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These future scientists excel in STEM competition

Team members (from left) John Steele, Jennifer Hendricks, Michai McLaughlin, Thomas Lurie, Bryan Osario-Suarez, Austin Bach, Joel Salgado, Nicholas Starr, Tyler Pauls, and Garrison Pendergrass are excited about the opportunity to compete in the Lemelson-MIT Program.
Team members (from left) John Steele, Jennifer Hendricks, Michai McLaughlin, Thomas Lurie, Bryan Osario-Suarez, Austin Bach, Joel Salgado, Nicholas Starr, Tyler Pauls, and Garrison Pendergrass are excited about the opportunity to compete in the Lemelson-MIT Program. Contributed photo

In June, 15 InvenTeams from across the country will meet at MIT to show off a wide range of inventions.

These groups of high school students developed systems that transform cardboard into building materials or that provide shelter for the homeless; they invented devices that lift kayaks onto cars or remove gum from school floors, and all as part of the STEM-centric Lemelson-MIT Program. The winning teams get a $10,000 grant to develop and build their invention.

North Carolina will be represented by the Catalyst InvenTeam, a group of Wake, Orange and Mecklenburg County students that earned this prestigious honor by designing a mat to measure lameness in cattle and an accompanying app to alert farmers. Unlike the other teams, however, Team Catalyst is made up entirely of students with disabilities.

There doesn’t have to be a discrepancy

Catalyst program director Joann Blumenfeld takes this as just another piece of evidence that there’s just as much room in STEM fields for students with disabilities as there is for their nondisabled peers.

“Students with disabilities are 13 percent of the public school population, but they are less than 7 percent of students studying STEM education when they get to college level,” she says. There doesn’t have to be a discrepancy, Blumenfeld says. Not only can disabled students keep up, but they can excel.

Team Catalyst works with professors and graduate students at N.C. State University who volunteer their time as advisers. These experts don’t see students with disabilities, Blumenfeld says, but future scientists.

“It’s cool to get to talk to professors at the university and people in certain fields I want to go into, like engineering,” says Austin Bach of Holly Springs High School, one of the team’s three seniors. His interest in engineering was spawned by the robotics-oriented Lego Mindstorms and he’s applying to State, where he wants to pursue either engineering or history – he loves both fields and can’t decide.

For Team Catalyst’s invention, Bach typed code and made hands-on contributions. The other two seniors, Bryan Osario-Suarez of East Chapel Hill High and Nicholas Starr of Cedar Ridge High in Hillsborough, worked on the design of the sensors that would read the cow’s hooves and the pressure plate, respectively.

These students have the ability and the perseverance to create an invention that works, Blumenfeld says. “Students with disabilities, they have to think every day how to do things we typically do,” she said. They’re receptive to her mantra – that failure is a good thing – and understand that some of the best lessons come from failing and then having to try a new approach.

“Many of the most famous scientists had disabilities,” Blumenfeld said. “Many of them didn’t do well in school, either.”

Many science curricula rely on text-based learning, which doesn’t work for all her students. On Team Catalyst, there are students with autism, hearing impairment or cognitive disabilities. They’re creative and skilled, but traditional classrooms don’t necessarily fit the way their minds process information. Some of these students, Blumenfeld says, can assemble a bicycle in five minutes even if they can’t read the directions. So rather than text-based learning, she does hands-on science. She illustrates the concept first and explains the theory behind it second.

“From a student’s perspective, it’ll probably be easy for me,” Starr said. “I understand with objects or things.”

If they’re studying weather, he says, Blumenfeld will make a cloud in the lab, with rain and everything. After graduation, Starr would like to go to East Carolina University or State to study meteorology.

Osario-Suarez would like to study mechanical or aerospace engineering at State, and he could see himself working on Mars rovers or related technology in the future. He wants to stay involved with STEM-centric programs, though. “I have always loved to help people and make things that will make other people happy and just see that I’m making a difference in the world,” he says.

Appropriately, last summer Team Catalyst met with then-Gov. Pat McCrory for a conversation about STEM needs in North Carolina schools. Blumenfeld was impressed with their tenacity. The students wouldn’t let a question go until they were satisfied with the answer.

Starr brought up the need for chemistry labs and updated science books, while Bach suggested that coding classes could count as language requirements.

“Coding could be considered a language,” he said, displaying the kind of outside-the-box thinking Blumenfeld has come to expect from Team Catalyst. “It’s totally different from English.”

How you can help

Donations to help the Team Catalyst fund the trip to MIT may be made at bit.ly/2jMC99y.

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