Making Mentors: Enhancing Access to STEM Careers for Autistic Youth through Mentorship Programs in Makerspaces
People on the autism spectrum are very capable of leading productive lives and have interests and abilities that can enable them to make valuable contributions to their communities. For example, research shows that young people with autism who go to college choose science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors at higher rates than college students in the general population. With one out of every 59 people in the United States on the autism spectrum, it is essential to create programs that prepare this segment of the population for full participation in the workforce so our society can benefit from the unique perspectives they have to offer. This project scales up an Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project called IDEAS: Inventing, Designing, and Engineering on the Autism Spectrum, in which a multidisciplinary team adapted a museum-based maker program and tested it in three autism inclusion middle schools in New York City. The project will build on the lessons learned from that project to bring maker programming to a wider range of students, teachers, and schools, and to increase the education community's understanding about how maker programming can help young people on the autism spectrum gain the social, functional, and communication skills necessary for careers in design and engineering.
The goals of the project are (1) to expand the program to more autism inclusion middle schools, (2) to expand the program to autism inclusion elementary and high schools, (3) to make the program sustainable by facilitating local adaptation in autism inclusion schools, (4) to shift the ownership of the program to autism inclusion schools and the city's professional development providers and special education office, and (5) to explore more broadly how making can support autism inclusion efforts in general. To achieve these goals, we will establish a collaborative co-design process that will include current partners (Education Development Center, New York University's Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Nest Support Project, New York Hall of Science), as well as autism inclusion schools (teachers and principals) and an advisor from the New York City Department of Education's Special Education Office. By the end of this three-year project, there will be 12 Maker Programs run by 24 teachers, reaching approximately 150,180 students on and off the spectrum each year. The team also will explore what it will take to sustain such a program and to build the capacity of the ASD Nest Support Project to have engineering design maker programming available beyond the life of this grant to the other districts to which their autism inclusion model is expanding. These activities will build knowledge in the larger special education and informal education communities about how making can enhance autism inclusion efforts and eventually increase the participation of young people on the autism spectrum in STEM careers.