More than half of the students currently served by Disability Student Services on campuses are students with dyslexia, other learning disabilities, or attention deficit disorders. Some were diagnosed in elementary school and acquired the coping strategies that carried them through to higher education. The majority of ENTRY POINT! students with learning or attention deficit disorders never knew they had a disability until they were in their first or second semester of college. They always had certain areas in which they were proficient. In other areas, they felt frustrated, or worse. It took them longer to read or do homework. They figured out their own strategies and managed to pass with good grades. But when they encountered the higher level content and increased reading requirements of postsecondary education, they crashed, dropped out, or became ever more frustrated, until they received a validating diagnosis and the support services they needed to use their intellectual gifts.
Christine Mouser, then a doctoral student in computer science at DePaul University, helped engineer four software applications for NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Mission, the first spacecraft ever to orbit and scan an asteroid. Christine's NEAR-CVI program is a visual data-mapping tool that automatically generates an interactive 2- or 3-D color-coded rendition of any object that can be oriented in the virtual xy-coordinate or xyz-coordinate system of a computer.
Christine currently works in a U.S. Department of Energy program at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago. She is a computer scientist administrator for the ATLAS project in the high-energy physics division. In an earlier internship at Argonne, she was part of a team that developed a "greener car" - alternative-fuel vehicles that run on electricity, natural gas, and ethanol and are more environmentally friendly. Her contributions to that program included data visualization software that automatically generates an interactive 3-D color-gradation display of frequency as a function of torque and RPMs.*
In addition, Christine is president and CEO of her own aspiring dot-com (www.programaticus.com), which she hopes will market custom data visualization software, static and dynamic data modeling, and 2- and 3-D simulations.
This is the same Christine Mouser who elementary school teachers described as "stupid and lazy" because of low grades and reading scores, was considered "a lost cause" by high school teachers, and dropped out of high school. Yes, there is a story here.
Her story includes late - extremely late - diagnosis of dyslexia, the learning disability that impairs a person's ability to read. Individuals with dyslexia usually read at lower than expected levels despite having average or above-average intelligence.
"In 2nd grade, I remember being made to read out loud and not being able to do it," Christine said. "The teacher taped it and said she would play it for my parents at a parent - teacher conference to show how lazy I was. I could understand the material, and I could read slowly, but as a youngster it was very hard for me to pay attention to the written word - due to the length of time it took me to read then. I remember watching the other kids reading silently to themselves in class and thinking to myself, 'What are they doing?' I actually thought they were sitting there looking at the book to please the teacher."
With grades and reading scores always lower than expected and resentment with teachers who regarded her as "stupid and lazy," she stopped trying. She left school before senior year and took a succession of jobs in a grocery store and fast food restaurants. Night school got her a high school equivalency degree. She spent two more years working in a photocopy shop in downtown Chicago.
A high school friend, Mary Velesovsky, encouraged Christine to try some courses at the Richard J. Daley College, a community college in Chicago. "She was certain that I would benefit by going to college and was fully aware of my difficulties at the time," Christine said. "Mary would ask for help with her assignments from Daley, and I discovered that I could do the work."
Discoveries and mentors
At Daley, Christine discovered both her learning disability and her love of math. A math professor at Daley made the diagnosis informally. "My first reaction was, 'Gee, maybe I'm not an idiot.' I always knew that I was smart. I can mentally process things at an amazing speed. But I just think faster than I read."
During her final year at Daley, Christine took a course in statistics and loved it. The professor encouraged Christine to pursue a career in math. The idea meshed with a childhood dream. "I thought I wanted to be an astronaut. I still want to be an astronaut. I've wanted this since I was four years old. But I never really thought it would be possible." She left Daley with an associate's degree in business administration.
Mary also convinced Christine to continue her education and apply to Saint Xavier University in Chicago. She entered as a math major, and sophomore year, Christine was tested and formally diagnosed with dyslexia - at age 26. After the diagnosis, Christine worked with the disabilities coordinator at Xavier on accommodations. Those included extended time on tests and laboratory work and the use of books on tape for some courses. "As I listened to the tape, I would follow along the text in the book," Christine said. "Hearing what I was reading helped me tremendously."
Two professors at Xavier had a special influence on Christine as mentors and role models whose advice and encouragement were especially important. They were Susan Beal and Arunas Dagys, both professors of mathematics and computer science. "I still turn to them for advice today," Christine said.
During junior year at Xavier, Christine learned about ENTRY POINT! "I can still remember the brochure icon. It showed an astronaut on the moon - in a full spacesuit, waving an American flag from a wheelchair. That was a thrill. It resonated with my aspiration to be an astronaut."
During the summer of 1997, ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS brought Christine to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. She returned to Goddard in the summer of 1998, after being graduated from Xavier with a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in history, with a minor in computer science. She also completed all the course work for actuarial science.
Christine's Goddard experience, which continued with other internship programs, included work with the NEAR Mission team. NEAR was intended as the first spacecraft to go into orbit around an asteroid. Asteroids are small celestial objects, sometimes called "minor planets," tens of thousands of which exist between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. NEAR orbited and studied an asteroid called A433 Eros.
She developed four computer programs for the NEAR Mission, called NEAR-DVS, NEAR-CVI, NEAR-VCI, and NEAR-CRS. NEAR-DVS, for instance, is the NEAR Data Visualization System, which automatically generates an interactive 3-D rendition of an asteroid.
"The opportunity that AAAS gave me really changed my life," Christine said.
"I benefited tremendously from ENTRY POINT! and the other experiences in ways I'm probably not even aware of yet. It was an opportunity to actually apply math and computer science in real-world situations. Maybe I helped in dispelling some of the misconceptions about people with disabilities, and I had some of my own misconceptions about individuals with disabilities dispelled as well. The experience also helped me gain more self-confidence."
Did Christine's experience with dyslexia teach lessons that might be shared with others?
To students with disabilities: "Try not to lose your sense of self-worth," she said. "Try to find one or two mentors who understand your situation, and latch on. Try to help others understand your disability."
To parents: "Do not baby your children. Challenge them. Please understand that they may be ostracized in school and elsewhere, and believe them if they tell you so. Encourage interests in electronics, engineering, math, computer programming. These can be ideal careers."
To teachers: "Do not baby your students. Give them the hard assignments. Be tough on grading when they are sloppy. In the end, you'll have a student you can be proud of, and through that student your wisdom can live on in everything that they accomplish."
Asked to search for other keys to her own success, Christine concluded:
"I succeeded because I refused to be an idiot. When I was not in school, I watched school courses on educational TV. I always tried to read encyclopedias and the daily newspaper. When I heard intelligent people talking, I listened word for word."
"Most important, I was given a chance to prove myself."
*Screen shots and explanations of 3-D output generated with this software are available at http://programaticus.com/me.html
Can a natural-born leader with a physics degree, military experience, determination, and a steel- strong sense of direction fulfill a life-long dream? Can he become a mission specialist on the International Space Station and do scientific research in Earth-orbit?
Stay tuned for the next chapter in the life of Royce Warner James.
If the preface is any indication, James may well be leading a team of space-based researchers, with the same can-do attitude that wrote "success" on his terrestrial life story.
Achieving that success took some doing.
Royce remembers three childhood interests - physics, learning, and music.
"I always wanted to be a physicist," he said. "I used to love taking things apart when I was very young. Toys, clocks, radios. Now that might seem like an interest in mechanical engineering. But I took things apart simply to see how they worked. I never felt any need to put them back together again or make them work better."
With a mom who taught high school biology, Royce and his three sisters and two brothers learned to love learning. It actually became their favorite game. "When we weren't in school, we played school," he said. "We would have a pretend classroom, give out homework, and take tests. It was serious, too. Everyone had to do the homework, and we studied for the pretend tests."
The kids also played musical instruments. His sisters Joyce and Jennifer were in the high school marching band and taught Royce to play the clarinet. He started with the classic beginner's tune, Mary Had a Little Lamb, learned quickly, and eventually moved up to the bass clarinet. Royce started taking clarinet lessons in 3rd grade and followed their footsteps into high school and college bands.
"She pushed, pushed, pushed"
Teachers also were important early influences, and among them Royce recalls two special individuals. "In the 5th grade, there was Bettey Shabazz. She was my very first Black teacher. That's the year I went from an A/B/C student to a straight-A student. And that wasn't because she made school easier. It was quite the opposite. She made everything hard. She did. Goodness, she did. She pushed me very, very hard. She pushed me in math and science. My spelling was horrible, and she pushed me there, too." Another 5th-grade teacher encouraged Royce's interest in music.
High school courses were more difficult. Royce did very well in the laboratory sections of the science courses, for instance. But he had difficulty taking notes and doing well on tests. He took notes during classes, but the notes often had gaps and did not accurately reflect the teacher's words.
Royce's friends sometimes turned to him for help in understanding concepts in physics. Yet Royce had to take high school physics twice. "Friends would ask things," he said. "How come you can teach me this, and you can't take a test on it? How come you can get an A on this lab work, but you screw up on the homework?
I knew something was wrong. But I didn't know what."
Mentors and leadership training
Royce kept going in high school, in part, because of the encouragement of mentors. The high school band director, Bert Creswell, became a key role model, especially after Royce's father died. His dad was a career army serviceman who fought in Korea and Vietnam and was in military intelligence. Royce credits his dad with teaching him leadership. When Chief Warrant Officer Lee R. James walked into a room, people took notice. You knew he was there. It was that kind of thing. Bearing and stature. You knew the individual had authority. Listen to a few words from Royce's biographical sketch:
"My father's old-generation style of leadership has been perhaps my most in-depth source of leadership training. He influences me beyond measure with his strict militaristic style and emphasis on quick and adept thinking. Dad would set me down to instill a foundation of basic moral beliefs - a set of parameters - from where I could make decisions. In essence, he taught me how to think versus what to think, my first lesson in leadership."
Royce's best friend's dad, Gustavo Hillary, became another strong positive influence. The two men always seemed to "be there" when Royce had a problem or needed a hand. "They knew when I was ready to quit," Royce explained. "And they believed in pushing to get me over the rough spots."
Those childhood interests in physics and music continued their influence as Royce made decisions about college. Royce's family had moved from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area to Florida in the early 1980s. After his father's death in 1990, Florida State University (FSU) had a big appeal. It offered good programs in both physics and music, and it was close enough to home for him to "keep an eye" on his mother. Royce accepted a band scholarship from FSU, and he played tuba in the famed Marching Chiefs band and bass clarinet in the concert band. Major: physics. Minor: music.
Royce soon was failing math courses, repeating them, failing again. It was almost the same story with the physics classes. "The physics department was aware that I had two jobs and that I worked a day shift and a night shift," Royce said. "They helped me by giving me a job in the physics department and allowing me to complete my homework while at work. Several professors also suggested that I switch majors. I did not want to change my major. I knew I wanted to do physics."
In addition to worrying about a low grade point average, Royce was concerned about paying his tuition. He learned about a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) scholarship. However, it required a 2.5 GPA. Raising the GPA to get that scholarship became his goal. It led Royce to visit the FSU counseling center, where he was referred to a doctor. Finally, the mystery of Royce's academic performance was solved. Royce was diagnosed with a learning disability: memory-processing deficiency. It impedes the ability to understand and execute complicated directions and instructions.
"The diagnosis gave me tremendous self-confidence," Royce said. "It made me realize that I wasn't stupid. Rather, I had a learning disability."
With the confidence and new skills from note taking and other special classes at FSU, Royce improved his GPA to 2.5. He applied for the USCG scholarship and took a year off - serving in AmeriCorps - while awaiting the decision. Royce got the scholarship, which he decided to use at New Mexico State University. NMSU was aware of his disability and encouraged him to participate in the Regional Alliance for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (RASEM) for Students with Disabilities. The National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored program provided mentorships, stipends, and other support for students with disabilities. NMSU also provided Royce with note takers and extra time for exams.
Royce learned about ENTRY POINT! and ACCESS through RASEM and interned during the summer of 1998 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. During the summer of 1999, he interned at NSF. In August, he was one of three U.S. physics students selected to present research at the International Conference of Physics Students in Helsinki, Finland.
Those childhood interests - physics and music - became career realities in December 1999, when Royce graduated from NMSU with a bachelor's degree in physics and a minor in music. The NMSU Alumni Association selected Royce as the outstanding senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes physics and almost 30 other departments. Royce was headed for active duty in the USCG.
Currently, Royce is a project engineer for the USCG Command and Control Center, working on the Vessel Traffic Service and Differential Global Positioning System projects, based in Norfolk, VA. In a year, he will start on a master's degree in aerospace engineering at the George Washington University/Langley Research Center Joint Institute for the Advancement of Flight Sciences. Then Royce will pursue a Ph.D. in either plasma or quantum physics and, ultimately, reach his goal of conducting research in space.
Nichole O'Connell was one of those invisible girls with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Well mannered. Not physically hyperactive like the popular misconception of individuals with ADHD. Rather, she was inattentive and easily distracted in ways that can affect academic performance.
"By 5th grade, I used to take hours to complete a small homework assignment," Nichole said. "I could often be found awake at midnight finishing up. It took so long to finish my work because I often got distracted from what I was a doing. I would shut off and tune out. I'm in my own little world. I don't even hear a voice. I always managed to get good grades by sheer perseverance and taking longer to complete assignments. To other people, I seemed a little scatterbrained - someone would be talking to me, and I'd interrupt or change subjects. The hyperactivity is mental, not physical. I'm not bouncing off walls. Imagine that the different parts of your brain are sections in an orchestra - and there's no conductor."
A very late diagnosis
The problem remained invisible - to Nichole, teachers, and school counselors - throughout her precollege education. Nichole, however, found it much more difficult to compensate for the inattention in college than in high school. When she enrolled as a mathematics major at the University of Rhode Island (URI), there were more out-of-class assignments to complete and not enough hours in the day. In class, she found it difficult to pay attention while taking notes.
"I had barely heard of ADHD before college," she said. "At college, I learned about ADHD from some of my friends. I realized I was having some of their symptoms. I called URI Disabilities Services, and they suggested places where I could be checked."
Although diagnosis and treatment with medication came late, Nichole believes it probably helped to keep her in college and on track for an advanced degree and career in math, biophysics, or astrobiology.
Making algebra fun
Nichole, who is pursuing as double major in math and physics, had been interested in both topics since childhood. She recalled, for instance, riding in the car with her mom and dad, Karen and Richard O'Connell, and watching for mileage signs. Nichole wouldn't nag, "How much longer 'til we get there?" Rather, she'd look at the distance on the sign, the car speedometer, and mentally calculate the arrival time - and then recalculate with changes in speed.
That interest in mathematics really expanded thanks to an encouraging algebra teacher. Nichole and her family lived in Bristol, RI, a city of about 22,000. Marianne Douglas taught algebra in Bristol Middle School. "She really turned me on to mathematics. I probably wouldn't be a math major today if I hadn't been her student."
Marianne made algebra fun - in part by playing math games with the class. Nichole described her as a true Renaissance woman, with wide-ranging knowledge and a life outside the classroom that fascinated Nichole and other students. Marianne, for instance, had a private pilot's license and ran her own small business. "Because I respected her so much, I was inspired to do well in her class," Nichole said. Other standouts were high school geometry and chemistry teachers.
After helping with Nichole's diagnosis, the URI's Disabilities Services for Students (DSS) office helped arrange the few accommodations that Nichole needed early in college. Those included extended time for tests and exams in a private room without distractions, priority registration for classes, and a note taker for certain classes. Nichole has developed coping skills that have reduced the need for accommodations. She carries a Day Planner, for instance, and writes down assignments and reminders, makes a to-do list every morning, and sets realistic goals.
At URI, Nichole discovered the importance of making other people aware of her disability. "It helps a lot if you are not afraid to talk about your disability," she said. "ADHD is not a physical disability, so other people cannot tell how it affects you by just seeing you. Talking about it helps to avoid any misconceptions that might arise. Once teachers or employers know, they usually are more than willing to provide any accommodations that you might need."
What if the diagnosis had been even later in coming?
"I think that I would have a lower grade point average," Nichole said. "I definitely would have a much harder time in school, which would affect me socially, since I'd be almost a hermit, spending all my time on assignments. There is a good possibility that school would be far too frustrating for me and perhaps I wouldn't even be finishing up."
The ENTRY POINT! experience
Nichole learned about ENTRY POINT! through the URI DSS office and served two internships. During the summer of 1999, she worked on microchip development at IBM in Burlington, VT. Her group sought new ways of protecting chips from damage from electrostatic discharges - or static electricity. "It was an awesome experience, very positive," Nichole said. "I worked with so many cool and really supportive people. I got incredible insights into the corporate world and the jobs available to science, math, and engineering majors."
The following year, the ENTRY POINT! experience took Nichole to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. She worked with a NASA group that was analyzing data from the Geotail satellite. They were trying to better understand how the solar wind - the invisible particles that constantly stream out of the Sun - influence the Earth's magnetic field.
Goddard had a profound impact on Nichole's career plans. There, she learned about astrobiology - the study of life's origin, distribution in the universe, and future. Much of NASA's astrobiology research is done at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. That interest led Nichole to consider entering graduate school at Stanford University, which is near Ames, to pursue a doctorate in biophysics, and perhaps work in a co-op program in astrobiology at Ames.
"I would highly suggest to any student who may be considering ENTRY POINT! to go for it," Nichole said. "Opportunities like these do not come very often."
*American Journal of Psychiatry, "Family Study of Girls with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," Stephen V. Faraone, et al., p. 1077.
It may be that because girls [with
ADHD] do not show the antisocial, disruptive behaviors of conduct disorder,
they are less trouble to parents and teachers and therefore less likely
to be referred for treatment.
Richard Duckett was the platoon sergeant of the base telephone wire section at the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, CA, dealing with analog, digital, and fiber-optic phone lines. As he neared the end of an eight-year hitch in the Corps in 1997, Richard befriended a lance corporal in the wire section who had done four years of college.
Quite naturally, the veteran leatherneck who served on Marine security details at U.S. embassies around the world became mentor to the lance corporal. "He was roughly my age, and we connected a little bit more than the younger marines," Richard said. "I basically showed him the ropes, helped him understand how to survive and excel in the Marines," Richard said. "But he wound up being the teacher, and one of the most influential in my life."
While Richard mentored on the Corps, the lance corporal mentored about college. Richard, he insisted, had everything necessary to succeed in college - the brain, high school grades, and determination. The platoon sergeant listened to the lance corporal. "For the first time in my life, I realized that college was a realistic possibility," he said. "High school teachers and counselors had never even suggested college. I always thought I was not smart enough. I did pretty well with math and science, but reading and writing were difficult."
Richard was accepted at several colleges and chose Ohio State University, where he expects to receive a degree in 2002 in industrial and systems engineering. He picked OSU because of its academic reputation and for the in-state tuition. Cost was an important factor, since Richard self-financed 100% of his college education.
Diagnosis in college...
During his first year at OSU, Duckett finally discovered the reason for his high school problems. He was diagnosed with dyslexia.
"I was taking my first English course, and it was a real struggle," he said. "The other courses were fine. I went to my academic counselor, and she started the ball rolling in the right direction. She told me about her son, who had dyslexia. She made me understand that dyslexia did not mean 'dumb.' Her son had excellent math and science skills, but difficulty with reading and writing."
Richard went to the OSU Disabilities Services office, which scheduled testing that confirmed the diagnosis. The office arranged accommodations, including tape-recorded books, a noise-free workspace for taking exams, and extra time to complete exams. He also found it helpful to use a campus service that supplies written lecture notes, which enabled him to concentrate on the lecture content, rather than getting the professor's words down on paper.
"One of the counselors remarked that these were like eyeglasses," Richard said. "Without an accommodation - spectacles or contacts - a lot of people with vision problems would not be able to read, even though they have all the brainpower and desire. That made me feel a lot more comfortable."
...Missed in high school
So far as Richard recalls, teachers and counselors in elementary and high school never investigated the possibility that a learning disability accounted for poor performance in language skills.
Richard attended public schools in Columbus, where he was born in 1971 and his adoptive parents lived. They divorced when he was about five. Richard attended several elementary schools as his mom moved to different parts of the city. From 14 on, Richard lived with his dad, who was a chef and is now the head maintenance person for United Cerebral Palsy in Columbus. Dad was one of 11 children and had left high school to help support the family.
Although he maintained a 3.25 grade point average at Columbus Brookhaven High School, Richard never considered college a realistic possibility. Teachers and counselors never encouraged him. And there were self-doubts, which Richard traces to the undiagnosed learning disability. "I thought I wasn't smart enough for college," Richard said, noting the difficulties with reading and writing. "An earlier diagnosis hopefully would have let me know that I'm not a dummy. Hopefully, it would have given me the self-esteem - which I'm just developing - to get to college on the regular route, right from high school."
Considering the options
As high school graduation approached, Richard considered the other options. One was a job, which he realized would probably be a minimum-wage position with little future. Another was the military. "Military service seemed like the right choice, and the Marines to me seemed like the top branch of the service to challenge me and expand the horizons."
Service in the Corps took Richard to the Middle East for nine months of duty in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Then he applied for a special training program for the elite Marine squads that provide security overseas. After training in Quantico, VA, Richard began about six years of overseas duty at embassies in Moscow, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, where he was a sergeant assigned to the aircraft wing.
Richard's final posting was to the sprawling San Diego training center, the west coast counterpart to the Marine facility at Parris Island, SC, which trains recruits from the eastern half of the country.
In the Marines, he knew about just a few fields of engineering, including mechanical, civil, and electrical. An OSU course provided a broader glimpse at the full range of career possibilities in the field. He felt that industrial and systems engineering* provided the best fit for his own interests and skills.
At OSU, Richard was among five engineering students named Teaching Fellows in a National Science Foundation program intended to generate interest in engineering careers among elementary school students. The fellows served as role models and conducted "inquiry-based" learning activities that allowed students to have an active role in understanding classroom material. Fellows illustrate physics concepts like "force" and "work" by having students throw a medicine ball while riding on roller blades.
Fellows also helped schoolteachers develop innovative lesson plans and worked with students to improve math and science scores on proficiency tests. The program helped students and teachers and gave the fellows an opportunity to polish their mentoring skills. Richard, a member of the student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, regards mentoring minority students as a special responsibility in the future. The program also provided the fellows with a monthly stipend of $830.
Richard's ENTRY POINT! internship during the summer of 2000 took him to the IBM facility at Fishkill, NY, which he said was an extremely valuable experience. "It made me realize that I was more than just a college student with a disability, a learning disability," he said. "At IBM, I realized that I could fit into the corporate world, and that the leadership and other skills from my military experience would have applicability there. It was a wonderful confidence-builder."
What's the next milestone on Richard Duckett's career path?
"Obviously, I want to be successful," he said. "I got a late start, compared to many other people. I'll be 31 when I graduate. I'm not sure if I want to go to graduate school right out of college or work for a while. A good job offer in industrial research, or human factors engineering, would be awfully tempting."
*Industrial and systems engineering traditionally focused on analysis and design of manufacturing and service systems used in production and distribution of goods and services. More recently, however, the field has expanded to include engineering analyses of other complex systems with an eye to optimizing their performance.
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Profiles: Assistive Technology | Persistence | Beyond All Expectations | Late Diagnosis | The Golden Door | Informal Science and Popular Culture | The Pinball Effect | Families
Additional Materials: The Roadmaps Game | Afterward | Students' Backgrounds | Assistive Technology | Notes on Disabilities | 1990s Profile of Students with Students in Higher Education | Acknowledgments | References
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