Landmark College in Putney plans to build a $10 million center for education and research in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. The college is designed for students with learning disabilities. School officials say that, given the right training, many of those students could help fill the need for smart young workers in math and science fields.
Landmark science major Yar Deng, 22, says she’s always considered herself a "STEM chick." With help from a supportive family she did well in math and science at her high school in New York. But on her own in college, she couldn’t keep up.
"I took eight hours trying to write three-paragraph essays," says Deng. "I couldn’t study for anything else, and nothing got done. I didn’t know what to do."
It wasn’t until she failed out of college that Deng was told that she had learning disabilities. The doctor who diagnosed the problem suggested that she try a summer program at Landmark College. Five semesters later she’s about to graduate with an associates degree in life sciences and is now applying to four-year colleges.
"I want to do biomedical engineering," Deng says. "Creating prosthetics, synthesizing new materials to facilitate surgeries, for example. They have tongs for surgeries, but you can probably make a better one that is less invasive, that takes less material and is more easy to sanitize."
Landmark President Peter Eden says the country needs students like Deng to address a skills gap that’s been called a national crisis.
"There are thousands and thousands of bright young people who are not getting through college, who could lead to breakthroughs in STEM fields," Eden says. "They aren’t earning college degrees because the one-size-fits all educational model does not serve them well."
Eden says that’s the reason Landmark is building a science and technology innovation center. With help from a $2 million private gift, construction of the center is expected to begin in August. The building will also house Landmark’s research division, where educators and scholars study and disseminate strategies for teaching students with learning disabilities.
Abigail Littlefield has taught life sciences at Landmark for 26 years. She says teaching ‘neuro-diverse’ learners is often a matter of presenting material in a variety of ways, to accommodate multiple learning styles.
Say she’s teaching a lesson on mitosis, or cell division, Littlefield says: "Student X may be a visual learner, so they may need to see a video on it, while student Y may be an oral learner, so they may need to hear a lecture on it. Student A may need to take out a model and build it. Student B may need to act out mitosis. So we’re going to do a skit on it."
Many Landmark students also arrive with emotional and psychological issues, school officials say, after years of poor results in schoolwork they may have understood quite well.
Twenty-three-year-old Sean Halnon is studying computer science at Landmark.
"Growing up constantly facing failure over and over again kind of messes with your head," Halnon says. "You start to think that you just can’t do it. When I’d sit down to read a text book I would just freeze up."
Halnon says at Landmark he’s developed systems and learned to make the most of his intellectual strengths while working around his weaknesses. He says he’s optimistic about his chances for success as an independent computer game designer.
One reason Landmark might not be accessible to every student is its cost: About $60,000 per year, including room and board. The school is trying to increase its scholarship offerings and is also working to share its methods with educators around the country.
Correction: This story was updated at 12:19 p.m. on April 8 to reflect the fact that Landmark tuition, room and board is about $60,000 per year, not per semester.