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$300K grant will help UB create training for professors on teaching neurodiverse students

A blue and grey sign held up by brick pillars reads "UB South Campus University at Buffalo" in blue and black text. Behind the sign there is a green grass, bushes and trees and a blue sky.
Photo from University at Buffalo website.
University at Buffalo's sign.

At the University at Buffalo, professors aren’t just teaching, they’re also reinventing teaching.

Learning scientists at the college are using a $300,000 grant to create professional development that will teach professors how to best teach students with ADHD and other forms of neurodivergence. To start, they will focus on professors who teach STEM degrees, specifically computer science programs.

Dr. Rachel Bonnette, a learning scientist and Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University at Buffalo, said neurodivergent students face stigma that impacts the support they get at the collegiate level.

"We've spoken to individuals in the disabilities office at UB, and they confirm, they said, ‘Yeah, one of the first things that we tell people is, if you are neurodiverse, you need more time to be able to complete a degree program.' That's not something to be ashamed about. It's not something to be ashamed about that you need to ask for additional support and ask for additional help," she said. "But there are so many stigmas on different types of disabilities, especially learning disabilities, especially autism, that people are afraid to come forward and ask for help."

People who identify as neurodivergent can include people with autism, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), mental illnesses and learning disabilities. Neurodiversity refers to and respects the diversity of how our brains operate.

So Bonnette and her colleague Dr. Sam Abramovich just received a grant to create training for professors, so they can learn how to best support neurodivergent students. They’ll have two years, $300,000, and start from an existing curriculum, while finding out what helps students.

"I believe it's two years to be able to build on curriculum that was already designed to teach teachers who are working with students who have ADHD," Bonnette said. "How do you better support those students? What do they need? What kinds of challenges are they going to face in the classroom, but what we're trying to adapt it to, is the undergraduate level in computer sciences because there are so many neurodivergent students that are interested in STEM, especially interested in computer sciences who don't make it all the way through the program."

Ultimately, Abramovich and Bonnette are hoping the program will become a micro-credential that can be used to help students identify which professors may have familiarity with working with neurodivergent students.

"So the crux of what we're trying to do is come up with a professional development program that both teaches the instructors what do they need to do to support these students, but also provides digital badges that students can then go and look at to selectively choose professors, faculty that are at least, if not perfectly trained for their needs, at least saying to the world, 'I'm trying to do more for you. I'm aware of the situation that you're in,'" Bonnette said. "And we want to see the power of that."

In addition to Abramovich and Bonnette, the research team will also be joined by Dr. Gregory Fabiano, who is an expert in ADHD, and Dr. Adrienne Decker from UB’s Department of Engineering Education. They say that a core part of this research will be bringing in students who could be impacted by their professors being credentialed, to inform their work.

"So part of the design team is very specifically about bringing in students who are either willing to identify as neurodivergent, or who are willing to identify that they have kind of like traits in common where that is a challenge that they have, and they want to talk about this," Bonnette said.

Their grant kicked in on Oct. 1. While the program is starting with students who have ADHD in computer sciences, Abramovich believes this has a lot of possibilities as they develop it and find what works.

“We're very excited to kind of do this research and understand to better improve the design, improve the outcome, to expand it beyond one or two types of neurodiversity to a vast range of professional development and learning that you could offer instructors, teachers, at four-year institutions, two-year institutions, continuing ed," he said. "We want to establish and do that. And then hopefully, one couldn't even imagine not doing this, because it's just gonna be nothing but benefit."

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.