The University of Southampton

Southampton wins further national funding to open up access to STEM subjects for students with disabilities

Published: 10 December 2014

An innovative University of Southampton project to open up access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects for students with learning disabilities and print disabilities such as visual impairments and dyslexia has proved such a success that it has been awarded further funding to develop the idea from concept to prototype or demonstrator.

ECS Partners’ STEMReader project is one of five around the UK to share in a further £500,000 of funding from the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) that is sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Innovate UK.

STEMReader was originally one of eight projects that received a total of £500,000 of BIS funding at the beginning of the year to explore proof of concept of their ideas.

The new money will allow the team, based in Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton, to develop a tool to assist with reading aloud and comprehending mathematical symbols and notations.

Project leader Professor Mike Wald said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this further funding for STEMReader. It is recognition of the hard work we have done so far in developing the proof of concept and we look forward to taking this forward to the next stage and translating that concept into a prototype.

“Currently it is extremely difficult for a student with a print impairment, such as a visual impairment, dyslexia or dyscalculia, to read aloud a maths notation using a computer or mobile device.

“STEMReader will enable students to open, reformat into large fonts, and hear aloud maths content. It will make a significant step forward in reading aloud maths for learners at all levels from basics, to people in the workplace, to students at university.”

Over the next 18 months the team at ECS Partners will provide learners in colleges with the opportunity to contribute to the development of the STEMReader.

Up to 10 million individuals in the UK are estimated to be affected by print disabilities or dyscalculia, and people that face these barriers to reading and comprehending maths can struggle with STEM subjects. Having a tool to read aloud mathematical symbols becomes one of the most helpful coping strategies when manipulating mathematical concepts.

“By developing the STEMReader tool we will enable for the first time a broader range of publishers and educators to easily share accessible STEM materials that can be read and understood by all types of users,” added Mike.

ECS Partners is working with colleagues in other collages and workplace learning providers to investigate how STEMReader can be used to help learners struggling to understand maths and help them to develop their functional numeracy skills.

The funding is Phase 2 of the SBRI project that encourages the development of life changing assistive technologies sponsored by BIS and Innovate UK and managed by Jisc TechDis, a leading UK advisory service on technology and inclusion for people with disabilities or learning difficulties.

Sal Cooke, Jisc TechDis Director, said: “The companies made amazing progress in the first phase. It was an absolute joy watching them work directly with disabled learners and employers using their feedback to adapt the designs.”

Greg Clark, Universities, Science and Cities Minister, said: “I believe that education and employment should be open to everyone who has the ambition to get on. I am proud that the government is supporting innovative British companies to make more opportunities available for disabled people.”

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