We’ve all heard that STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is highly beneficial for today’s students to learn and engage in. Scientific and technological innovations are rapidly increasing in our world every single day. STEM is the next generation’s future and is a huge part of their day-to-day routines.
But what about students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other social and learning differences? Can STEM education benefit these students as well? Should we stress the importance of it in our special needs classrooms? The answer is YES! In fact, these students may be at an advantage when it comes to a future career in STEM fields.
“It may be that people with autism naturally think like scientists. They look for patterns and, in science, you are always looking for patterns that you hope reflect a natural law,” Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, told Scientific American magazine.
According to research from STEM3 Academy, 35% of students on the autism spectrum choose STEM majors in college. That is twice the amount of general population students. However, 50% of these students lose interest in their STEM pursuits or decide that they are irrelevant to their education or future. Could this be because we are failing to support these students’ interests? Are we underrepresenting STEM subjects for students with special needs, or failing to teach these subjects in ways that account for different learning styles? Maybe; but new research shows major development in the coming years when it comes to STEM employment for individuals with high-functioning ASD, ADHD and other disorders.
When it comes to personality strengths, many employers look for the same few things: attention to detail, loyalty and reliability. People with autism often possess these traits, along with extraordinary abilities to remember and recite lists and do complex calculations in their heads. They also tend to dive deep into areas of interest, resulting in encyclopedic knowledge per Autism Speaks.
Employers in STEM fields are recognizing these traits and hiring more special needs employees. For instance, SAP Software and Solutions has put plans into place to hire 650 autistic employees by 2020. That would make up 1% of its entire workforce. Microsoft has also launched a pilot program to hire people with autism for full-time positions.
With the growing employment gap in the STEM workforce—by 2020 there will be one million more computer science related jobs than qualified candidates —initiatives like these could aid in the world’s need for more talented, tech-savvy employees.
Research done by Indiana University indicates that the top jobs for people with special needs include computer programming, engineering/drafting, lab technicians, videogame design and equipment design.
Jenny Miles, a grade school teacher at Emerson Middle School in Pomona, California has been teaching STEM subjects to her special education students with great success.
“I have seen their confidence level rise to a point where they truly believe they are as capable as everyone else in the class. The students that only get to be mainstreamed to me (Moderate to Severe) are always asking, ‘is it time for computers yet?’ to their main teacher.”
Miles also incorporates Ozobots in her lesson plans. Our small, smart robots are more than entertaining. They pack a serious STEM/STEAM educational punch and were just awarded the Academics’ Choice 2016 ‘Brain Toy’ Award. They’re also, according to Miles, a great way to get students with ASD engaged.
She starts her students off with markers, paper and OzoCode color codes. Ozobots respond to the color codes with pre-programmed behaviors—spinning, speeding up, making right or left turns and more. Students can use the codes to create pathways for their bots, or to complete mazes, puzzles and brainteasers with varying levels of difficulty.
“Order and logic are the comfort zone for many individuals with autism and therefore STEM is a welcoming environment,” she says.
Combine the research with the genuine interest in science and technology and we have some serious advancement ahead, not only for people with special needs, but for the entire STEM workforce. Considering that almost everything we do involves some type of STEM; these future makers, innovators and visionaries can aid in enhancing the world.