Alumni Spotlight: Joann Blumenfeld is championing inclusion in STEM education

Our Alumni Spotlight series highlights the contributions of Kenan Fellows, showcasing their significant roles in schools, districts and communities. This month, we feature Joann Blumenfeld, an award-winning educator with over 20 years of experience.

Joann Blumenfeld

Throughout her extensive career, Joann Blumenfeld has confronted a disheartening statistic⸺80% of individuals with disabilities between the ages of 24 and 64 face unemployment. Undeterred by the bleak figure, Blumenfeld has dedicated much of her career to addressing this issue. Her focus centers around developing programs that empower and create opportunities in STEM fields for students with disabilities.

Establishing Pathways in STEM

Recognizing the challenges in public education, including large class sizes, Special Education teachers with limited STEM backgrounds, and insufficient resources to address the needs of students with disabilities, Blumenfeld saw an opportunity to establish pathways in STEM for these students. In 2014, she launched the Catalyst program at N.C. State University to equip students with disabilities with the essential skills, knowledge and experiences required to contribute to building the future STEM workforce.

“I knew I wanted to create opportunities in STEM for students with disabilities. These students have so many talents, skills, knowledge, and abilities needed to build a diverse, inclusive and innovative STEM Workforce but are being underutilized.”

Joann Blumenfeld, 2015-16 Kenan Fellow

Blumenfeld’s work has garnered numerous accolades; including being selected as a 2022 Time Magazine Innovative Teacher and a recipient of the 2022 Friday Medal, the Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award, the N.C. Council for Exceptional Children’s Teacher of Excellence award, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s 2018 Wake County Educator of Excellence Award, and the N.C. Association for Biomedical Research’s Distinguished Teaching Award in STEM Education. While the recognition is well deserved, Blumenfeld emphasizes that her true reward is seeing her students succeed.

“We have so many memorable experiences. Every day is a joy to work with these kids!” Blumenfeld stated. “We typically have students in our programs for several years. So we become like a family and the students develop lifelong friendships.”

Leveraging Kenan Fellows Connections

Blumenfeld became a 2015-16 Kenan Fellow the year after launching the Catalyst program. She completed her fellowship at the ASSIST Center at NC State with her mentor, Elena Veety, Ph.D. Her project was a middle school unit on nanotechnology. Students who engaged with the unit were poised to enter the Occupational Course of Study (OCS) program upon reaching high school. Blumenfeld’s students did so well in their nanotechnology lessons that her classes had a nanotechnology exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The experience affirmed her belief that anyone can learn STEM concepts if taught in a way that is interactive and engaging. 

Through the fellowship, Blumenfeld established a lasting partnership with her Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership mentor, Elena Veety. Over the years, Veety has contributed by teaching lessons on electricity and wearable devices and offering internship opportunities for Catalyst participants. Additionally, grad students from the ASSIST Center have volunteered with Catalyst’s Reach for the Stars! Be a Star! STEM and Resource Fair for Students with Disabilities.

The event drew nearly 800 participants last year, featuring hands-on STEM activities and information about STEM careers. Distinguished speakers, including STEM professionals with disabilities and lawmakers like Gov. Roy Cooper, NC State Rep. Wiley Nicholes and Rep. Frank Sossamon, attended the event.

Next year’s event has been scheduled for April 6, 2024, at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh.

Catalyst’s Impact: Fostering Inclusion in STEM Education

Catalyst provides diverse programs and services for students with disabilities, ranging from building STEM content knowledge and skills to workforce and college readiness, life skills, paid STEM internships and advocacy skills. The program has earned multiple national awards. Catalyst participants have pursued careers in engineering, astrophysics and as electricians and cybersecurity specialists.

“We are so proud of our students,” Blumenfeld stated. “I recently had a math professor from NC State tell me one of our students learned math skills faster than his doctoral students. Our students have been complimented on their innovative thinking and high-quality work.”

Last year, Catalyst students experienced a transformative visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, thanks to a Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science grant. Tracy Minish, a NASA Mission Control manager and engineer with visual impairment, organized the special three-day program. 

During the visit, students toured various facilities, gaining insights into astronaut and engineer environments. Meeting with astronauts and Mission Control managers, and accessing the real mission control, were exciting moments. Evening activities included hands-on STEM activities with the Space Education Center.

“We have many students who want to work at NASA. And this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that offered a chance to meet remarkable STEM professionals who had disabilities. They were able to learn about these professionals’ failures, discovering that overcoming setbacks, like failing a class, is part of the journey,” Blumenfeld expressed. “Kids see professionals and feel they got to where they are smoothly. We want them to develop a growth mindset and understand that success requires a strong work ethic.”

Want to learn more about Catalyst?

Any student interested in Catalyst or GIST can contact Joann Blumenfeld, director at 919-633-3120 or Funds are available for buses or vans for educators who wish to bring students to Reach for the Star! Be a Star! STEM Fair for Students with Disabilities. Please contact Blumenfeld for details.