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Toward an understanding of dysgraphia as a barrier to STEM-related careers.

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E-mail: Daniel P. Kelly
dpkelly.ttu@gmail.com
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Toward an Understanding of Dysgraphia as a Barrier to STEM-Related
Careers
Daniel P. Kelly
Texas Tech University, Texas, USA
Deidre L. Kelly
North Carolina State University, North Carolina, USA
Drawing and sketching require the close interaction and coordination of psychomotor and biomechanical
processes with developmental, learning, and maturational processes to perform the complex and fine
motor behaviors of these activities. Dysgraphia is a learning disability that directly impacts a student’s
ability to perform these tasks proficiently, if at all. There exists a paucity of research into the effect of
this learning disability on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational
and career interests and pursuits of the students affected by this and related reading and writing
impairments. Although dysgraphia is literally interpreted as “bad writing,” it also affects a person’s
ability to visualize and draw lines and shapes. STEM subject matter and activities often involve drawing
and sketching, and that the ability to transfer mental imagery to paper and vice-versa is a predictor of
STEM education and career success. Given this, there may exist a population of students who are being
overlooked and would benefit from a better understanding of the condition by educators and potential
interventions that can be researched to engage these students within STEM disciplines. This paper will
explore this learning disability as is exists in STEM education through a narrative case study involving a
student currently enrolled in an engineering program. This case study is designed to understand the
condition of dysgraphia and the barriers to STEM education as perceived and experienced by a student
successfully mitigating these barriers through assistive technologies, self-advocacy, and teacher
awareness. This paper is meant to raise awareness of the condition in our field and serve as a starting
point in the literature where this topic currently represents a dearth of the academic discourse
surrounding special education in STEM.
Key Words: Dysgraphia, STEM Careers, Technology Education, Educational Technology, Barriers to Education,
Engineering Graphics.
1. INTRODUCTION
Sketching and drawing are critical components of many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM) curricula. The ability to quickly sketch, label, annotate, and dimension freehand drawings is part of the
engineering design process and crucial to the ideation, externalization, and communication of ideas, concepts,
and designs throughout both the education and career domains of STEM professionals. They are especially
relevant to those in technology and engineering disciplines where design and problem solving are prevalent.
Sketching has been demonstrated to help designers with handling abstraction, the understanding of ill-defined
problems, enhancing problem-solving, and aiding in communication (Booth, Taborda, Ramani, & Reid, 2015).
Even with the comprehensive adoption of computer-aided design (CAD) software packages in secondary and
post-secondary technology and engineering programs, sketching remains a widely used and required
component of coursework in these areas. A recent study found 61% of university-level engineering courses
include sketching as a component (Martin-Erro, Dominquez, & Espinosa, 2016). The ability to sketch three-
dimensional objects is also identified as a significant factor in the development of spatial skills which is a
significant predictor of success in engineering graphics coursework and student persistence through an
engineering degree (Ernst, Williams, Kelly, & Clark, 2017; Sorby, 1999).
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Given the importance of sketching and drawing to technology and engineering curricular pathwaysand
ultimately career choiceunderstanding barriers to sketching ability is essential if they are to be mitigated by
instructors and curricula designers. This is especially imperative if there is a goal of broader diversity and
inclusion within STEM disciplines. This paper focuses on one such barrier, dysgraphia, by examining the
perceptions, attitude, and experiences of a student diagnosed with the condition who is successfully navigating
an engineering program. It is our hope that the student’s experiences will shed light on an issue that is currently
not addressed in the literature within the contexts of engineering, engineering graphics, or technology education
programs.
2. DYSGRAPHIA
Dysgraphia is identified as a specific learning disorder under the rubric of developmental coordination disorder
by the American Psychiatric Association (2013). Generally discussed in contemporary literature within the
context of handwriting and spelling, dysgraphia literally translates to difficult (dys-, English) writing (-graphia,
Greek). Viewed largely as a handwriting impairment, dysgraphia also affects a person’s ability to draw lines
and shapes. The condition represents a neurocognitive disorder associated with executive functioning and fine-
motor and visual-motor deficits (Mayes, Breaux, Calhoun, & Frye, 2017).
The symptoms of dysgraphia are often overlooked by educators, and students with the condition are viewed as
unmotivated or uncaring (Berniger & Wolf, 2009). Beyond poor handwriting, students with dysgraphia will
display symptoms such as displayed in Figure 1. Students will not exhibit all of the symptoms listed but must
display a number of them, although how many or the frequency of observation is unclear.
Cramping of fingers while writing short
entries
Odd wrist, arm, body, or paper orientations
such as bending an arm into an L shape
Excessive erasures
Mixed upper case and lower-case letters
Inconsistent form and size of letters or
unfinished letters
Misuse of lines and margins
Inefficient speed of copying
Inattentiveness over details when writing
Frequent need of verbal cues
Relies heavily on vision to write
Difficulty visualizing letter formation
beforehand
Poor legibility
Poor spatial planning on paper
Difficulty writing and thinking at the same time
(creative writing, taking notes)
Handwriting abilities that may interfere with
spelling and written composition
Difficulty understanding homophones and what
spelling to use
Having a hard time translating ideas to writing,
sometimes using the wrong words altogether
May feel pain while writing (cramps in fingers,
wrist and palms
Figure 1: Potential signs and symptoms of dysgraphia (Berniger & Wolf, 2009)
Dysgraphia interferes with students’ ability to learn, complete coursework, communicate, record ideas,
demonstrate knowledge, and keep up with peers and teacher instruction. This interference can also create or
exacerbate deficits in emotional, academic, and social development and affect factors related to educational
motivation, achievement, and persistence such as a self-efficacy, self-esteem, anxiety, and depression in
students (Berniger & Wolf, 2009; Martins, et al., 2013). What needs to be very clear is that dysgraphia is a
psychomotor disorder involving neurocognitive function and does not affect cognitive functioning, nor is it
recognized as a cognitive impairment.
There exists a dearth of study into dysgraphia that is explicitly acknowledged in psychologic and
neurocognitive literature, which may account for dysgraphia’s categorization as a specific learning disability
(APA, 2013; Mayes, et al., 2017; Nicolson & Fawcett, 2011). Dysgraphia also shares high levels of
comorbidity with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and developmental coordination
disorder which, coupled with a lack of assessment specific to dysgraphia, make determining the percentage of
students with dysgraphia difficult to ascertain (Mayes, et al., 2017). Reynolds (2007) estimated the prevalence
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of dysgraphia to be 5-20% depending on the grade level, but there is a general lack of clarity and consensus in
the literature.
Sketching requires a person to take what exists in the mind’s eye and transfer that image to the hand to draw it
and view/evaluate the resultant illustration through the eyes and back to the brain. The same process of
orthographic coding and sequencing occurs when a person writes (Berniger & May, 2011). Dysgraphia disrupts
this loop resulting in malformed lines and representations of letters and images stored in the mind’s eye.
Although the drawing of shapes is mentioned in the literature and the drawing of geometric shapes is part of a
diagnostic assessment for dysgraphia (Mayes, et al., 2017), the focus in the literature primarily focuses on the
writing ability of the subjects. Provided the requirement for orthographic and pictorial drawing and sketching in
engineering and technology education, this paper seeks to examine the impact of dysgraphia in that setting.
3. METHODS
This research used a narrative case study approach to collect in rich detail and analyze the account of one
engineering student, Nick, to understand the condition of dysgraphia and the barriers to STEM education as
perceived and experienced by a student successfully mitigating these challenges. Narrative research explores
how people make meaning of their experiences through storytelling. To accomplish this, the authors
interviewed a current engineering student in an attempt to co-construct the student’s story using a thematic
approach. The interview was transcribed and reviewed for emergent ideas using Clandinin and Connelly’s
(2000) three-dimensional inquiry space model. Patterns were identified and described in a chronological
manner and the larger meaning of the story was interpreted.
3.1 Interview
The authors met with Nick in a restaurant near campus for 2.5 hours. The first hour was spent getting to know
the student generally. The following 1.5 hours was filled with a semi-structured interview format that included
a list of questions, as well as the freedom to probe additional topics as they arose.
3.2 Themes
Five overarching themes developed from the interview: 1) how dysgraphia makes Nick feel different, 2)
campus disability services offices, 3) barriers created by dysgraphia, 4) assistive technology and tools that help
mitigate dysgraphia, and 5) the impacts of dysgraphia on achievement in an introductory engineering graphics
course. For this paper, some elements of the themes have been combined due to space constraints.
3.4 Context
The engineering graphics course is required for nearly all students majoring in engineering, graphic
communications, and technology education degree programs. The course is taught in large sections (~60
students) and uses a hybrid instructional format where a large percentage of the content is stored online.
Students are required to watch videos and practice the lessons from class at home. Much of the class time is
dedicated to lectures on graphics theory and sketching practice. CAD is a major component of engineering
graphics and is the subject of many of the online videos. The majority of the CAD work and instruction is done
outside of class.
Nearly half of all graded assignments in the course involve hand sketching (not including required classwork),
40% of the midterm exam grade is a hand-drawn orthographic projection and isometric representation of an
object, and the final project requires a drawn technical sketch. Students are also required to annotate
engineering drawings and fill in a required title block that must be done in uppercase single-stoke century
gothic font with required size and spacing according to international engineering standards. Additionally, this
course relies heavily on the design process which is generally taught with sketching as a requirement of the
ideation and refinement components of the process.
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4. NICK’S STORY
4.1 Background
Nick presents himself as clean-cut, friendly, bright, and expressive. Now a 20-year-old junior at a large
research university in the southeastern United States well known for engineering, he is quick to recall the
struggles of his childhood. The symptoms of dyslexia and dysgraphia became apparent around the age of 2 to
his mother who has studied special education in college. Extensive testing followed from ages 3 to 10 to
determine the extent of his condition. Nick was required to do training exercises several times a week that
consisted of everything from how to hold a pencil and handwriting letters set to music for rhythm to reading
speed and comprehension. He noted the diagnosis was not a complete surprise; his father has dyslexia and it is
genetic. It was because of dyslexia that his father avoided going into a STEM field like he wanted because he
was unable to read the amount of material required. Instead, he is an artist at an advertising firm.
Nick’s mother homeschooled him through middle school, except for one year when he was about 10. He went
to a private school for a year but didn’t like it because the teachers and administration did not know how to
handle his disability. Beginning at age 9, Nick was able to attend several engineering camps, including
competing in the First Lego League. These experiences led him to be “dead set on being in software
programming” around age 15.
A local community college near his home offered a program called Career and College Promise that
concurrently enrolled high school students in community college courses. Nick completed the minimum 30
required hours and earned an associate in science degree. By this time, Nick realized he was familiar with
several areas of engineering and wanted to be a project manager so he could combine everything. He selected
mechanical engineering as a major because he felt it was general enough to shift into overseeing other areas.
It was from 9th to 11th grade when he says he better came to terms with dysgraphia:
Things started to click more in regards to dysgraphia specifically, um, because I had there were moments where I was like,
“Ok, how do I combat this? Like, how do I just avoid it?” Because half of me was like I want to fix it; the other half was like I
just want to get around it. So, fixing it was doing those really weird pen exercises. Getting around it was typing. And then also
I learned how to use CAD by the time I was 13.
4.2 Being Different than Other Students
Reading and using his hands for writing or sketching is a challenge. Nick tries to shake out the muscles in his
hand when he has to write out math notes. He likened dysgraphia to,
micro-arthritis, and basically causes your hands to be slightly weaker, and it’s basically like the muscle memory not fully
forming. So like whenever I’m writing, there will just be like moments when I’m like, “Oh man, I can’t write anymore.” I
mean some people will just be like they like to write in journals all day long. After like a certain amount of notes, I’m like,
“I’m tapped out. This hand is done. It cannot write anymore.”
Nick has to approach learning differently than his peers. He didn’t take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT),
which is used in the U.S. as a measure of college preparedness in math, writing, and reading, because the
accommodations he would need would have made it a three-day endeavor. He cringed as he recalled the
embarrassment of having someone read him the driver’s permit test because there wasn’t a computer reader
available. He didn’t read for pleasure like many teens but had audio books instead. In middle school, he was
two math levels ahead of grade level, but in remedial reading classes:
Cuz it definitely makes me kind of feel–it makes me feel different. That’s a major, critical point. Whenever I see like, uh,
someone that has, like that doesn’t have it, it’s…one, I always dream I was in that situation, simply because I’ve never had a
moment where I’ve ever picked up a random book…
4.3 Barriers
Simply put, dysgraphia makes it so Nick doesn’t have 100% control over his hand movements. He describes his
fine motor control is “slowish,” but laughed as he said, “I can game totally fine.” He notes he is great at
welding and good at soldering and getting better. His hand has a slight shake to it:
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Most people with dysgraphia can write to the same level as someone without dysgraphia. It might just take us a second more.
Speed isn’t exactly our greatest forte, especially with handwriting or drawing. It’s not, like, we’re typically good about
accuracy if we’re are able to reset and erase, basically. Like on the first try, first draft, will never work. Like if I was to like
hand sketch something, like try to draw a straight line, almost certainly, it’s going to be curvy. Like, without a doubt.
The combination of dyslexia and dysgraphia creates a much more extensive cognitive load:
It’s strictly based on if I know how to spell it [the word he is writing]. And that’s where the dyslexia starts to come. If I know
how to spell it, I can spend more time thinking about it [writing]. If I have to think on how to spell it, I have to spend more
time thinking about it and not caring how my hand works.
I can hear the word I know I want to say, cuz like every word for me is auditory, so I’m like when I hear them say it, I will like
immediately know what I need to say, but the moment that I’m going into writing, I’m like that’s not what I want. Like, I know
it should be this way and then there will be a moment when I’m just like, ‘Why am I writing an S? I’m supposed to be writing
an A. That’s not even close.’ It’s like a disconnect.
4.4 Assistive Technology and Tools
Audiobooks, text readers, and typing have been Nick’s saving grace. He has software on his laptop, phone, and
tablet that will read documents to him. “It stops being like a disability and more just like it’s a different way of
doing,” he said. He is able to type his notes, rather than handwrite them. If a professor writes on the board, he
can snap a photo with is phone. He can even request someone to take notes for him through the university’s
Disability Services Office, but he feels he would rather go to class and “suffer through it” to “slowly
understand it.” For in-class “emergencies” like a pop quiz, Nick has a C-Pen Reader Pen that can read the text
to him.
He likes sketching with Photoshop and a stylus pen due to the ease of erasing. He uses CAD programs such as
SoildWorks, PTC Creo, and AutoDesk as his “cheap way of combatting hand-drawn sketches.” Nick notes
CAD is an equalizer; he only needs to think about the item he needs to draw rather than all the details. The
software allows him to make a straight line so he can focus on the relationships instead. However, even low-
tech tools like grid paper, rulers, mechanical pencils, erasers are crucial. “There isn’t a whole lot of dysgraphia
technology given the fact that the more we push into the digital age, the more it is just kinda getting fixed on its
own,” he said. Typing was the way he “could figure out dysgraphia.”
4.5 Impacts on Engineering Graphics
Engineering graphics is hardest for him when doing free sketching without grid paper. Between the ages of 12
and 16, Nick used grid paper for all his writing to help with the dysgraphia. He’d write reports and math on it
before he transitioned to typing:
If you were to give me a sheet of paper right now with no lines on it and tell me to draw a square, I will guarantee it will look
like a slightly angled rectangle because one side will almost certainly be longer. I don’t know which side. I typically have a
good start and a bad finish. Basically, the more, the more, I do the worse it gets… But, if we’re in the land of CAD, that
knocks it out completely. Because at that point, it completely cancels the disability.
Nick’s hand sketching is relatively good now because of all the exercises at a young age. He explained he feels
the force of his hand trying to cause something to happen, but it doesn’t turn out the way he intends it. The
disconnect is recognizable as it is happening because of extensive training. Nick said isometric drawings come
naturally, but he can do circles and curves better than isometric, which is usually not the case for most people.
He can visualize the 3D shape as he’s drawing it because he can use his other senses to help him rotate objects,
but staying on the line can be hard. Multi-view drawing is harder because drawing a straight line is difficult.
Free-hand sketching, such as modeling a block, is challenging because he has no sense of scale:
Getting it from your head to the paper, that is the difficulty. Cuz trying to basically turn whatever you have in your head. Cuz,
like, dyslexia allows me to manipulate objects, but then turning it into my hand, there’s, like, a miscommunication. Like, I
want it to do that, it just doesn’t.”
Despite these challenges, Nick admits he misses more points in classes when he doesn’t get dyslexia assistance
and reads it wrong. Had a 3.9 GPA in community college. He now has a 3.7 but wants it to be a 4.0. He has
only lost a few points in engineering graphics so far because he is missing a line or for line quality. He
explained dyslexia affects the grade; dysgraphia affects him when he doesn’t know how to prepare.
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Interestingly, Nick believes kids with dyslexia gravitate to engineering because “it is a different way of
thinking.” Those with dysgraphia tend to want to be in software or electrical engineering. If students are
diagnosed with dysgraphia when they are young, he said they can find ways to deal with it. “It will get better.
Don’t get discouraged,” he advised.
5. DISCUSSION/CONCLUSION
Nick’s experience with dysgraphia is consistent with the contemporary literature related to the disorder in
educational contexts. His insight offers a glimpse into how students with dysgraphia may experience
technology or engineering courses where sketching and drawing are prevalent. We acknowledge that Nick is
but one student in one course at a particular university and that his experience may not represent the
experiences of other students with dysgraphia in similar courses. We are also limited by the format of this paper
and further expansion of the analysis and a greater review of the literature are necessary to provide a clearer
picture of the disorder and offer possible research avenues to potentially develop interventions and teacher
professional development to better the educational experience and outcomes of students like Nick.
For Nick, it is clear that dysgraphia presents barriers to learning and persisting in STEM education. However,
there are methods by which those barriers can be mitigated through technology, support, and awareness. Since
an accounting of the proportion of students with dysgraphia is lacking, we don’t know the extent to which
students may be impacted in our courses and in STEM pathways prior to university matriculation. It is
conceivable through further exploration of this case and a broadening of the scope of study, we may work to
mitigate barriers for other students and increase the number of students interested in STEM that would
otherwise be turned off.
We would like to acknowledge Nick for his assistance and cooperation in this research study and thank him for
so openly sharing his experiences.
6. REFERENCES
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA:
American Psychiatric Publishing.
Berninger, V. W., & O'Malley May, M. (2011). Evidence-based diagnosis and treatment for specific learning disabilities
involving impairments in written and/or oral language. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(2), 167-183.
Berninger, V. W., & Wolf, B. J. (2009). Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and
science. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Booth, J. W., Taborda, E. A., Ramani, K., & Reid, T. (2016). Interventions for teaching sketching skills and reducing
inhibition for novice engineering designers. Design studies, 43, 1-23.
Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ernst, J. V., Williams, T. O., Kelly, D. P. & Clark, A. C. (2017). Factors of spatial visualization: An analysis of the
PSVT:R. Engineering Design Graphics Journal. 81(1), 1-10.
Martin-Erro, A., Dominguez, M., Espinosa, M. D. M. (2016). The role of sketching in engineering design and its presence
on engineering education. Proceedings of INTED2016 Conference, 3465-3471. Valencia, Spain, March 2016.
Martins, M. R. I., Bastos, J. A., Cecato, A. T., Araujo, M. D. L. S., Magro, R. R., & Alaminos, V. (2013). Screening for
motor dysgraphia in public schools. Jornal de pediatria, 89(1), 70-74.
Mayes, S. D., Breaux, R. P., Calhoun, S. L., & Frye, S. S. (2017). High prevalence of dysgraphia in elementary through
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This article brings up the point that 3-D spatial visualization skills are vital to graphics education. Instructors of graphics education, even though they have highly advanced spatial skills, rarely have the proper training on what spatial skills are or how the development of spatial skills takes place. As a result one must try to have a better understanding of spatial abilities. There are many interpretations as to what spatial skills really are and there is in therefore no one universal definition. As a way to better understand spatial abilities, Maier places them into five categories. The categories are spatial perception, spatial visualization, mental rotations, spatial rotations, and spatial orientation. These categories are vast. As a result of their vastness many of the categories overlap. Another step towards better understanding spatial skills involves differentiating how spatial skills are used while completing a task. Tartre makes a classification for how spatial skills are used while performing a task. The spatial skills are either used as spatial visualization that involves mentally moving the object, or as spatial orientation, which involves mentally moving the object. If the task involves spatial visualization then mental rotation can take place, which involves the entire object, or mental transformation can occur, which only involves part of an object. Visual thinking is a way to understand spatial skills. McKim offers the viewpoint that visual thinking occurs by three kinds of imagery. They are what one sees, what one can imagine, and what one can draw. All of these images interact with one another. Spatial skills are developed primarily in three different stages. This can be see be Piaget's theory on development. In the first stage, two dimensional, topological, skills are acquired. In the second stage, an understanding of 3-D objects, projective skills, from different viewpoints is achieved. Finally in the third stage, there is an understanding of area, volume, distance, translation, rotation and reflection, which is combined with projective skills. Spatial skills are evaluated in a variety of ways. There are tests that assess a person's projective skill level. Examples of these would be the Mental Cutting Test and the Differential Aptitude Test: Spatial Relation. Other tests assess mental rotation. Examples of mental rotation tests are the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test and the Mental Rotation Test. Results of these evaluations show mixed results as to whether there are gender differences in spatial skills. In order to enhance spatial skills, one must not only work with 3-D images, but they must also use concrete models and sketching. Overall I thought this article was very informative. It presented the information in a clear and concise manner. I summarized the information that I thought was especially useful for this class. The article really made me think how important it is not only to have spatial skills, but also to have an understanding of them.
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There is confusion over classification in the developmental disorders. Not only is there marked heterogeneity within any given disorder but there is also substantial overlap ('comorbidity') between the characteristic symptoms of several disorders. Confusion is particularly marked for dyslexia (defined in terms of poor reading) and dysgraphia (defined in terms of poor writing). Many of these overlapping symptoms may be attributable to abnormal function of neural systems involving the cerebellum. In this paper we apply the 'neural systems' framework to the distinction between dyslexia and dysgraphia, developing the thesis that both disorders derive from impairment in components of the procedural learning system. We claim that dyslexia is associated primarily with the language-based component (including Broca's area and the right lateral cerebellum) whereas dysgraphia is associated primarily with the motor component (including the cerebellum and motor cortex). A key step forward in this analysis is the acknowledgment that differences between the different components are in terms of degree rather than all-or-none. For many individuals with dyslexia or dysgraphia these impairments co-occur. Comorbidity between disorders is handled naturally within the framework, and provides a link not only to diagnosis but also to support. The framework has applicability for the understanding of several developmental disorders and will prove fruitful in proposing the development of assessment tools based on neural systems performance rather than attainment measures such as literacy.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.