STEM and Special Education: Breaking Through Expectations at P-TECH

It was six minutes until Trigonometry class began at P-TECH, an early college math and science high school in Brooklyn dedicated to preparing students for careers in technology development. Algebra and Trigonometry teacher Ira Polinsky was preparing his lesson on converting degree measurements into radians, the measure of circle arcs. Moments later, the first student to arrive quietly took her seat. “I told you she is always on time,” said Polinsky.

Briana Conner, in just before 10.
Briana Conner tackles Trigonometry at P-Tech in Brooklyn. (School-Stories/ Andrew Johnson)

The senior, Briana Conner, was known in the school as a highly motivated student, who went above and beyond the work required in every class. The fact that Conner is a girl in a male-dominated field of STEM was impressive enough. But Conner is also one of 66 special education students at the school, proof her teachers believe, that students with special needs can also succeed in the field of technology.

Polinsky wrote on the chalkboard angles of 60 degrees, 140 degrees and 100 degrees. All three needed to be converted into radians by dividing them by 180 and multiplied by pi (3.14). Who knows the first one, 60 degrees? Polinsky asked.

Briana Conner raised her hand, “One-third pi,” she offered. Polinsky put her correct answer on the board, plus the two remaining answers, and then asked, “How do you convert 20 degrees into radians?” Conner responded, “One over 9 pi.”

Conner is a senior at P-TECH, Pathways to Technology Early College High, the Crown Heights high school where students may earn an associate’s degree along with their high school degree. Polinsky’s class will help her earn community college credits. She is currently in the top third of her senior class, with an average of 81.94. She hopes to be a computer engineer.

But students like Briana face an uphill battle: Women make up only 14 percent of the engineering field, according to a congressional study. And the learning disabled represent only 5 percent of those with careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, according to the National Science Foundation. Professor James Gardner of the University of Oklahoma believes that one reason why the learning disabled don’t succeed in technology careers is the perception that they  will never be good in math.

There is some statistical evidence to support that perception. According to information reviewed by researchers Dara Shifrer and Rebecca Callahan, 67 percent of American eighth graders with learning disabilities performed below grade level in math exams. Only 26 percent of regular eighth graders performed below grade level. Researchers James Basham, Maya Israel and Kathie Maynard wrote in the 2010 Journal of Special Education Technology that textbooks are rigid and do not meet the diverse learning needs of the students. These problems then compound.

“Some of the students with disabilities just choose not to go into that field,” said Gardner. However, the authors believe that a special education student can succeed in STEM classwork if the subject matter is broken down in understandable ways.

Briana Conner in her Trigonometry and Algebra class.
Conner has her mind set on a career in computer engineering after graduation  P-TECH. (School-Stories/Andrew Johnson).

Briana’s P-TECH journey began in 2011, when she enrolled in the school’s inaugural class. She was one of 17 special education students in P-TECH’s first year. Prior to entering, she wanted to be a chef. “I like to cook some foods but sometimes I don’t cook them right,” said Conner. However, her interest in cooking was surpassed by her love of computers.

She quickly fell in love with idea of having a career in technology. It wasn’t easy at first. She struggled in her Algebra Regents test, falling short of a college entrance passing score by a few points. “It was hard and frustrating,” said Conner, but her family prompted her to keep trying.

Self-motivation kept her going. Her teachers showered her with praise for her dedication, timeliness, organizational skills, hard work and honesty. In her living environment class she created a complex DNA Concept Map as part of a group assignment that illustrated the chromosomal structure and design. Her teacher, Vidya Gawade, said Conner goes beyond each assignment to reach for the next level, as she demonstrated with the map.

Her interest in learning goes beyond STEM classes. “If she does not understand the information,” said Zakaiyyah Ali, her American history teacher, “she is not afraid to ask clarifying questions.”

Briana recently learned that she finally surpassed the college-ready benchmark on her Algebra Regents, putting her that much closer to her goal of becoming a computer engineer.



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