Northern Arizona University (NAU) recently joined a nationwide initiative meant to raise the number of people involved in STEM education and careers who have disabilities, developing a mentorship program and research to support students entering the field.
Part of the NSF INCLUDES alliance (Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) and launched in 2021, The Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking and Transition Opportunities in STEM (TAPDINTO-STEM) is funded through a $10 million NSF grant awarded to Auburn University.
The alliance, divided into six regional hubs, now includes 28 colleges and universities across the United States. Through mentorship, its goal is to increase the number of students with disabilities who complete STEM degrees in higher education and enter the STEM workforce.
NAU on Nov. 8 announced that a team at its Institute for Human Development had been selected to lead the initiative’s Mountain Hub, helping to expand the program in addition to serving students at the university. So far, it has also brought in Coconino Community College, the University of Nevada – Reno, NAU’s Yuma campus and Utah State University.
Ronda Jenson, an associate professor in NAU’s psychological sciences department and principal investigator for the project, said she hoped TAPDINTO-STEM will help build confidence and self-advocacy in students.
“Giving these students a platform to showcase their leadership and get their voices heard is already having an impact as we connect resources,” she said.
It is only one piece of the Institute for Human Development’s (IDH) work to broaden who participates in STEM, she said, noting that NAU is in a “fortunate position” because its staff and leadership are “committed to recognizing disability as diversity.”
The NAU 2025 strategic plan includes disability in its definition of diversity, equity and inclusion, for example. Jenson also highlighted the efforts of the Disability Resources Office, led by director Jamie Axelrod.
Others involved in the NAU branch of the program include IHD Executive Director Kelly Roberts, clinical professor of chemistry Francisco Villa, research associate Arden Day, research coordinators Michele Lee and Stephanie Del Giorgio, and senior research coordinator Cynthia Beckmann.
“We really have a strong leadership that is committed to disability as diversity — which gives such a solid foundation,” Jenson said. “So as students are sharing their voices and their perspectives, we have eager listeners.”
Over the summer, NAU’s first cohort of TAPDINTO-STEM students worked together to develop the program at the university, using guidelines from Auburn University to find ways to best meet student needs.
“The goal is to build programs where students are mentoring other students — in this case, students with disabilities who are majoring in STEM — to help them feel connected to their programs, help troubleshoot the very particular problems and challenges that come with being a student with a disability and encouraging one another,” said program coordinator Jade Metzger-Riftkin.
What began as a series of group mentoring meetings grew to include one-on-one peer mentoring, office hours open to all NAU students with disabilities, and events meant to develop skills to help with education and job-seeking as well as in their individual careers.
The region currently has around 20 students participating across its universities and plans to add more as the program continues.
As Metzger-Riftkin put it, “I do not believe in delaying when there is a need.”
“All you have to do with a lot of these students is just be honest, be understanding, and then the things they will grow from there has just been, ‘I’m amazed,’” she said.
Topics covered in the program so far include time management, goal-setting, applying for graduate school and ways to get paid for doing research. Speakers have included NAU’s Career Professional Development Center (resumes and cover letters) and current STEM workers with disabilities (internships, self-advocacy and asking for accommodations), with more already being planned.
The program also focuses on peer mentorship between students, so both individuals are working together to learn from each other. Students are paired using a number of factors, including major and career goals.
“One of the things that can happen when you’re a student with disabilities is that you don’t feel connected to other students, you don’t feel connected to your program, you don’t feel connected to the campus,” Metzger-Riftkin said. “Research has shown that the more connected you feel to these things, the more likely you are to graduate.”
As the program continues, she said, students will be taking on more leadership responsibilities, such as running meetings, inviting speakers and asking questions. What she’s most excited about is seeing students graduate and move toward their goals, with the first graduating at winter commencement next week.
The grant also funds research at each hub related to getting more students with disabilities involved in STEM education and careers. The Mountain Hub’s research project is led by geography, planning and recreation associate professor Sandy Heath, and is focused on “lived-experience research” of science and stigma.
As Jenson explained it, the project will collect photos and captions created by students with disabilities of situations where they do and do not feel like they belong. This will also be used to create a survey instrument to expand the study nationally.
Metzger-Riftkin said she hopes students gain confidence from participating in the program.
“They can absolutely do more than they think they can do. If the only thing that they came out of this with was, ‘I didn’t know I could do that,’ this project’s successful,” she said. “I think the other thing that I want them to get out of the program is that they feel like they belong. They belong in science and they have a long history of belonging in science rather than being science experiments.”