Collaborative Research: Promoting Engagement in Informal STEM Learning as a Path to Employment for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

September 1st, 2020 - August 31st, 2023 | PROJECT

Many people with autism are unemployed and isolated because they do not have access to educational opportunities that support them in finding jobs that match their potential. This research seeks to empower adolescents with autism to seek out careers that are well-matched with their strengths and interests. Many people with autism are interested in computing, a marketable skill. This project builds from this interest by developing strategies to effectively engage teenagers with autism. Although people with autism share a diagnosis, each person is unique and has the capacity to become a visionary and transformer in society in their own way. Teenagers with autism will be invited to participate in a game design workshop hosted by an award-winning, not-for-profit Tech Kids Unlimited. Teenagers often enjoy learning how to design games and can learn many useful skills through design. During each workshop, teenagers will rate different teaching strategies using a picture-based survey developed in collaboration with people with autism. It is expected that teenagers with autism who have difficulty focusing to be most engaged by strategies that include multiple types of information (for example, pictures, text, and speech). The team also expects those who are more focused to be most engaged by strategies with fewer sources of information. By developing clear guidelines to help educators match their teaching styles to how different students learn, the project will help them engage youth more effectively. Through an iterative process, the team will revise the game design workshop to make it more engaging for people with different types of autism. New groups of teenagers with autism will participate in improved game design workshops that include an internship in a technology company. An important outcome is to understand which strategies are engaging for young people with autism that help them develop the belief in their skills needed to seek out fulfilling careers. This award is funded by the Advanced Informal STEM Learning program which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments.

This Research in Service to Practice project has the following aims: 1) Identify evidence-based strategies to engage youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in informal STEM learning opportunities that are well matched to their attentional profiles, 2) Determine if engaging youth with ASD in informal STEM learning opportunities increases their STEM self-efficacy, and 3) Determine if engagement with STEM internship activities is associated with increased interest in STEM careers and career decision-making self-efficacy. Principles of Universal Design (UD) and Mayer's principles of effective multimedia instruction are frameworks employed to identify instructional strategies that are emotionally engaging for youth with diverse attentional profiles. The degree to which attentional differences contribute to different patterns of emotional engagement with informal STEM learning will be investigated. Guided by assessments of youth's engagement with different learning opportunities, 'diversity blueprints' or specific instructional strategies that help youth with diverse attentional profiles engage will be developed. After identifying strategies to engage neurodivergent (neurologically diverse) youth in informal STEM learning opportunities, the extent to which these strategies generalize to STEM internship sites will be explored. The team will study potential specificity of the types of contexts that promote different types of self-efficacy, with engagement with extracurricular STEM learning opportunities expected to preferentially target STEM self-efficacy while engagement with internships targets career decision-making self-efficacy. Although UD is often endorsed to promote STEM learning among students with disabilities, the proposed research would be the first iterative adaptation of instructional strategies designed to engage neurodivergent teens in informal STEM learning guided by a systematic analysis of how they engage with and feel about instructional strategies. Project deliverables include workshops for local after-school program providers, publications, a project website, and a multimodal guide of the process of developing 'diversity blueprints' and how to apply them for informal STEM educators and researchers.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - Collaborative Strategies Research: Promoting Engagement in Informal STEM Learning as a Path to Employment for Adolescents with ASD
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2005772, 2005729

Team Members

Amy Hurst, Principal Investigator, New York University
Katie Gillespie, Principal Investigator, CUNY College of Staten Island


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2005729
Funding Amount: $359,830

Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2005772
Funding Amount: $623,066


Access and Inclusion: People with Disabilities
Audience: Educators | Teachers | Museum | ISE Professionals | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: Computing and information science | Education and learning science
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Making and Tinkering Programs | Public Programs