ADHD in engineering: Improving education for neurodiverse college STEM students

The researchers look to increase the diversity of the STEM workforce.

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A new study funded by the National Science Foundation aims to improve teaching practices in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for college students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The researchers expect that it will ultimately improve education for many neurodivergent students—not just those with ADHD— and make the entire STEM field more inclusive.

“The study of students who have ADHD or other neurodiversity such as autism, dyslexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder is missing from the field of higher education, so this is a really understudied population,” said project leader Cindy Finelli, director of the graduate program in Engineering Education Research (EER) and a professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Education at the University of Michigan.

Finelli is working on the project with Laura Carroll, a graduate student and alumnus who received a Ph.D. in Materials Science & Engineering from U-M and is currently a doctoral candidate in Engineering Education Research.

There is a growing place in the tech industry for these students. Companies such as Dell Technologies, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Ford, and Microsoft have been expanding their hiring of individuals with neurodiversities such as ADHD. And the result is a competitive advantage through “productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement.”

We talked to Finelli and Carroll to learn more about the project.

What do you mean by neurodiversity?

Finelli: It’s a term that reframes the older concept of a neural, or brain, deficit. We prefer to think more about asset-based characteristics and the things that students with some form of neurodiversity, which includes ADHD, autism, dyslexia, for example, bring to the table—like additional kinds of creativity.

What motivated you to explore this area of engineering education research?

Carroll: This is a topic I’ve been studying throughout my time in the EER program. In a course during my second semester, I wrote a related public policy paper. I continued to pursue this research interest in other courses and discovered that there’s a research gap about the college experience of STEM college students with ADHD.

What do you hope to accomplish in this research?

Finelli: We believe that this study will potentially enhance STEM education, attract more students with ADHD to STEM, and increase the diversity of the future STEM workforce. More specifically, we plan to come up with concrete faculty development activities that could be used to help instructors better support students with neurodiversity.

For example, we are hoping to be able to identify ways that faculty might be able to improve rapport in the classroom, or team based teaching, or provide specific kinds of feedback—whatever teaching practices are most supportive of students with ADHD.

We expect that whatever those things might be, they’ll be supportive of lots of other students in the classroom, especially those with a neurodiversity. So the benefits will be much broader.

Carroll: I have two general hopes. One is to increase awareness within higher education of neurodiversity. And my second hope is that through this study we can provide a framework that can be used in future studies, for example, of the college experience of other neurodiverse students, to promote an inclusive educational environment.

Active learning and other evidence-based teaching practices may also support academic success of students with ADHD.  

Tell us your overall plan for the project.

Finelli: The first part of this project is looking at how precollege factors and the college environment are associated with academic success of students with and without ADHD in college.

After that, we’ll create a student survey to understand the kinds of teaching practices that faculty are using, and identify the ones that students who have ADHD think are most supportive. We’ll administer the survey very broadly at U-M Ann Arbor, U-M Flint, and U-M Dearborn.

We plan to look at things like student grades in courses, their intention to stay enrolled in STEM, and the extent to which they feel like they have a STEM identity or belong in the STEM field. And then we will collect some qualitative data from students, through interviews or focus groups, to really understand which teaching practices are most supportive of student success.

How many students do you think can be impacted by improved teaching methods in higher education STEM classes?

Finelli: I would say maybe 5-10% of students have some form of ADHD, but there are also students who have never been officially diagnosed with ADHD but have a lot of the same characteristics, or who have other neurodiversities that would benefit from new approaches to teaching. I think the impact of our study has the potential to be quite broad.

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Cynthia Finelli; Diversity and Outreach; Education; Engineering Education Research; Research News