Catalyst Program Launches Students with Disabilities into STEM Careers

Catalyst students in the Plant and Microbial Biology lab at NC State

In its sixth year at The Science House, the Catalyst program creates STEM opportunities for high school students with disabilities. The program is open to rising ninth and 10th graders with any disability, regardless of whether they are in regular education classes or in an occupational course of study (OCS). Currently, the program has students from over 35 North Carolina high schools.

Catalyst students have opportunities such as working in labs doing research, participating in STEM-related field trips, receiving mentoring, and learning workforce and job skills. Students also get a paid STEM internship and counseling on postsecondary educational options and careers. 

Funding comes from NC State along with North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation and many other community partners, including Wake Tech, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Biogen, Duke Energy, IBM, Fidelity, the EPA, SAS, NASA and Bank of America.

Over their 3-4 years in the program, students build their skills and prepare to succeed in college and beyond. Program director Joann Blumenfeld notes that students with disabilities tend to be great problem solvers and show great perseverance. The program also enables the future STEM workforce to be more inclusive of these students as assets for the future.

Program Honors

In addition to the notable fact that all Catalyst graduating seniors to date have gone on to pursue STEM pathways in college, the program has had some big successes. In 2017, Catalyst students won the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam national competition with their invention, a mat that screens for lameness in cows and an app that notifies the farmers. The device costs less than $1,000 while the current one available on the market costs more than $100,000. The team also won the technical award at the competition and hopes to patent their invention.

Among numerous awards, the program also won a Program of Excellence Award in 2021 from the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, and a National Science Foundation grant in 2021 to fund Connecting Students with Autism to Geographic Information Systems and Technology, a multiyear drone piloting program for ninth and 10th-graders.

How Can NC State Students Get Involved?

Besides serving high school students with paid STEM internships, the program also hires NC State undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities as teachers, mentors and role models so that the high school students can see their pathways to success as well. One of the key ways this serves the students is that they get to work with program staff who understand how to address the needs of students with disabilities. 

How Can NC State Faculty and Community Members Get Involved?

  • The program needs organizations to host interns, either in-person or virtually. 
  • STEM professionals are also needed to teach a three-hour hands-on session on their topic or field of expertise to introduce students to various fields and also to learn more STEM content and skills. We provide the materials, staff support and more. These sessions take place on Saturdays during the school year and during the week over the summer.

For More Information

If you are interested in hosting an intern, contact Joann Blumenfeld at or 919.633.3120.

Photo, top: Students Erwin, Joshua and Kennedy starting their STEM Internships in the labs of Professor Anna Stepanova, Professor Terri Long and Professor Sozzani in NC State’s Plant and Microbial Biology Department.