TIME Innovative Teacher helps students with disabilities harness their superpowers

When Joann Blumenfeld, an educator in the Wake County public school system, looks at her students, she doesn’t see disabilities — she sees superpowers.

“We need to change the mindset that these kids have a disability,” says Blumenfeld, a special education teacher and founder of Catalyst, a STEM program for high school students with disabilities. “They have different superpowers.”

Blumenfeld was recognized as TIME Innovative Teacher of the Year, presented by Verizon, for her work bringing students with disabilities into well-paying STEM careers. Through Catalyst, which she launched in 2014, Blumenfeld helps her students build social and technical skills while shifting the mindset around what they are capable of achieving.

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Teaching Students with Disabilities Vocational STEM Skills

The lack of support in public education for students with disabilities inspired Blumenfeld to create Catalyst. The program operates within North Carolina State University and is based on several skill-building components.

Catalyst exposes students like Chandler Jenkins to STEM content they otherwise wouldn’t have access to in high school — everything from nanotechnology to textile engineering, Blumenfeld says.

All learning is hands-on, so students use computers and Raspberry Pi for coding, as well as lab equipment such as electron microscopes.

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“My favorite part of the program was learning about different types of jobs and careers,” says Jenkins. He now has a scholarship to study computer science with the aim of working in cybersecurity.

Students also learn workforce readiness skills, such as budgeting and resume writing. They also meet with professionals to practice their professional interpersonal skills.

“We have companies like IBM coming in to interview kids in mock interviews, so they practice that,” Blumenfeld says.

Finally, students benefit from STEM internships as part of the program. This gives them first-hand experience in the field and allows them to apply to college with two or three internships on their resume.

“We cannot just accommodate the children. We need innovative programs like this that connect all strands,” says Blumenfeld.

Changing the minds of students and professionals through awareness

Beyond introducing students with disabilities to STEM careers, Blumenfeld’s other goal through the Catalyst program is to change the way people think.

She hopes to open students’ eyes to see what they can achieve, and she wants to show professionals in the field that these students have superpowers.

“Breaking down those barriers is really important on so many levels,” says Blumenfeld. “Children with autism tend to have great visual acuity, which is great for a coder. The hard of hearing, NASA wants them because they don’t get motion sickness. People with ADHD are great scanners and they are really good at seeing the big picture.They make great people in emergency rooms and great teachers.

“If we want an innovative STEM workforce, we need to have a place at the table for everyone,” she adds.

Blumenfeld encourages other districts to follow her lead, and she recommends finding a local college or university to partner with for a good faculty base. She also suggests writing grants.

“We started small. I received a $5,000 scholarship. You can build your base, and the more you build, the more kids you can help,” she says.

NEXT: Get outside help writing grants so your district doesn’t leave money on the table.

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