FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington is excited to announce it has received a National Science Foundation grant of $96,377 to engage rural students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning through accessible makerspaces.

The innovative UMF incubator makerspace, Maine-Makerspaces for Abilities Driving Entrepreneurship (ME-MADE), is located in the Mantor Library Learning Commons. It is currently available to the University community, with plans to be open to members of the public of all abilities and disabilities.

A makerspace is an area that contains materials and tools for people to work together to learn, collaborate, create and share. They provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they deeply engage in STEM.

Over a 16-month period of the NSF planning grant, UMF and its current partners, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Mt. Blue Middle School will focus on creating a shared vision that will then be supported by a range of activities, including, outreach to K-12 schools throughout the state.

“UMF has a long history of providing exceptional instruction in teacher education, rehabilitation services, and arts and science,” said Edward Serna, UMF president. “We are so honored by this NSF grant that will amplify our faculty’s expertise to benefit the youth in our region, around the state, and across the nation.”

The NSF grant will build on the progress of a three-year, $300,000 grant received from the University of Maine System’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund in spring 2020. The MEIF is the State’s investment in University of Maine System research and development that benefits the people of Maine. The highly-rated UMF project was recognized as having the potential to provide a positive economic impact for the State of Maine by fostering entrepreneurship in the region.

“Our team is very appreciative to the National Science Foundation and the University of Maine System for their support of an accessible makerspace that will increase the inclusion of rural students with disabilities in STEM education and careers,” said Gina Oswald, UMF associate professor of Rehabilitation Services and principal investigator for the grant. “We believe that our project will open the doors to educational and economic opportunities locally and, in time, nationally for such an underserved population.”

In its award notice, the NSF acknowledged that the shortage of readily available, evidence-based inclusive STEM curriculum and technologies that capitalize on rural educational opportunities for students with disabilities is a major obstacle for utilizing accessible makerspaces, especially in rural areas.

The planning effort will address this challenge by centering stem education within the context of makerspace practices in diverse rural localities. It will focus on building a network of local and national partners committed to all aspects of makerspaces, from design-thinking and curricula to STEM career pathways that present barriers and opportunities to rural students with disabilities.

“Mainers are problem solvers,” said Theresa Overall, associate professor of Secondary Education. “Accessible makerspaces will allow all of Maine’s students the opportunity to hone their problem solving skills into the STEM skills that will help make them successful as entrepreneurs and in STEM careers.”

The NSF INCLUDES planning grant is a comprehensive national initiative focused on diversity, inclusion and broadening participation in STEM discoveries and innovation. It is funded by NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science.

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