By Craig Chamberlain Maybe he couldn't reach the lab table from his wheelchair. Or she couldn't take a computer class because she couldn't see the screen. Or parents or a teacher steered them away from technical subjects, thinking they were saving them from hardship or failure. Whatever the reasons, too few people with disabilities are pursuing degrees or careers in science, engineering and math. To find out why and what can be done, the UI - where efforts to address the needs of students with disabilities began more than 45 years ago - is starting Project Pursuit. A three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the project. The technical fields are difficult, says Mark Strauss - a professor of rehabilitation education and of general engineering, and the project's principal investigator - but that's no reason to dissuade students with disabilities from pursuing them. "The door shouldn't be closed because someone else perceives that it's not right for the individual. They have to have the same chance to excel or fail like anybody else." Strauss believes that much of the problem is lack of knowledge - about the resources available, the career opportunities opening up, and even what is required in specific fields. "I think the typical high school student doesn't even know what science, engineering and math careers have to offer," he said. "But for the student with a disability, whatever little they do know about a given field, they're thinking that they can't do it. They're seeing the barriers." Part of the project will be workshops for Illinois high school teachers and guidance counselors, parents and students about the educational resources and career opportunities available to the disabled. Teachers in high schools, and also at the UI, will be offered advice on how to structure the learning environment to increase participation and make students aware of career opportunities. Those with ideas of their own about how to do that - with new equipment, curricula, software, etc. - will be able to apply for small grants. Strauss also plans to use the Internet electronic network to link students with disabilities to disabled scientists, engineers and mathematicians, who can share their experiences and act as role models. Assuming every high school has at least one computer, the project will offer schools the necessary equipment. High school students also can connect electronically with peers at other schools, and with college students who can act as role models; and college underclassmen can get peer support from upperclassmen. A free electronic database, accessible through the Internet, will be established to offer information about technical careers, Strauss said. The database also will have information about various disabilities, for use by teachers and professors. "Sometimes people may be embarrassed to ask," he said. "They may be world-renowned in their research field of subatomic physics, but have no idea what cerebral palsy is, or what a person with the condition can or cannot do."