Author: Caressa Wakeman describes the power of the INCLUDE project

Caressa Wakeman pictured above.

Note: Audio transcript is located below.

Caressa Wakeman, a PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Connecticut, has always felt like there was something wrong with her. Throughout elementary school and middle school, she had trouble with reading comprehension and writing. “I remember being in elementary school and middle school and being compared like, why can't you just focus or get good grades like your cousins, because I'm an only child.”

She would find out in her first year of PhD studies that she had ADHD. All of a sudden, everything clicked.

ADHD, officially known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder isn’t exactly a rare diagnosis. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 10% of kids have ADHD. Behaviors associated with ADHD are commonly described as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. These behaviors usually continue throughout a person's life.

Unfortunately, the mismatch between these characteristics and the demands of the traditional classroom environment don't exactly make life easy. As Caressa described above, ADHD is often related to lower-than-expected academic performance. The United States Department of Education states that students with ADHD are at high risk of expulsion, failing grades, and dropout from undergraduate studies.

Mazzone et al discuss the social challenges that many students with ADHD face in addition to their academic struggles. Their study showed that people with ADHD scored consistently lower on all measures of self-esteem than people without ADHD.

Caressa says that she compounded and internalized negative sentiments that were gathered throughout her journey. “I felt like a failure, because there's this thing with ADHD about really internalizing failure, like it’s rejection sensitivity.”

Once in graduate school, however, she found a silver lining. Throughout the whirlwind of responsibilities and work that Caressa had to face, something called the INCLUDE project threw her a lifeline. Their message to her: We will support all students, accommodate diverse learning styles, and cultivate success in the engineering field. 

The INCLUDE project empowered Caressa and helped her change her perspective on what having ADHD really means. “I think what the neurodiversity movement and what the INCLUDE project is teaching me is that I'm not fundamentally damaged or flawed. The system is. So it's taking emphasis off of me, and putting it where it really lies. And it's the system that I'm in, that was making me feel like there was something wrong with me.”

The INCLUDE project embraces cognitive differences through the lens of neurodiversity, which moves away from the stigma and disability labels that autism and ADHD (among other neurological conditions that have been defined as disorders) carry with them. Rather than viewing neurodiverse students as broken or deficient, this perspective allows for an understanding of neurodiversity as a spectrum of cognitive variations that come with unique strengths and challenges.

The INCLUDE project implements I-Courses, which are redesigned Civil & Environmental Engineering courses that support a range of learning styles and are more individually tailored to the specific needs of the student. For students with ADHD, this sort of class is a boon. A study by Allsopp et al discusses how an individualized course structure for kids with ADHD and learning differences can promote success.

At the end of the day, the INCLUDE project can not only help neurodivergent students like Caressa succeed better with individualized learning, but can also destigmatize their diagnoses and make them feel more at home in the engineering community. Learn more at https://cee.engr.uconn.edu/include.

 

Listen to more of Caressa'a interview and story below.

 

Author: Professor Jang on Universal Design Learning

Portrait of Dr. Shinae Jang a woman with dark straight hair wearing a black suit jacket and a white collared shirt.

Professor Shinae Jang pictured above.

Note: Audio transcript is located below.

Shinae Jang is an Associate Professor in Residence and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Teaching statics and other classes, she always strives to find a way to make learning more accessible in her curriculum. Luckily, that isn’t too difficult when following the framework of Universal Design for Learning.

UDL is “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” As the founders of UDL explain on their website, the three most important components of this framework are: engagement, representation, and action and expression.

In her courses, Professor Jang utilizes a number of interventions in the UDL framework to include a diverse array of learning styles. In the area of representation of information, she tries to make information as accessible as possible. “All the files are accessible, so that students can read and listen at the same time as needed. I adapted a digital textbook with the same reason and I use captions for all pre-recorded videos.”

In the area of action and expression, students can find a multitude of ways to communicate their knowledge of what is taught in the course. One of the projects that Professor Jang presents is a music video about statics. In other cases, students can produce creative drawings of a concept and then present it along an accompanying report. Professor Jang also engaged students by letting them customize a project based on their own strengths, like painting or narrative building. This often ties in with engagement because when students are given multiple routes as to how they can proceed, they can be more motivated in the course.

The INCLUDE project has also been a learning experience for professors. Professor Jang briefly describes what that learning experience has been like. “It's kind of a team effort to kind of transform our department to that direction. Within that direction, we are attending a lot of workshops and training and many, many discussions and then that mechanism and that process kind of transformed me into a different person.”

 

Listen to more of Professor Jang's interview and story below.

 

 

With the implementation of the UDL framework in classes, students are sure to benefit from the increased accommodation of a wide range of learning styles.

Author: Dr. Zaghi’s Research on Neurodiversity

Dr. Arash Zaghi pictured above.

Note: Audio transcript located below

The INCLUDE project had to start somewhere. That start had much to do with Dr. Arash Zaghi, an associate professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Identifying as a neurodiverse researcher, he has poured his blood, sweat and tears into redesigning education for divergent thinkers. “The INCLUDE project was inspired by the promising results we got from the data collected through other research projects that I have funded by the National Science Foundation through which we monitor engineering students. We try to find correlations between different levels of ADHD characteristics, and creative potential.”

Some of his research, which can be viewed here, has found that while the cognition of those with ADHD are correlated with higher levels of divergent thinking (i.e. thinking outside of the box), those same characteristics are negatively associated with engineering GPA. Taylor et al conclude that an individualized curriculum would serve to benefit students with ADHD and to extrapolate their full potential.

This thinking dated back to when he got his diagnosis at the age of 32. When he found out, he was naturally curious about the way his brain worked. “I read more and I even started reading more technical articles, like research articles on this. Naming big names like they have textbook characteristics of ADHD, and yet they are super successful. They are innovators.” According to ADDitude, Johnny Depp, Simone Biles and Solange Knowles are big names with ADHD.

In order to draw out these innovators, Dr. Zaghi recommends approaching the classroom with a strength-based mindset. Instead of sitting down and taking notes passively, students should be learning experientially. They should be supported in real-world environments and be learning how to utilize resources effectively.

He hopes that the university will change and realize that with a better curriculum comes better outcomes. “I can foresee innovative tech companies actually will take over some of the educational responsibilities and people will realize that they can get the same value and things will change. The universities should be smart. And if they want to stay relevant and competitive, they should start thinking about that now because tech companies are doing this.”

 

Listen to more of Dr. Zaghi's interview and story below.

Author: Dr. Chrysochoou on the neurodiverse community and the future of learning

Dr. Maria Chrysochoou pictured above.

Note: The audio transcript is located below.

Dr. Maria Chrysochoou is the leader of the INCLUDE Project at the University of Connecticut and the Department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her experience with a neurodiverse family member drives the mission behind INCLUDE. "I grew up in Greece, which has a rigid educational system. And at the time, my brother was actually dyslexic. And so I saw how he struggled with this, and how difficult it was for him to navigate things like writing and exams."

With that in mind, one of the missions of the INCLUDE Project is to introduce new methods of learning. A lot of people, neurodiverse or not, learn visually or in experiential environments. Experiential learning is an emphasis on learning by doing certain activities.

Dr. Chrysochoou discusses some of the career preparation that is part of that curriculum. “We'll also want to provide specific activities like career prep and interviewing. If somebody is on the spectrum or somebody has ADHD, they're gonna have different strengths in terms of presenting themselves in the interview.”

Dr. Chryscochoou also emphasizes that part of the INCLUDE project is about building a community with neurodiverse individuals. As part of the project, a nonresidential learning community is being offered as the class UNIV-1810, titled “Neurodiversity in Engineering”. Topics include goal setting, self-advocacy, engineering identity, and assistive technology tools.

Aside from the learning community, the admins also offer a Microsoft Teams group chat and a tentative Discord server. The need for neurodiverse community like this clearly exists. CHADD, which is one of the main ADHD support organizations in the U.S., does not have any support groups based in Connecticut.

With all of this in mind, the future of neurodiversity at UConn is flourishing. Dr. Chrysochoou discusses upcoming technologies that could be used to accommodate a wide variety of learning styles.

“These new technologies are coming out of places like Harvard and Stanford that use different kinds of technologies to assist learning. We're still exploring and learning and seeing what's out there. We've started a little bit by using virtual reality and creating a virtual reality lab that is very useful in engineering and especially for students with ADHD who have great visualization skills. That's a type of technology that can help assist with learning.”

 

Listen to more of Dr. Chrysochoou's interview and story below.