A virtual reality mentoring program is helping students with disabilities enter as stronger candidates into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematic studies.

BreakThru, sponsored by the Georgia STEM Accessibility Alliance, is a joint project between researchers at the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology to ease the transition for students with disabilities interested in STEM fields as they enter college.

"This project is really trying to look at the transition of students with disabilities into higher education," said Noel Gregg, a professor in the College of Education and one of two principal investigators on the project. "The focus of the project, while we are looking at how effective all the varieties of social media platforms from Second Life to texting are, is e-mentoring."

Gregg said her her goal was to create a partnership between UGA, Georgia Tech and Georgia Perimeter College student mentors and students who have learning disabilities and are interested in STEM fields from Athens-Clarke, Green and Gwinnett county high schools. About 36 mentors are working approximately 10 students to provide support.

"It was about providing students with access to their coursework and access to careers in STEM, because unfortunately the number of students with disabilities graduating in STEM majors is very far below what it should be and some of that is because of access problems and encouragement," Gregg said. "I would say their persistence, self-determination and more positive outlook towards science and math were definitely outcomes."

What made the BreakThru program different from traditional mentoring programs was that mentoring was done online through a virtual reality program called Second Life, Gregg said. Second Life, much like the life simulation video game Sims, allowed students to create their own avatars and meet with mentors in virtual spaces like cafes or auditoriums.

"One of the problems that I have seen over the years that students with disabilities have, particularly by the time they get to college, is that they have had to tell their story so many times and they sometimes just want to have their own identity without the disability label attached to it," she said. "The avatar ability allows them to be whoever they wanted. They would not necessarily meet each other face to face and they would not know anything about the person except for what that person shared with them. That is the positive of having this sort of virtual environment."

Rosa Cromartie, senior chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology major who participated in the BreakThru program, said it was helpful to spend time with her mentor in the virtual space.

"I’m not really a gamer, but it was a nice experience because I got a chance to learn more and interact with different people, especially my mentor," she said. "We would meet at least twice a month in the virtual classroom. In the Second Life world, we would do modules and go over how I did on them."

The program, Cromartie said, helped her prepare for the General Test for graduate school, work on developing time management skills and keep her motivated to pursue a STEM career.

"It motivated me," she said. "To be able to talk with peer and faculty mentors who are working in the same field to rely and give you advice, it definitely helped me."

Student Government Association Vice President Jim Thompson has also been working to promote educational opportunities for students with disabilities.

"This is all just exploratory research right now, we are just trying to introduce the concept to people at UGA, but the program we are looking at would be an inclusive, post-secondary education program that would allow students with cognitive disabilities the opportunity to come and live on campus like any other residential student and obtain a post-secondary degree," he said.

These programs are growing with increasing frequency, Thompson said. According to Think College, a national organization developing and improving inclusive higher education options for students with intellectual disabilities, institutions across the country are implementing inclusive education programs for students with cognitive disabilities including neighboring schools such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, Kennesaw State University and Clemson University.

"We all came to UGA for the unique qualities this campus has to offer, and we want to make sure that students with cognitive disabilities have the option to come here if they want to," Thompson said.

Although he believes inclusive education programs should be the focus of disability programs at UGA, Thompson said virtual reality programs would be a useful tool for disability education.

"I would never want virtual reality to serve as the compromise to an integrated programs existence on campus," he said. "But I definitely think it is a good supplementary tool. It could help with cognitive or physical disabilities as there are many factors that would impact a students ability to attend a class."

A virtual reality program like BreakThru, designed to be a extra tool for mentoring outside the traditional classroom or online learning programs, provides students with disabilites a choice, Gregg said.

"If they want to be face-to-face or if they want to be online, they have that choice," she said. "The BreakThru program provides them access and choices."