Return to Headlines

How the Alabama School for the Deaf is Preparing Students for STEM Jobs

AIDB was recently featured in This is Alabama. To see the article online click AIDB STEM Camps. 

 How the Alabama School for the Deaf is Preparing Students for STEM Jobs

By Jessica Sawyer

Throbots e Alabama School for the Deaf at Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB) is gearing up for a summer of exciting camps that support the work their students and staff do all year long.

“The camps are not just for going out and having fun,” said Dr. Dennis Gilliam, Director of Special Projects at AIDB. “(They’re about) exposing them to fields and giving them an opportunity to do the things their hearing peers do and do it well. Exposure to activities is really paramount to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Those activities include a multitude of science, technology, engineering and math-based concentrations, aka STEM concentrations, robotics to cyber-security and marine biology. Staying on top of the cutting-edge educational methods to make these studies possible is one of the main goals educators aim to reach.

AIDB and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) joined forces two years ago to create the NTID Regional STEM Center at AIDB to improve access to STEM education and employment for Deaf and hard of hearing students in Alabama and across the Southeast.

“Typically in deaf education or education of students with hearing loss, we’re usually behind,” said Gilliam. “Our effort is to remove that gap that we have and ensure STEM happens in the deaf education community at the same time. The school employs staffers with STEM backgrounds who work hard to take best practices in STEM and develop strategies that would help individuals, schools or educators throughout the Southeast benefit students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Those strategies include work with VEX Robotics all the way to competitive skills for jobs like cyber-security that could become a career for the students.

“You don’t have to hear to work in cyber-security,” said Gilliam. “You’re working on threats and vulnerabilities. We’re starting to connect the dots there and give our kids more connections in how they might get involved in the cyber (security) field. It’s all based in visual language in a way that they can comprehend what’s going on without any delay in time.”

The summer camps hit on those skills, too. The Droids and Drones camp charges students to build their own drone and robot and use them to compete with each other.

“They see that there’s a connection between the things they are producing — automation, machining and robotics — all in one camp,” Gilliam said. “Their hearing loss affects them in not one single way.”

A partnership with the University of Alabama in Huntsville makes the GenCyber Camp, sponsored by the National Security Administration and the National Science Foundation, a reality for students, too.

“They learn cyber principles, internet safety, programming, computer building and all of it exposes them to the job market of cyber-security,” Gilliam said. “(At) one of the first (camps) we did, a student looked at me and said ‘I found what I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s great, it’s fun, it’s easy and just because I can’t hear it doesn’t mean I can’t do it.’”

For students interested in marine biology, a week-long camp at a Key Largo, Fla., marine lab and environmental center puts them up close and personal with the field. This is the second year this camp is being offered.

“It’s a phenomenal experience,” Gilliam said. “The first year they learned all about marine biology, they snorkeled on the coral reef, were able to see all different types of marine life, were able to learn about ecosystems and see the environment … They were wide-eyed the whole time.”

Gilliam said that the reward of the week wasn’t the paradise surrounding them.

“For an educator like me, the real reward was seeing those kids light up when they put a baby starfish in a specimen container, studying it like it was the most fascinating thing they had ever seen,” said Gilliam. “It’s phenomenal for us, and a treasure that we just can’t exchange.”

That reward speaks to the entire motivation of AIDB.

“These camps and the opportunities we’re allowed to give are changing the world and giving new pathways one student at a time,” said Gilliam. “We can’t necessarily teach a kid to be a cyber-security expert in a week or a robotics master in a year, but what we can do is expose them to those activities and camps and show them that they have just as much capability and potential as their hearing peers.”