How Advocating for Accessibility in the Field Builds a Culture of STEM Inclusion

Dr. Christopher Atchison, who wears glasses and a silver tie, stands next to a bookshelf
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Christopher Atchison Ph.D.
Professor of Geoscience Education
University of Cincinnati

Caption: Students discussing field research with faculty at an accessible field site in Connemara, Ireland. (Image credit: The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD))

Active learning in field-focused science disciplines is widely recognized as highly transformative practice in the undergraduate curriculum.1 Giving students early exposure to practical experiences in the natural environment enables them to apply interdisciplinary classroom content knowledge, develop critical-thinking and interpretive skills, and establish a stronger understanding of the scientific process. Most agree, and theory suggests, that practical application of science in the natural environment is the key to transforming science students into science practitioners.2,3 By continuing to use traditional course design and instructional methods that place value on physical ability and resilience, faculty are merely replacing themselves with future scientists who act, look, think, and perform as they do.

“Practitioners need to think beyond the boundaries of their beliefs and experience.” 4

The Field Scientist Typology

Students with disabilities take part in a field science program in a forest surrounded by coniferous trees.

Students and faculty discussing observations at an accessible overlook during a field-based science program in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Image credit: The IAGD)

Students entering training programs in the field science disciplines are noticeably less representative of the national demographic. Individuals from groups most commonly underrepresented in these disciplines would argue that the lack of diversity is not due to the lack of diverse students entering STEM. Students across all ability, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation identities are interested in, and entering into, field science certificate and degree programs. It is a lack of access, belonging, equity, inclusion, and opportunity, perhaps as a result of traditionally rigid expectations and physically rigorous program practices, causing high rates of attrition of students from underrepresented demographic groups in field science programs. The science community may feel differently, however. Efforts to support an increased diverse population of science students and practitioners are slow to emerge and often met with resistance, demonstrating that scientific society still dictates that anyone can belong to “the club”, as long as they assimilate to the traditional norms, values, and practices that have long been in place.

Field science culture, for example, and traditional methods of teaching and learning in the field are often exclusive to those who have the ability to withstand the physical, mental, and emotional strain to persist in such learning experiences.2,3

“The limited awareness and perceived barriers for people with disabilities in the geosciences may result in the continued marginalization of geoscientists with disabilities and further inhibit participation in community-based scholarship and engagement.” 5

Most training programs expect students to be physically, mentally, and emotionally able to navigate the field rather than universally designing field activities to match necessary learning objectives with options of contingency and flexibility that align with the abilities of students. However, voices most commonly silenced are beginning to amplify, creating awareness and shifting field-focused science culture towards social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). Those in the trenches of the JEDI movement envision a science community that is asset-focused and innovative, driven by the inclusion of everyone’s knowledge, abilities, and perspectives of the natural environment, rather than disqualifying someone because of stereotypical beliefs defined by an uninformed and biased society.

Recommendations for Field Accessibility

Educators and students gather around to inspect a rock. A student in a wheelchair takes a picture of an exposed rock wall.

Students and faculty collaborate and discuss geological evidence at the Great Unconformity in Morrison, Colorado. (Image Credit: The IAGD)

Work to create and provide access to field-based learning experiences for students with disabilities has been steadily evolving over the past two decades.6,7 In the geosciences, specifically, access and accommodation research initially focused on realizing the issues of exclusion7-9 and identifying barriers to field learning.10-12 More recently, studies have expanded to look at the design of inclusive communities of learning that mitigate these barriers4,13-16 while upholding necessary learning objectives and expected course outcomes.17

The instructional outcomes of a field-focused activity require the physical demands of traditional field practices to be replaced by the academic rigor of collaborative and inclusive learning experiences. The design of clear and attainable learning objectives that lead to the acquisition of content knowledge and skills students will need, and use, in industry is paramount. The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) has been leading the push for designing and implementing academically rigorous and accessible geoscience field courses since 2010. Most of these field experiences are not only open to students with disabilities in field science disciplines (with many focused on the geosciences) but also designed to help current field science instructors learn how to make their field courses more accessible and inclusive. Outcomes of these field experiences provide a number of recommendations that move the field of accessibility forward. Here are a few:

  • Purposeful field site selection, universally designed field activities, and mixed ability grouping13,18-21 contributes to the knowledge, experiences, and abilities of students as assets rather than focusing on disability as a deficit to the learning community.
  • Similarly, empowering student voices when issues of inaccessibility and plans to mitigate exclusion arise,22,23 values everyone’s contributions and strengthens innovation within a learning community by considering diverse interpretations, observations, and perspectives. When dealing with challenges of inclusion and full participation, the students are the experts of overcoming barriers that prevent accessibility. Their personal experience and expertise should be consulted in any decisions made on their behalf.
  • The integration of technology (e.g., two-way radios, audio tour guide systems, video conferencing) can be used to promote access and social inclusion within a learning community separated by physical barriers.13,21,24-27 Research has identified that focusing on social inclusion within a field-based community of learning outweighs the need to be physically present at locations that are not accessible to every student.19,20 Open communication, collaboration, and conducting whole group debriefing sessions are most important in field activities in locations with variable accessibility.24 As such, we all should realize that full, active participation in fieldwork does not necessarily mean that everyone has 100% access to every field site. Utilizing technology as a tool to conduct field activities creates an opportunity for more access and inclusion – moving beyond traditional methods of instruction that require all students to take measurements at hard-to-reach outcrops. Just ask any deep basin oceanographer or planetary scientist!

Catalyzing a Cultural Shift Toward Disciplinary Inclusion

Two students in wheelchairs wear headlamps and explore a dark cave.

Students collect measurements during a cave mapping exercise at Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. (Image credit: The IAGD)

There is so much more to broadening participation for the sake of increasing diversity across the field sciences. Equitable access and opportunity humanizes field science disciplines by focusing on the inclusion of all talent, which inevitably translates to a more robust and innovative natural science workforce through diversity of thought, perspective, and experience. But are we moving the needle towards broad participation by mitigating exclusionary practices or are we just providing lip service to alleviate the burden of the demands of equity and social justice? Those who are the most privileged in the scientific community continue to make the most biased decisions towards those who are not. Evidence of these decisions can be found whenever long field days are planned with little consideration for personal care needs (e.g., restroom facilities), choosing to stay at campgrounds instead of accessible lodging, and the lack of flexibility and contingency planning for the unknown. Additionally, requiring alternative assignments rather than enabling a student with a disability to participate in a field course at the level of their strengths and abilities demonstrates a lack of understanding with how to effectively include all students in a community of learning.28

We cannot begin to address the current culture of exclusion without first empowering those who are most commonly marginalized by traditional academic practices. The voices of students and those who have overcome the barriers of inaccessibility and academic exclusion need to be empowered to help redirect and redesign the disciplinary pathways in order to move towards a more inclusive field science workforce. An example of this collaborative work can be found in a recent article including the voices of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.23 Faculty need to listen to and consider the voices and experiences of the people they are working to support, learn from those who conduct disability studies research or work in accessible and adaptive recreation, and then take the time to rethink, redesign, and create new learning experiences based on this knowledge and the guidelines of Universal Design for Learning.29 No one should be deciding what will best support someone’s needs without including them in the decision-making process. Why would anyone think that they know what works best for someone else if they do not have the same life experiences?

Additional Reading

For the Sake of Transparency…

To contextualize my positionality, I use the pronouns he, him, his. I am able-bodied, educated, heterosexual, male, and white. While growing up in a small town in rural Ohio, I had very little experience with anyone who didn’t look like me. I do not have any family members with an apparent disability, and classmates with non-apparent disabilities were grouped in “LD” classrooms, which typically caused them to be socially segregated as well.

Presently, I am an associate professor of geoscience education at the University of Cincinnati and the Founder and Executive Director of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity. I consider myself an ally, but I am imperfect and biased – not for a lack of caring or trying to be inclusive, but because of 46 years of access to the world and a privileged routine that hasn’t taken me far from my comfort zone. This has generated an ingrained ignorance that is difficult to break free from, even when I try to be deliberately aware of my words and actions. My privileged perspectives are confronted each and every day, most often by the very students I am working to support and include. I’m not an expert in the work that I do. The students and colleagues with disabilities that I work with are the experts. I am most thankful for their patience to teach me from their perspectives of confronting bias, stereotype, inaccessibility, and exclusion, almost daily.

My goal here is to share what I’ve learned, as a result of personal experience, over 18 years of working to broaden participation in science, while recommending a thing or two from what can be found in the growing body of research literature.