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Faculty and Staff

Creating an Inclusive STEM Workforce: Q&A About Catalyst’s Internship Program

A Catalyst student poses with a professor.
A Catalyst intern (left) with her supervisor Shuang Fang Lim, associate professor of physics at NC State.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations are projected to grow 8 percent by 2029, compared to 3.7 percent growth for all occupations. Joann Blumenfeld, program director for Catalyst, is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have increased opportunities to enter the field. In this question-and-answer session, she shares how Catalyst achieves this goal through hands-on support and an internship component.

Q: What is Catalyst and who does the program serve?

A: Catalyst, a program founded in 2015 under The Science House, is designed to create STEM opportunities for high school students with disabilities. Rising ninth and 10th graders with any disability are eligible to participate, and students can be in regular education classes — such as AP, honors or academic level courses — or in the Occupational Course of Study (OCS) Program. Catalyst has students from more than 35 high schools across North Carolina.

Students learn STEM content and skills through hands-on labs and research. They participate in STEM field trips, mentoring opportunities and internships, while improving workforce readiness and soft skills and exploring STEM educational pathways and careers. Catalyst also provides students with job exploration counseling, workplace readiness training, a paid STEM internship, work-based learning experiences, counseling on postsecondary options and development in self-advocacy.

Catalyst is funded by North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation and has many community partners including NC State, Wake Tech, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Biogen, Duke Energy, IBM, Fidelity, the Environmental Protection Agency, SAS, NASA and Bank of America.

Q: What successes have Catalyst students had?

A: We’re very proud of the fact that all Catalyst graduating seniors have gone on to pursue STEM educational pathways in college. In 2017, our students won the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam national competition. They invented a mat that screens for lameness in cows, along with an app that notifies farmers. The student-developed device costs less than $1,000, while the current one on the market costs more than $100,000. The participants received a $10,000 grant to build their invention, which we hope to patent. The team also won the technical award at the competition.

Catalyst has also won numerous awards and grants over the years, including a Program of Excellence Award in 2021 from the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, and a National Science Foundation grant in 2021 to fund Connecting Students with Autism to Geographic Information Systems and Technology, a multiyear drone piloting program for ninth and 10th-graders that officially begins this month.

Q: What are the different ways in which Catalyst supports students?

A: We provide STEM skills and content, paid STEM internships, self advocacy, workforce readiness and college readiness skills. We do this in a small and accommodating environment and focus on students’ strengths to help prepare them for STEM educational pathways and careers. We also hire NC State undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities as teachers, mentors and role models so that the high school students can see pathways to success as well.

Typically, we see STEM educators who do not know how to best adapt curriculum and materials for students with disabilities, or special education teachers with limited STEM backgrounds. STEM taught in high schools is typically text-based, and students with disabilities tend to have more challenges in this area. Our program’s staff is equipped to address these needs. Students participate for 3-4 years so we can help them build their skills and set them up for success. Catalyst graduates have gone on to succeed in college, majoring in fields ranging from computer science to physics.

Q: How does the internship program work?

A: The internship program is intended to help Catalyst students gain STEM workforce skills and experience to set them up for success in college. Most of our participants are in AP and honors classes, with many students enrolled in classes above their grade level.

Catalyst pays the students a stipend, and covers the cost of their materials. Internships can be in-person or virtual, and students work a total of 24 hours. We work with internship supervisors to develop projects and provide any support that they need.

Q: How have the internships helped students launch careers in STEM?

A: The internships give students experience working with STEM professionals and helps them prepare for college and build their resumes for future STEM jobs. In addition, they help the students delve into topics they might not have exposure to in high school, such as nanotechnology. They help students see they can be successful and have a career in STEM.

The internships also help the supervisors see our students’ STEM skill set. By giving students with disabilities more opportunities starting in high school, we can work toward a more diverse workforce. Students with disabilities tend to be great problem solvers and show great perseverance. Through the internship component, we are preparing the future STEM workforce to be more inclusive and innovative.

Q: What internships have students had in the past?

A: In the past students have interned at:

  • NASA, covering topics such as mechanical engineering, math algorithms, coding, humans in space, project management, energy systems, drone flight plans and flying
  • Los Alamos National Lab, working on data analysis and software
  • SAS, working on robotics and coding
  • Fidelity, working on webpage design
  • NC State, working in physics and genetics labs, graphic design and electrical engineering
  • The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, covering topics in genetics, toxicology and cancer research
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working in sports medicine
  • Wake County Parks, working in environmental science

We are open to topics and experiences. We have students with a wide range of skills and interests, from math to aerospace engineering.

Q: How can interested graduate students, professors and companies get involved in Catalyst?

A: We appreciate anyone wanting to support our mission of building an inclusive, diverse STEM workforce! There are deficits of qualified people in the field, and students with disabilities have many STEM skills and can make it more innovative. Supporting Catalyst can also help grow the number of future STEM students at NC State.

We are in need of organizations to host interns either in-person or virtually. We also need STEM professionals to teach a three-hour hands-on session on their topic or field of expertise to introduce students to various fields and also to learn more STEM content and skills. We provide the materials, staff support and more. These sessions take place on Saturdays during the school year and during the week over the summer.

Anyone interested in hosting an intern can email me at jrblumen@ncsu.edu or call me at 919.633.3120. Proposals are considered on a rolling basis. We look forward to hearing from you!

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