability agencies and resources on campus and within the community that offer accommodations to address inaccessibility of facilities, curriculum materials, equipment, and electronic resources.
  • Interest Embedded STEM Building. Students take part in diverse STEM learning opportunities including monthly group meetings, engaging social experiences such as team-building activities, summer and winter institutes focused on learning about different STEM disciplines, and field trips to STEM-based companies.
  • Assistive Technology (AT). Through workshops, students are exposed to both low and high tech AT and supported to identify AT that will promote their independence, self-efficacy, and academic skills building while increasing inclusion in the STEM environment.
  • College Preparation. High school participants are encouraged to prepare for college. Pacific Alliance staff organize information sessions and go through college application and financial aid forms together. College mentors also speak to the participants about their experiences. In addition, participants learn about the self-advocacy skills and the types of documentation needed for postsecondary education environment.
  • Internships and Research Experiences. Students with disabilities greatly benefit from professional internships and research experiences in addition to their coursework. Through Pacific Alliance, connections are made to existing college programs and collaborating employers with the assistance of Communities of Practice members and mentors. Information on internships is posted monthly on the Pacific Alliance Web site.
  • Self-Advocacy. Self-advocacy is a critical skill for successful transition to, and participation and retention in, postsecondary education and careers. Participants receive specific guidance to determine and advocate for their support needs, and self-advocacy skill lessons are often provided in conjunction with mentoring and college and career preparation supports.

In addition to implementing the promising practices described above, Community of Practice members provide input for staff and stakeholders, assist in student recruitment and monitor retention, and conduct capacity-building activities such as training and workshops.

Leina’s Story

The following is the story of one young woman, Leina, who is participating in the Pacific Alliance project. It illustrates how project staff and the Communities of Practice support participants to succeed in STEM fields.

Leina is a college student with Asperger’s syndrome. She was recruited for the project as a student already in the STEM pipeline. Through Pacific Alliance she is receiving mentoring and has been placed in a STEM internship. She tells her story here, describing her challenges as a student with a disability pursuing a STEM education and career, and how support provided by Pacific Alliance staff and Communities of Practice members has been helpful:

I just graduated with a degree in biochemistry. I was working in the neurobiology area on stem cells with rat models looking at tissue cell death and migration. I have Asperger’s syndrome, which pretty much means I have social deficits. I had only gotten diagnosed in my senior year in high school, so when I went to college, it was definitely a challenge. People expect you to be more mature and I wasn’t, so that was definitely a challenge. In the first place, I didn’t deal with being in college very well. I was just getting by. It was hard to make the grades and to be at the level where other students were. I did not receive accommodations until my sophomore year in college. I got extended time on tests and not much of anything else. The school didn’t have the resources to provide me with other accommodations. I did struggle with a lot of the courses. Also, because of my Asperger’s, the professor that I did research with didn’t know if I truly wanted to work in his lab. He thought I had a lack of motivation.

I’m not experiencing challenges now at the internship. I hope the people that I’m working with know that I want to be there and don’t have doubts like in the past. It is helpful to have a Community of Practice member at the lab because I realized that getting support is important. Trying to do it alone is very hard.

People should look at schools and look at what types of services are available. They should look to make sure there are people who can support you. People with Asperger’s especially need to be told what to do because we are not often self-starters like others who come to college. Mentoring through the Pacific Alliance has been helpful. Mentors can help in providing directions and what to do. It helps. My mentor, who is a graduate student with a similar interest in neuroscience, has encouraged me to apply to post-baccalaureate programs to work as a lab tech and gain more skills in the research area before applying to a graduate program.


This article has provided a glimpse of how the Pacific Alliance project supports students with disabilities in the STEM pipeline. The key outcomes of the project include its impacts on students’ interests, academic and career aspirations, and persistence and success in STEM fields. Leina’s story is one of many success stories that have occurred over the course of the project. We intend to continue to positively impact many more students who, through our support, will be able to enter the STEM workforce. 

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2007). STEM occupations and job growth. Retrieved from

  • Burrelli, J. (2007). What the data show about students with disabilities in STEM. Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering. Division of Sciences Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation. Retrieved from

  • Burrelli, J. S., & Falkenheim, J. C. (2011). Diversity in the federal science and engineering workforce. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, Directorate for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (NSF 11-303).

  • Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. (2007). Persons with disabilities in STEM. Retrieved from

  • Varma, R., & Frehill, L. M. (2010). Special issue on science and technology workforce. American Behavioral Scientist, 53(7), 943–948.