Students with Disabilities Help USGS Rescue At-Risk Data Through the STEP-UP Program

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Through STEP-UP (the Secondary Transition to Employment Program – USGS Partnership), the USGS collaborates with school districts and other educational institutions across the nation to provide training experiences to students with cognitive and other disabilities.

Teachers from the Falmouth, MA school district helping STEP-UP students with a new task.

Teachers from the Falmouth, MA school district helping STEP-UP students with a new task.

This article is part of the August-September 2020 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

The program helps these students gain valuable job skills to support their goals of seeking employment and living independently, while also helping to advance USGS science by making USGS data available to scientists and the public. 

STEP-UP students engage in projects that involve work on various data sets from the different mission areas in USGS. This work ensures that these data are widely accessible to scientists and the public and eliminates the possibility that that data could become lost or degraded. Making these data and other information available to scientists and the public is a responsibility of USGS Fundamental Science Practices and of the collections. 

The Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (WHCMSC) is in full support of STEP-UP and has experienced first hand the positive impact it has on the students and USGS alike. The WHCMSC first began participating in STEP-UP in 2018, with a student remotely located in Reston, Virginia. Maps were scanned in Woods Hole and sent to Reston, where the student digitized them. He thoroughly enjoyed maps and was eager to learn how to use GIS software. In 2019, the WHCMSC partnered with Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts to host three students on the center’s campus to rescue paper navigation data from the Data Library and get track charts and printed maps in the Data Library digitized and into accessible geospatial formats. The WHCMSC also worked in parallel with the Warren County Educational Service Center STEP-UP group in Ohio to setup six students with projects related to electronic records management. The WHCMSC has benefited significantly from the STEP-UP partnerships.  

Teachers from the Falmouth, MA school district helping STEP-UP students with a new task. 

Teachers from the Falmouth, MA school district helping STEP-UP students with a new task. 

STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio.

Another STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio.

STEP-UP students, with the help of their teachers, completed tasks that would not have otherwise been done by 2020 due to competing priorities and budget limitations. Specifically, STEP-UP students have completed the following projects: 

  • Digitization of Alvin submersible seafloor photos for a USGS publication; 

  • Expansion of the Data Library inventory through bulk-upload process; 

  • Interpretation of historical seafloor photos using timelapse2 software; 

  • Digitization of cruise reports and observer logs; 

  • Digitization of historical documents related to the GLORIA mapping of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone; and 

  • Digitization of a previously unpublished foraminifera (a single-celled planktonic animal) guide. 

In a 2019 evaluation of the program, a Falmouth teacher stated that “the students really look forward to coming to USGS and have thrived in the environment.” The teacher also shared that the students said the projects they work on are “appropriate and relevant” and that the setting/space is “perfect for us” - a place where the students feel valued. When describing Matt Arsenault, the WHCMSC Technical Information Specialist who has been responsible for the center’s participation in STEP-UP, the students exclaimed that he was “nothing short of awesome”, accessible, a joy to work with, and has a demeanor that “is just right for the students.” Matt adds that, “The inclusion of the students in our community gave the WHCMSC staff a sense of pride in knowing that the USGS is working to make a difference in the community, as well.” 

 A STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio hard at work with a smile on his face.

 A STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio hard at work with a smile on his face.

A STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio enjoying her work.

A STEP-UP student in Warren County, Ohio enjoying her work. 

The STEP-UP program is providing a pathway for the USGS to build a more inclusive and diverse workforce. STEP-UP students have been hired at the National Center in Reston, Virginia, as well as in California and Utah. Overall, 64% of students have found employment either with the USGS or other organizations. The USGS hopes STEP-UP will serve as a model for job-training of people with cognitive disabilities. Students make a living wage while gaining valuable experience and skills that will help them have greater independence and find permanent employment, and USGS data and information becomes more accessible to stakeholders – it is truly a win-win for everyone.  

For more information on STEP-UP, visit the webpage: https://www.usgs.gov/about/organization/science-support/office-science-quality-and-integrity/step-up.  

Learn more about the WHCMSC: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/whcmsc