Building Capacity for Inclusive Informal STEM Learning Opportunities for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 to Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Professional Development, Conferences, and Networks, Professional Development and Workshops
Adults | Educators/Teachers | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators | Learning Researchers
General STEM
Access and Inclusion: 
People with Disabilities
Institute for Learning Innovation

Over the past two decades the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has nearly tripled and yet there is much to learn about serving this audience well. After high school exit, most are left to navigate the world without appropriate support or the requisite skills necessary for success. Educators working in informal science institutions (ISI) can better promote both social interaction and engagement in STEM education for individuals with ASD. A learning environment in which the learner chooses content aligned with their personal interests and where learning can be multifaceted (verbal, hands-on, fast or slow, social or solitary, directed or inquiry based, physical, etc.) is consistent with the central tenets of an evidence-based, outcome-driven approach for autism intervention. ISI educators have the desire but may not have sufficient and timely knowledge and skills to engage and support this audience. Currently, many are working at the local level to develop new programs and approaches for patrons with ASD, with little evaluation or research and not building on each other's work. The project will develop a rigorous customized professional learning experience designed to enhance capacity of ISIs broadly in ASD support techniques and strategies. The goal is to enable more inclusive opportunities for people with ASD based on current and emerging promising practices. The project's theory of action is that the ability of people with ASD to participate in traditional, mainstream experiences will improve their motivation to seek other similar opportunities, build interpersonal skills critical to successful interaction in society, formal education, and careers. This, in turn, will help individuals with ASD gain the skills and confidence needed to pursue STEM academically and professionally. The project is a collaboration between the Institute for Learning Innovation, the SciTech Institute, and the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC). This project 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.

The pilot's main research questions are: (1) To what degree does the professional learning program support the learning outcomes in knowledge, awareness, interest, skills, attitude, and behavior change in informal science education providers? and (2) What features of the program do educators consider most effective for improving their ability to serve this audience? Four Arizona ISIs will participate in a research-based design study; their staff will also comprise the founding members of a Community of Practice aimed at sharing promising practices and promoting broader engagement among the informal science education community. The professional development (PD) will be provided by SARRC. New formative evaluation skills will support ongoing innovation and build participant capacity. Leveraging this training, the ISIs will create and test new approaches and programs, apply new skills in formative evaluation, and develop internal workplace programs to create cultures of ASD understanding. A pilot research study will recruit 20 diverse individuals with ASD who will visit each institution prior to and after the PD for staff. The research will measure the degree to which the PD impacts attendee experience as well as assess the science learning that occurred because of their visit. This project will advance collaboration between ASD experts and ISI educators to iteratively develop effective museum learning strategies. Other goals of this work are to provide important insights into (a) the current state of accessibility programs in ISI venues nationally, (b) how PD can be leveraged to help institutions reach true inclusion, and (c) initial evidenced-based approaches for inclusion of individuals on the Autism spectrum in mainstream informal environments. In addition to the research findings, deliverables include an ASD PD model, national inventory of current practices and programs that support ASD learning and participation, and the establishment of a Community of Practice.

This Innovations in Development 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.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Judith KokeJudith KokePrincipal Investigator
Jeremy BabendureJeremy BabendureCo-Principal Investigator
Christopher SmithChristopher SmithCo-Principal Investigator

Request to Edit a Resource

If you would like to edit a resource, please use this form to submit your request.