Autism in the Engineering Classroom
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Episode Show Notes
In the big push for more engineers today, can we get them from students with autism? Research has shown that college students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) go into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields more than students without ASD. We speak with one of the researchers who studied this phenomenon, Dr. Jennifer Yu of SRI International (Part 1 @01:00), and we also discuss community colleges, universal design, and why learning to educate autistic students better can help educate all students better. Then we hear from occupational therapist and doctoral candidate Marci Schneider in Florida (Part 2 @21:25). In her eighteen years of experience serving K-12 students with special needs, she has gathered advice for teachers on how to approach ASD in STEM classrooms. One final note comes from high school engineering teacher Melanie Kong in Seattle (Part 3 @35:50), who picked up a few insights in her early years on this topic.
Remember that the podcast will be at the SXSW Conference and Festival in March, 2017! We will be running workshops for educators and professional engineers: www.sxsw.com and www.sxswedu.com
The cover art for this episode is full of origami cranes, and it is inspired by “the birds activity” from past podcast guest Ellen Browne, which Melanie describes at the end of this episode; it is also inspired by the colored puzzle pieces historically used to symbolize autism at times. Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze, who’s also on Soundcloud. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Autism in the Engineering Classroom
[Pius Wong] It’s December 19, and this is the last episode of the 2016 season for The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius] If you’re a teacher, you might notice more kids in your classroom with autism, attention disorders, learning disabilities, or other diagnoses that mark a neurologically diverse group of kids. This episode focuses on one kind of neurodiversity: autism spectrum disorders. Is it really true that autistic kids gravitate more to science, technology, engineering, and math? How do you integrate students on the autism spectrum with neurotypical students, or students without these diagnoses? What practical tips are there for letting these kids succeed in engineering? We talk to a researcher, school occupational therapist, and a teacher to find out.
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[Pius] Dr. Jennifer Yu studies education and students with disabilities at the nonprofit research institute SRI International in California. Jennifer also used to be a high school science teacher. Recently, I called her up over Skype to talk about her work.
[Dr. Jennifer Yu] The work that I do, the research interests that I have are specifically around kids with disabilities. And so I look at things like, you know, what are some of the factors that can really improve the educational outcomes and basically the lives of these students with disabilities. More recently I’ve had a real specific interest in autism, and we recently had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to look at autism and STEM – so science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – to see what the convergence is there. You know, is there really some truth to all this, you know, anecdotal evidence that we have that people with autism and people on the spectrum must be, like, really geeky and really, like, gravitating toward a kind of engineering-type field?
[Pius] Can I ask you if you had any, say, personal interest in that? Or you kind of got sucked into the project because of the NSF grant?
[Jennifer] Well, you know, the NSF grant actually came about because I’m based in Silicon Valley, and so – and I’m married to an engineer – and so I’m kind of immersed in this tech world around me. And so you hear a lot of people just kind of throwing around the term “autism” and “being on the spectrum” and just sort of equating that naturally with people who are programmers or engineers. It was like, “Oh yeah, that person is an amazing coder. He must be on the spectrum,” or something like that. Everyone just seems to just naturally think this must be the case, but when I would actually look in to see what does the evidence show us, I realized there wasn’t really that much empirical evidence. There weren’t real data to support this. There are a lot of anecdotes. There are some studies that have been done, mainly be Simon Baron-Cohen and his group in the UK, but not really much work that’s been done on the large scale in the US. And so because I am a disabilities researcher, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really large data sets that look at kids with disabilities, I thought, hey, here’s a great opportunity for me to really decide and find out if, in fact, there is some truth to this stereotype that we have. And so when we delved into it, my collaborator, Xin Wei and I, we realized that, yeah, there actually is some truth to this. So looking at some data that looks specifically at college-aged students with disabilities, we found that those who have autism seemed to be significantly more likely to pursue STEM fields, STEM majors, than the general population of kids. We found 34% were majoring in STEM, whereas only about 22% or 20%, I believe, major in STEM from the general population. So that put us on that path to thinking about, like, hey, there’s something here. And really trying to delve deeper into that.
[Pius] So that’s really great. I saw a little bit of that study. I read your writings on that. Did you look into any of the possible reasons why they go into STEM more?
[Jennifer] Yeah, so the data that we use – So I should point out the data set was based on this large existing data set called the National Longitudinal Transition Study II, NLTS2. So what we did is called secondary analysis. So we analyze data sets already out there. One of the limitations of that is that we can’t really ask any follow-up questions, right? Because all the data’s already there. But we did really start delving into that, looking more at the literature, looking at what other studies have shown, and you know, there is some evidence to show that there might be some genetic influence. There was a study that was done that showed that kids who came from parents who are engineers – there seemed to be a higher incidence of autism among those kids. So why is that the case? No one really knows yet. But also, similarly we find pockets of where there are big tech hubs – so definitely Silicon Valley – but really across the country and even around the world, we find that there seems to be a larger prevalence of kids with autism in these tech hubs. So there’s that kind of evidence to support this, but beyond that, all we have really to go on are some theories that have said, well, it could be that kids with autism are what we call systemizers. So some of the characteristics of autism is that they tend to really perseverate on things. If there’s something that really interests them, they’re really going to focus in on that, and they’re just going to keep at it and problem-solve, and they also have kind of a very structured linear sort of way of thinking. All of that actually plays really well into a lot of these STEM fields, that those are the same characteristics that would make you a great engineer, would make you a great computer science programmer. So those are some of the reasons that we think we may see this relationship between STEM and autism.
[Pius] OK. Yeah, I’ve heard that. I’ve met quite a few engineering teachers, high school engineering teachers who’ve, like you said, thrown around that stereotype of like, oh certain kids who might be on the spectrum, as they say – they are really into engineering and STEM, and so that’s interesting that you have some research to back that up. Is there more research being done to try and answer these questions?
[Jennifer] I think there’s definitely growing interest. Mainly because we can’t ignore the fact that for whatever reason there does seem to be this increasing prevalence of autism within our society. So I think now the statistic is 1 in 68 kids with autism are out there in the US. And so as we see this larger number of kids, we think, OK, what are the things we can do to support them and to help them? But then also let’s think about the flipside. What is it about these characteristics of these individuals that could also actually be beneficial to society? And so definitely, in a world where STEM oftentimes kind of dominates, we really need to have people – especially in the US who do have more of this STEM focus – if this is a group that may naturally have this interest, then to gravitate toward STEM, let’s find out more and let’s see if there are ways that we can really help propel them in that direction. So yeah, I would say that there is an increasing interest in doing that kind of research and providing those kinds of important services.
[Pius] You mentioned also that there’s definitely strengths, it seems, when it comes to kids with autism or autism spectrum disorders and their skills or interest into going into STEM and engineering. There might also be some disadvantages. Is there research that you know of saying that kids with autism spectrum disorder may face any extra challenges when getting higher education or going into STEM?
[Jennifer] Oh yeah, definitely. I think that even in our research, when we found these really positive outcomes, in terms of these kids with autism really seemed to gravitate toward STEM and go on to major in STEM in college, that’s great news. But the flipside of that is the fact that there aren’t that many kids with autism who are going on to college. And now I should say that we’re talking about autism, and I say that really speaking about the whole spectrum of disorders, and so there’s obviously those who fall on the spectrum that’s maybe the more classic definition of autism, which are the nonverbal kids or those who may also have some kind of intellectual disability. But then even among those who academically may be doing extremely well, they’re struggling. I think a lot of it really speaks to the social and the communication problem and challenges that they may face. When we think about the kinds of support we can provide to them, a lot of it really is based on what we call these “soft skills” – the ability to communicate effectively, to collaborate, to try and empathize, put yourself in the other person’s shoes – and I think those are the kinds of things that we really do need to work on to support these individuals, so that they can go on to college, or they can go on to careers, and are able to live independently. Whether or not they are very – they have great IQs or not – if you don’t have all those skills in place, you really are going to be challenged in our society.
[Pius] Would you say that there’s still research that’s ongoing for how to best teach these kids, then?
[Jennifer] I think so, yeah. I mean, when we try to think about things like the best practices for supporting kids with autism, there are certain things, certain tools that we can use. We can provide them a much more scheduled – a schedule of the day-to-day, provide them with more visual supports. So those are little things that we can do, but really, in order to best support a person with autism, I think it’s first important to recognize – and this is a term you’re going to hear often from people who are in the autism community – know that when you meet one person with autism, you’ve met just one person with autism, meaning that there’s just so much diversity in terms of their specific personalities and their characteristics. Really the best thing you can do is observe them and try to find out, you know, what are the things that are appealing to them? What are the triggers that may set them off? So these are some of the things that I think teachers or educators – people who are trying to support people with autism – can do in order to provide the best kind of environment for learning.
[Pius] So given the caveat that we know it’s really hard to make that one-size-fits-all solution, what strategies do you know of that some teachers specifically use to help some of these kids with autism?
[Jennifer] Well, I think, like I said earlier, things like providing visual cues are obviously going to be very beneficial I think really to all kids, to all people. So honestly, I think a lot of the things that may benefit those with autism are really meant to benefit everyone. So like the visualization – being able to give kids a schedule, to say, OK, first we’re going to do this, and then we’re going to move on to this, because honestly the transitions are some of the hardest things. That’s when things are in flux, and there’s chaos, and for someone who’s kind of ritualistic in their thinking or needs to know what’s happening next, that’s the time when they’re just going to sort of freeze up, right? It’s going to be a tense time for them. So anything we can do to alleviate that, I think, would be extremely helpful. And also, when you think about the environment, a lot of teachers like to have really colorful posters and artwork or things to help stimulate students. And so they may have lots of vibrant colors or things like that in their classroom, and that may actually have the opposite effect for someone on the spectrum, because they can so easily be distracted and may just become sensory overload for them.
[Pius] Another thing you said struck me, because it sounded so similar to what a professor at the University of Florida was telling me. She specifically focuses on helping kids in the STEM programs at that university who happen to have learning disabilities, and she was basically wondering the same thing that – to teach kids with autism the best, or a lot of learning disabilities the best, it often just sounds like regular good old pedagogy. Like good pedagogy skills that would apply to every student.
[Jennifer] Yeah, there is this area of research and design in the disabilities world that we call universal design for learning, and that’s really this idea of, kind of taking these ideas that are on the periphery and bringing it to the middle. And we can think about this, for instance, in terms of things like, when we provide wheelchair ramps, that’s really meant to help people who are in wheelchairs, but I have kids. And I remember when I had little kids, and I had my stroller, I’m struggling to get them around, like, all of a sudden I realized, oh my gosh, these ramps are a godsend. And then going through a door – gosh, make sure the door is wide enough not only for a wheelchair, but it’s also going to help me and my stroller. So a lot of these things we think should benefit kids with autism, if you think about it, actually it would really be beneficial to everyone.
[Pius] That’s a good thing for the engineers listening to hear, because that’s definitely a principle that I do hear a lot. A lot of these supposed innovations that might be for, you think, a targeted customer group, are actually for everyone, so that’s really neat to hear.
[Jennifer] Yeah. And in education, I think, this is where technology gets really excited for us, because a lot of these universal design concepts can really be applied in technology. So basic things are like text-to-speech has been helpful, increasing font size. All of these things aren’t that difficult to apply and really can help a lot of different kids, because there are a lot of different types of learners. And definitely could help those with autism, as well.
[Pius] Jennifer, you wrote I think a blog post – I keep referring to that – but you talked about some research that you had done about students with autism spectrum disorders entering college, and you compared two-year versus four-year colleges. Can you tell me a little bit about that research and what you found?
[Jennifer] Yeah, definitely. I think that some of the key takeaways from that study that we did was, first off, that two-year colleges are actually really beneficial for kids with autism. I think part of that is because community colleges are just such a nice transition for these students who, you know, now have to move on to this independent living situation, independent environment, if they were just to go straight to a four-year college. Have that sort of cushion for them, both in terms of being able to familiarize themselves with the college mentality and the way that classes are run, while still having that safety net of the family nearby to support them – I think those are the kinds of things that make community colleges especially appealing. And one of the things that we saw that was really interesting is that specifically for STEM fields, we found that those who were in two-year community colleges were much more likely to then persist on. And I think persistence is an important thing, because it’s one thing to be able to get into college and then enroll in college, but then it’s quite another thing to actually follow through, to be able to actually graduate with that degree. I mean this is something that’s difficult for all students. I think that we find there’s a lot of dropout that occurs for college kids. And definitely this is the case for autism, as well. And so to see that two-year colleges seem to help with that sort of persistence and moving forward, that’s huge. That really speaks to having community colleges play a really key role in really furthering the education for these students with autism.
[Pius] Yeah. Did you see that article recently – there’s a couple articles – about how Microsoft has a special hiring program for candidates with autism?
[Jennifer] Yeah, yes. So SAP was one company that really took this on. They called it their Autism to Work Initiative. And they have a goal of, by 2020, they want to have a fairly significant portion of their employee pool be people with autism. I think other tech companies are jumping on board, Microsoft being one of them.
[Pius] That’s really interesting. Is there any planned research about that? Or what do you think about that?
[Jennifer] I think that it’s a great idea. I think it kind of is based on a lot the research that we have done, the research that was done like I mentioned in the UK. So recognizing that there is this evidence, now, to support this idea that autism and STEM do kind of merge nicely together. I don’t know if there has been that much evaluation that’s been done of these specific programs, and I would love to see that myself if there has been. It definitely makes sense, though. I think one thing that’s interesting is that, at least for one of those companies, I know that they’ve worked very closely with advocacy groups and other organizations that can provide them with some better understanding of how to work with people with autism. For instance, their interview process is not your typical interview process where, you know, it would be me talking with you in a pure social environment, which is like the most nightmarish thing you can imagine for someone who doesn’t want to be social, right? So instead they do things like, they’ll give them problems to solve. They may have them take care of Legos and have them build things, and use that as the gateway to identify people who they think may be promising candidates. And from that, they would then provide them with kind of a social skills support group and training, before they – and give them an internship that involves this sort of social skills component to it, before they then actually really immerse themselves into working for various groups within Microsoft or SAP or these other companies. So it’s a really cool model. It’s really interesting, and I would love to see how that works. And hopefully we will have some research in the coming years to find out.
[Pius] Yeah, me too, I’m interested in that. I’m just waiting for the day when that research bleeds over into the population, and then we revamp how we interview for all companies and all positions.
[Jennifer] Yeah, exactly, right? The current interview process – I don’t know. Is it really – I guess if you’re trying to find a job where it is really about talking with people and really communicating one-on-one in that sort of environment, maybe that’s beneficial, but there’s a lot of other skills you’re not going to be able to capture…
[Jennifer] …and understand in your traditional interview process. So again, a lot of the things that are benefiting people with autism, people with disabilities, really can apply to the whole population.
[Pius] OK, well, closing thoughts before I let you go?
[Jennifer] No, no, I mean, this was fun. Thanks for the opportunity to talk, and hopefully we will continue to do more research, and we’ll have more conversation further down the road.
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[Pius] That was Dr. Jennifer Yu of SRI International. You can find links to the research articles mentioned in our conversation in the show notes.
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[Pius, narration] We now leave the research world to hear the perspective of someone directly in the field.
[Marci Schneider] My name is Marci Schneider, and I’m an occupational therapist.
[Pius, narration] Besides being an occupational therapist, or OT, Marci is a doctoral candidate in rehabilitation science at the University of Florida. She’s been practicing as an OT for the past eighteen years, focusing on students with special needs in the K-12 school system. Like many OTs across American school districts, she says she’s seen a significant amount of autism spectrum disorder in this time. Marci spoke to me over the phone, and I asked her first what characteristics would distinguish an autistic student in the classroom.
[Marci] Well, I think that is a very challenging statement, because the spectrum is so broad, but I think that some of the characteristics that do stand out are: There’s a lot of sensory needs. They have a hard time with noise. They have a hard time with being in places that are very loud. They have a hard time being in closed spaces. They may see that the children gravitate toward the edge of the class, instead of being in the middle of the class. They may see that the children tend to get up and want to walk around a lot, or they may want to stand to work.
[Pius] A lot of engineering classes at this level, they’re very project-based and hands-on, and oftentimes they have to work in groups with other kids.
[Pius] What struggles would kids on the autism spectrum – what struggles would they face in these types of classes?
[Marci] Well, I think the hands-on pulls in the strengths of the student, because written work is usually an area that is much more challenging, and hands-on is an area of strength. However, working collaboratively is an area that’s much more difficult. So I think when the teachers can be aware of helping the students maybe ahead of the time, knowing how to navigate, and maybe knowing what their designated role is, may be very helpful, in helping them organize. Organizational skills are also very challenging.
[Pius] In your work as an OT, did you help teachers develop those skills to work with these children?
[Marci] Yes, and that’s something that I’ve been very involved in, helping teachers with developing and implementing accommodations into the classroom to help the students. This is something that we’ve been very active in, looking at what kind of expectations were going to be made of the students in the classroom. And looking at group projects, and academic expectations. And then looking at: how can we help the student be successful? And that’s one thing. And looking at: OK, can we tell them ahead of time what they’re going to need to be able to do. And then looking at: OK, what’s our expectation? Is it we want them to be socially successful? Is that going to be the goal? Then maybe the academic expectation could be secondary. A lot of times giving them the steps ahead of time, knowing that a lot of times the students will shut down before they even start, because the whole task will be very overwhelming. So it’s very helpful to break it down into steps and having a visual guideline.
[Pius] Like pictures of what they’re going to be doing in the day, or…?
[Marci] Yes. A picture, or, depending on their skill level, maybe it could be written instructions. It helps the teacher to maybe have an extra set of hands come in and just be able to brainstorm and say, you know, what does this child need? It may be above and beyond what the curriculum is set up for, and we have to take a look around the classroom and say, OK, let’s look at this environment. It may be that this classroom is overwhelming, just in the way it’s set up. Or, you know, what really is not working, and how can we make this child fit in and be successful? So it helps the teacher, because they have all the students to think about in every class all day long, and then they have an extra person to come in and look at just one student and how they can make him fit in to the curriculum. And it is good teaching strategy, just coming at it from a different angle.
[Pius] It’s clear that an occupational therapist and other helpers would be great for helping the teachers accommodate these students. How should a teacher address the other students in the classroom? Does the teacher have to help the other kids work with the student with autism?
[Marci] That has always been our approach, which has been inclusion, because we want the child to be successful in life. And what we have done is just educate everyone, and sometimes it’s a sensitivity training to just teach everyone that everyone may be a little bit different, and that we learn – And I think sometimes the children have grown up with their peers, so they know that – They have learned from the time that they were younger, and they’ve come up together, so they start learning at a very young age that their friends are maybe just a little bit different and have different challenges. The teachers help with that. This is where the school counselor will come in and help with that. And some sessions with the children. This happens more at the elementary age, and maybe do a story with the children and teach them about how people are different. We’ve had to do that some with the children, and especially with a child with autism spectrum disorder. And I think that’s been very successful. But the goal is always that everyone is learning that this is how – this is what’s appropriate, and this is what we do. We work together.
[Pius] I know that you had a lot of successes, but if someone is facing resistance in their classroom to having a child with autism spectrum disorder, what do you say to that student or to the teacher? Like, if someone doesn’t think that student can be in an engineering or a STEM classroom, what would you say to those people?
[Marci] Oh yes, yes. I have had challenges, absolutely, and we’ve had challenges where we’ve tried accommodations, and I’ve tried to implement accommodations, and a show up again next week, and the teacher said, “This did not work.” And you try to explain to them that you cannot try an accommodation once. That doesn’t work. Some things are going to work one day and not the next. You have to realize that you have to have your bag of tricks, especially for the children that have more intense needs. Some days something’s going to work, and some days something else is going to work. You have to just advocate for the children. And that’s the approach that we take. We’re just here to advocate for the child, and they deserve a chance. Sometimes we win them over, and sometimes we don’t. So we keep trying, and I think that every child needs someone at the ground level at the school, and the parents really appreciate that. And I think the other important thing is that we listen to the child. A lot of times the adults get rolling, and they forget that the child can give their own input. We remember to get the child’s input. Make sure that we’re listening to the child.
[Pius] Do you ever run into the challenge of kids in K-12 thinking that they can’t do engineering or STEM if they have some kind of disability or autism spectrum disorder?
[Marci] I think what’s funny is that all of the children, I think, that I have worked with – that is their primary area of interest.
[Pius] They love STEM.
[Marci] They love STEM. That’s what they want to do. They all love – They all want to make movies. They all want to make video games. That’s what they want to do. STEM is…
[Pius] They’ve all been super creative and everything?
[Marci] Yes. That’s their area of interest. They all have – STEM is their area of interest.
[Pius] Is there anything you think teachers in elementary, middle school, high school, should know that maybe we didn’t talk about yet, especially if they’re teaching these engineering skills?
[Marci] I know one thing. The teachers that I’ve worked with, we have found that communicating with the parent over the organizational – Organizational skills are really an issue, and Google Classroom has been very successful.
[Pius] What do you mean?
[Marci] Using Google Classroom so that the teachers can make sure all the assignments and what the students are expected to do is on Google Classroom, because the students have such a hard time keeping up with their work. And then that way the parents can log on to Google Classroom and then help them keep track of their assignments. Because they have such a hard time with their organizational skills, and they get caught up in their area of interest, that keeping up with their classwork has been such an area of stress.
[Pius] I see, because they’re focusing so much on the thing that they like.
[Marci] That they like, yes. That they get behind on all their assignments. Or they just go right to – they’ll get them in class, but they’ll forget to bring them home, and so organization is a real issue.
[Pius] I know that you mentioned earlier that technology really helps.
[Pius] What other technology have you used that might help for STEM classrooms?
[Marci] The other thing, as far as technology, is a lot of, like, free apps and extensions that you can access through Google Apps, you can use things like Read & Write, or Readability. These are apps and extensions that allow you to – they’ll read the text out loud or highlight the text. So things where maybe if the students are not strong readers, or if there are instructions for the project, or things where they’re using the computer to build, or – Because some of these – They may be very savvy about not navigating around the computer but if it’s something with extensive reading, it may be more challenging. And the other thing, we worked with one of our students. He did not tolerate the transition between class periods, because it was so crowded in the hallway. And he was going into every classroom stressed out and upset. So we let him transition between classes five minutes early. So he went to the next class all by himself in the hallway, and he was like a different child. Just like that. And then all of a sudden he could function. You know, one child wears earplugs in every class, because it’s too loud. Things like that, where the OT can just kind of pick up on those little subtle things that the teachers may not really know, but it seems like common sense, but it’s not common sense.
[Marci] You’re like, why is this kid so stressed out in my class? I can’t figure it out, and it’s like, well, he’s sitting in the middle. I think he needs to sit in the back. You know? Well, this one kid uses a rocking chair. Instead of the teacher yelling at him to put the chair down and study, until he tips it over. You know, things like that.
[Pius] Yeah, it sounds very customized for every child, of course. What would you say to the other kids in the classroom about the benefits of having another kids in the class with autism?
[Marci] I would say that this is one of your friends, and we need your help. This is what we do. I think I would talk to them about compassion, and I would talk to them about understanding, and I think they need to be educated on what autism is. Because I think at that age they’re old enough to understand.
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[Pius] That was Marci Schneider, school occupational therapist in Florida. Links to the teacher resources that Marci mentioned are in the show notes.
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[Pius] Finally, here’s a part of a conversation with Melanie Kong, a past guest, and a high school engineering teacher in the Seattle area, who’s teaching in a new school this year. She’s had autistic students, and I asked her if she has had to teach them differently.
[Melanie Kong] I don’t think I need to teach those kids in a different way. I think what changes is the way I’m facilitating the group work. And what I’ve noticed so far teaching at this new school – I was seeing such an outstanding job with the kids at trying to make sure everyone is included, and I think that’s been really wonderful so far. It’s team members asking each other, hey, what can I do to help? Or when a student with autism is trying to, like, hey, what can I do? Or I don’t understand this? Help. I don’t know what you’re saying. They’ve been really patient in trying to be clear, in trying to make sure that every student is heard. So I think that for me, I’m not changing my instruction as much. What I am changing is making sure I’m more aware of these students. I’m being more aware that they have a different way of thinking, in that they might be able to bring a different perspective, making sure that their team member is respecting that and acknowledge that.
[Pius] So your engineering class is very team-based, and so I could see how facilitating the social interactions would be really important. Are there any tips, anything you could give as advice to someone else – a first-year teacher who’s experience this?
[Melanie] I’ve been doing a very intentional job toward the beginning of the school year to set up these expectations of teamwork. I’ve been doing that by having structured lessons that really show, hey, we all have different ways of thinking, and it’s important to respect that. And I think one great lesson that I did – and this came from Ellen Browne, who’s been on this podcast before – but she does this very simple activity. She just calls it The Birds Activity. Kids get as much time as they need – two to five minutes – to list as many names of birds as they can. And they come up with this list. And then afterwards they compare at their theme, and they don’t only compare what are the names on my list, but they compare what are the ways that you thought about this? And different kids will have different strategies. Some kids are like, hey, I just thought of all the sports teams that are out there. And other kids are like, I went through a little – I went on a mind travel around the Woodland Park Zoo, and I visited downtown Seattle, and I met the seagulls there. So these kids all have different ways of thinking about the problem, but you also have some kids who are like, Pidgey is a bird, and so is woodpecker, and, you know, roadrunner, and Donald Duck, right? So there will be all different types of names. It’s a really low-entry type of activity, but they really realize that we all have different ways of thinking about this problem. Sometimes the people who don’t have experience in this can be the most creative in it. And it was some of my autistic kids who happened to be really – happened to know a lot about birds. And they brought so much knowledge in their bird expertise to the table. I think it just really showed, because after they finished team debrief, they individually brainstormed as many names of birds as they could. And of course every kid’s list goes up. And they talk about it, like, it’s because I followed the strategy this other team member gave to me. So a very simple activity like that really just showed the kids, yeah, it doesn’t matter where we’re coming from. We all have different ways of thinking about this, and there’s something valuable about me trying to think in the way you’re thinking.
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[Pius] Thank you to my guests in today’s episode, Melanie Kong, Marci Schneider, and Dr. Jennifer Yu. I’d appreciate it if you’d share your own thinking with me about the show so far. Please subscribe to the show and leave reviews and comments on iTunes, SoundCloud, Twitter, and all that same stuff. Get the details at the website k12engineering.net.
[Pius] This is the last episode for 2016, and it’ll be a little while before we start up again, but I am excited to get to Season 2 in the next couple months. Thank you for the support, and here’s to engineering education in 2017!
[Pius] Our opening music comes from School Zone, the Radio Edit, but The Honorable Sleaze. Our closing music is from Late for School by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
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[Pius] Hey, one last reminder in 2016. If you can come to the South by Southwest Festival in March 2017 in Austin, Texas, come say hi to Rachel and me. We’ll be there at the South by Southwest EDU Playground to introduce a STEAM curriculum on electronic quilts. And we’ll also be at the South by Southwest Interactive festival to train all you business-types in how improv games can help you be a better designer. We hope you can join us.