Volume IV Number 4, December 1997

Project Gold: A Club For Girls With Disabilities

Kimerly J. Wilcox, Ph.D.
University of Minnesota


Project GOLD provides hands-on science, mathematics, computer activities, role models, and opportunities to develop self-esteem, for Grade 4 - 8 girls with disabilities. The format includes Saturday workshops, a day camp, and an overnight experience. A concurrent program is offered for parents.


It has been well-documented that many children, notably girls, lose interest in science and math by the time they reach junior high school. Many reasons have been suggested for this. While a number of organizations (such as EASI) are working to improve the participation in science and math of students with disabilities, these students in particular often have reduced access to the type of hands-on science and math activities that are currently favored by many educators. There is a serious lack of comprehensive data on persons with disabilities - especially students - in the areas of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET).

The National Science Foundation (1996) suggests that there are several reasons for this:

Varying definitions of "disability" are used in data collection.

Educational institutions often keep data about disabilities in confidential files so it is not included in comprehensive institutional records.

Also, there is not likely to be records for those who do not request special services.

Data are often from self-reported surveys and reflect individual perceptions rather than objective measures.

Data come from small samples and may not reflect population values accurately.

Even less work has been done to examine the dual effects of disability and gender in science education on girls with disabilities. These factors conspire to keep girls from discovering their own abilities and maintaining interest in subjects that will prepare the m for advanced coursework and careers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Project GOLD is intended to help girls with disabilities overcome some of these barriers to full SMET participation.

It is becoming quite clear that students who do not take the appropriate mathematics and science foundation courses -- beginning in middle school -- are unlikely to be able to complete college majors in SM ET. Project GOLD uses hands-on science, math, and computer activities to help girls with disabilities develop the skills and maintain the interest necessary to take courses that will prepare them for college and career options in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. This project targets girls in elementary and middle school because of the pressing need to address appropriate educational planning, adaptive technology and equipment, self-advocacy skills, and family support before the girls are lost from the SMET pipeline. The remainder of this paper presents an informal description of the project.


Project GOLD is a model project funded by a three-year National Science Foundation Grant. It receives additional support from the General College, University of Minnesota. Laura C. Koch, Ph.D., a mathematics educator, and Kimerly J. Wilcox, Ph.D., a biologist, both from the General College, are the co-Principal Investigators. Rozanne Severance, M.S., is the Project Director and Curt Griesel is the technical advisor and computer educator for the project.

Project GOLD collaborators include the Minneapolis Public Schools, the St. Paul Public Schools, PACER Center (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (a coalition of Minnesota's disability organizations serving disabled clients and their families), and t he Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, Interagency Office on Transition. Representatives from each of these groups and from the disability community, as well as parents of present and past participants, work with Project GOLD staff as members of the project's Advisory Board.

Participants are drawn from throughout the state of Minnesota, although most are from the Twin Cities metropolitan area. In order to qualify for Project GOLD, girls must have a documented physical, sensory, or learning disability; must be working at or near grade level for the project year; and must express an interest in science, mathematics, or computers. The girls, their parents, and their teachers must complete and submit an application for the special "club" called Project GOLD.

Identification of participants occurs in several ways. Teachers in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school systems are asked to identify likely candidates. Public school teachers outside these two large school districts also are asked to identify potential participants by the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning (Office of Transition). Other families learn about the project through articles in PACER Center newsletters, which have large circulations within the state. A few find out by word of mouth. It is an imperfect system, but we are working to improve our recruiting in the private schools.

During the first year, 29 girls in Grades 6 through 8 participated the project. In the second year, 33 girls in Grades 4 through 6 participated. The third group of participants, from Grades 6 through 8, will begin attending workshops in January 1998. In addition, past participants are invited to attend any workshop or other project activity. A number of girls from Group I have attended Group II activities, and we hope that this will continue with Group III.

The participants are diverse in terms of disability, ethnic background, first language, age, and geographic regions of the state. I t is interesting to note that those outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area have been among the most committed participants. Some families travel between 50 and 200-plus miles each way to participate. This underscores the participants' need for these types of activities and for contact with other girls with disabilities.

Seven or eight Saturday workshops a year bring both girls and their parents to the University of Minnesota campus. The girls participate in hands-on science, math, and computer activities, work with college-age women mentors who are majoring in the science, engineering, or mathematics fields, and take part in talks and activities designed to promote self-determination and self-advocacy skills. There is a concurrent workshop program for parents who bring their daughters to Project GOLD. Parents receive computer training, get the chance to network with other parents, and participate in informational sessions on resources, advocacy, and assistive technology. Language (including American Sign Language) interpreters are provided if needed for parents and participants.

The agenda for a typical workshop includes several segments for parents and for girls. For example, at one workshop, the girls investigated the pH of various household substances, used geometric shapes to create a design which was then applied to a T-shirt, and talked with a counselor from the University's Office of Disability Services who has a learning disability.

Parents saw presentations by a representative from PACER Center, who talked about PACER's services and resources for college, and from a General College academic advisor (who has a disability) on college and career resources. Parents also learned how to download software from the Internet. Each workshop has a refreshment break that allows everyone to come together, eat, and socialize.

In addition, Project GOLD includes a two-day summer day camp. On the first day, participants and their families visit the Minnesota Zoo, where they are treated to bird and dolphin shows. They visit the Zoolab to touch and learn about a number of animals, and eat lunch overlooking the snow monkey exhibit.

After the bird show, the girls talk with the women bird trainers, and after lunch, they go behind the scenes to areas not usually op en to the public. Here the girls see some of the animal holding areas, meet women zoologists, and tour the kitchen where all the animals' meals are prepared. The zoologists and bird trainers talk about their jobs and the coursework they needed to prepare for them, and they answer lots of questions.

The second day of day camp is back on the University of Minnesota campus for a Geometry Day. Among other activities, this includes a campus-wide "geometry scavenger hunt," in which groups of girls and their mentors, use Polaroid cameras to capture images of as many geometric shapes as they can find in the surrounding buildings and environment. Some of these images are later scanned and added to the Project GOLD web site (http://www.disserv.stu.umn.edu/gold/).

This fall, Project GOLD had a "Camp-In" at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which included tours of the exhibits, special classes, a show at the Omnitheater, and a live presentation in the Science Theater. Girls, a few parents, personal care attendants, and project staff then retired to the luxurious camp-in quarters on the penthouse floor. After the requisite whispers and giggles (and two of the gigglers were deaf girls who managed to sign to each other in the little bit of light remaining in the room), we did get some sleep. An early breakfast marked the end of this adventure.

While Project GOLD was not intended as an experimental or research project, we are in the process of collecting evaluative data. Responses, while few as yet, have been quite positive. A Group I parent wrote:

"Meeting both peers and adults who have challenges is great. It has been very worthwhile for [my daughter] to see the o ptions that are available and what goals she can set for herself. She enjoys the mentors and it has allowed her to express her need s to other people. Before Project GOLD, [she] has always said that she was going to live with us all her life. Now she is talking about living outside of home after high school. I think this program has opened her eyes to possibilities available to her."

Our experience with Project GOLD has helped us realize just how many barriers exist for children with disabilities - especially girl s - who want to pursue coursework and careers in the areas of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. We also have become aware of how few data exist that explore the interactions between being a female interested in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and having a disability. Future plans include dissemination of the Project GOLD curriculum, obtaining grant support to continue and expand Project GOLD, and research to examine the female/disability interaction.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the General College Technical Services staff, Brian Abery, Ph.D., Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and our many volunteers.


National Science Foundation. 1996. _Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996_. Arlington, VA (NSF 96-311) Wilcox, Project GOLD.

Wilcox, K. J. (1997). Project gold: A club for girls with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(4).