Youth on the Autism Spectrum and STEM Fields
Barriers to STEM Pathways
The IDEAS Maker Program
The Current Study
IDEAS Maker Program Implementation
Autistic (n = 17)
Non-autistic (n = 9)
Black, African American
Teacher Focus Groups
Student Interviews/Focus Groups
Parent Interviews/Focus Groups
Teacher Program Implementation Logs
Field Observation Notes
Qualitative Data Analysis
Student Experiences and Engagement
Creativity was considered another important factor that made the program enjoyable. Students said that the clubs encouraged them to think creatively and pursue their unique ideas through their projects and bring them to fruition. This enabled them to adapt the club experiences to suit their individual making needs. John, a student on the spectrum, expressed his excitement by noting that the club is fun and emphasized that “I like making my creations.” Jerry, another autistic student, further expanded his experience by pointing out that Maker clubs enabled them to work toward a culminating experience, and also engage with and learn from peers.My experience has been very, very great. I feel like they teach the basics of 3D printing... and then the fact that you're able to then go on and make your own project is, it's very hands-on. There's a lot of things to make with 3D printing. So creating new designs each time is entertaining.
Non-autistic students also shared the enjoyment and excitement in the program. Asked what she enjoyed about the program, Taylor, a non-autistic student who volunteered to take part in the club for 3 years, talked about enjoying the process of creating and actualizing her ideas, as well as the autonomy and flexibility for making.I liked how we were able to get the ideas built up into one final project. I liked all the other creative ideas that we were able to do to learn about Makers Club...Like [learning about 3D printing, TinkerCAD], all seems to lead up to final projects to learn how we can build something and also I love how we can also socialize with everyone else in the club to get you with some help or just like to talk out.
Like the students, parents expressed their appreciation for this program and described how their children experienced happiness in this space because it actively encouraged them to pursue their interests. They felt that the clubs propelled their children to convert their ideas into finished products. A parent of a student on the spectrum reported, “He seems to really enjoy it. He could really get into LEGOs, but he’s enjoying them here.” Another parent underscored the eagerness of their child on the spectrum to participate in each club session as an essential part of their positive experience:Being able to make different things every year and be creative…I really like the journal making and then the 3D printing final project, because you get to have a lot of ideas and put them—test it, see if they work. Adding on to that, you have a lot of freedom when you choose your final project, and of course, it’s nice when it finally comes out. And the process of making the final project is also pretty cool...you have to create your project.
Another parent emphasized that task completion gave their child on the spectrum a sense of accomplishment and pride.He never dreads that he has to do it or wishes he could come home. It’s been nothing but positive. It’s been great.... he always wants to come here. So I mean that’s the difference I’d see in his excitement outside of our apartment.
Similarly, a parent of a non-autistic student echoed that her child had a positive experience and great enjoyment from the program.When they make something that’s complete, you can really see he’s so happy. And, again, as we know, especially with them, it’s hard for them to complete because they have so many, you know, as we joke, “the creative monkeys” ...so they often can’t stay focused on one thing. He’s like, I did it! I went from A to B. And, of course, with all the help that he, and then he looks at the finished product, and it’s like I can see that that’s something he’s proud of. That, of course, is fantastic—we can tell them that a million times a day. “You can do it if you just focus.” And now he does it and he’s like, “They were right, I could do it.” And that’s really great.
Teachers mirrored parents’ perspectives regarding their students’ happiness while participating in this program. One teacher acknowledged that students were invested in this program.So in her first years involved in Maker she got really excited, “We’re 3D printing,” and even though I’m an engineer, I’ve never used a 3D printer. I have no idea what a 3D printer does and she was so excited telling me. She told me all the details about it and then last year they built their first robots and she had so much fun with it and we did this and we did that. This year, to her, it was really important to stay involved in it, because I think when she first started there weren’t that many older children involved and she thought it was really important to be there for the younger kids and to help them through things. It’s really exciting to see her grow in that way. She’s talked about it often very fondly and she’s had some really great experiences there.
Teachers’ views resonated with that of students when they spoke about the club being a space that nurtures students’ creativity. Teachers felt that the club activities augmented students’ inventiveness.He’s just so happy here. He’s constantly building. He’s proud, and he’s genuinely invested in his projects to the point where he thinks about it outside of school. He comes back with new ideas. He wants to work on it outside of school. He’s always excited to show his mom all of his projects.
These positive experiences also led students to engage fully in the club’s activities and develop their individual projects outside the clubs too.Charles is the candidate for this, because he really thinks out of the box. He really brings all that creative ideas and he has a plan in his head, and he will not even think twice. He knows how to carry that plan.
He’s learning how to organize it in a form and then put it into a more tangible shape, whether it’s a game or his log I was looking at, of his projects. I mean, it’s still looney, it’s got drawings, but it’s very organized, which obviously is something he has to do for anything he’s going to do. He has to learn how to take his thoughts and put them in a method where he can transmit or communicate with somebody else. And he doesn’t know he’s learning. He’s having fun doing silly things, and that’s important.
Furthermore, students recognized instances when they solved and used critical thinking to improve their prototypes or make their prototypes from their plans. When Ian, a student on the spectrum, was asked about how he solved a problem regarding LEGO pieces he designed to be 3D printed and put on his Rubik’s Cube, he stated:One benefit of implementing this activity was that it fostered problem-solving skills. It is difficult to transfer their design from a paper sketch to a digital design, so students were forced to change something (iteration) to improve their design and make it better. Students were also allowed to take their time and persevere until their name tag was 3D printer ready.
Project failure is a common experience in engineering design, yet students learned to view failure and frustration neutrally or positively, as failing is an expected step in the engineering design process. Sean, a student on the spectrum, described the process of engineering design as iterations of problem-solving and project testing, which shows cognitive flexibility: “we're always testing our prototypes. If it fails, it’s not a big deal because we have plenty of time to try it.” Teachers also recognized students’ progress in overcoming challenges and frustration. A teacher shared an instance when Cameron, a student on the spectrum, experienced a meltdown in the circuit-making activity due to material problems. “So it wasn’t like he couldn’t get it to work. It was like our tape was defective. Nobody’s light lit. Cameron had a total meltdown. [But] he was one of the first ones who figured it out. He made it simple.… it was good practice for him, even though he just melted down like that.” The club appeared to provide a nurturing environment for problem-solving and overcoming challenges.They were too thick at first. It took a long time to print. Like a centimeter and half by a centimeter and a half probably. Then I made them thin, but then the pegs at the top of the LEGO piece were too thin. The third time’s a charm because then I got it right because I had to ungroup everything, and it looks cool.
Interests in STEM and Related Careers
Student Relationships and Community
Two teachers in another school shared an instance where Robert (on the spectrum) developed social relationships based on his strengths and shared interests with peers.I think one great thing is I just see the relationship building within the groups. A lot of them—like in the beginning, we kind of have to get them to sit together because they might want to sit alone or apart because they're not used to the other person. They don’t know them. But to really foster [student relationships], maybe giving feedback to one another, like using experts who have been here last year and encouraging them to help other students. Because we have one student [on the autism spectrum], Reynaldo, who is like, I’m not a helper. I’m not good at that. But then he’s really good at Tinkercad, so we had him help some other students who were struggling…To see other students learning it from you—I think he enjoyed it...I do think that he starts to build a relationship with that person and then next time, he will approach them.
Teachers emphasized that the Maker Club fostered a community that appreciated and celebrated autistic strengths and interests, facilitating students’ learning and positive relationships. Opportunities were created where students’ strengths can be seen and valued by their peers. A teacher said, “Most of [the students on the spectrum] are really true makers, and I think that they shine, and I think [their skillset] is really attractive to all the kids.” When asked what impressed them in the program, teachers in a school shared the case of Ethan, a student on the spectrum with a strong interest in Rubik’s cubes:Teacher 1: “One change that we’ve seen in Robert, the first couple of years he was definitely not open to sharing his expertise with other kids and then this year, we’ve asked him to step in so many times and he’s done it–” Teacher 2: “And not only has he stepped in when being asked to, but there’s many times where he just does it on his own...initiates it.” Teacher 1: “something we weren’t seeing before.” Teacher 2: “whether it’s helping a student with Tinkercad or their design, and it could be that a student goes and asks him because they know he knows a lot, and he’s more than happy to show them, and there’s even times where a student is asking for our help, or there’s certain signs that they're struggling and he kind of goes over and just helps them out…And I think that’s happening because this is an area of interest. We were able to tap into something that he’s really passionate about in a really positive way.” Teacher 1: “And then [he] sort of—even being grouped with other kids that share a similar interest, I mean, he’s formed friendships that he probably would not have. I’m talking specifically about some of the [general education] kids that he’s formed that strong bond with. I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for Maker Club.”
Ethan, at the beginning of the year, was kind of like hiding his Rubik’s cube under his desk, and he would solve it because he’s obsessed with his Rubik’s cube. And he brought it out during Makers Club, and then everyone was talking about how cool it was, and the kids were interested. And [Teacher 2] and I, we hyped it up too, and that’s what he ended up doing on his final projects both times. And he got our whole homeroom into Rubik’s cubes. It’s a good fidget, and a lot of the kids in his homeroom got fascinated with Rubik’s cubes, and it became his thing. So it became a point where he felt comfortable to bring it out here, and then we promoted that it was awesome. It’s one of your strengths, and then he was able to take it to the classroom, and that’s how he made a lot of friends this year.
A Safe Space Supporting Self-determination
Similar experiences between students on the spectrum and their non-autistic peers.Although some [activities] are complicated or [all students are] struggling, or they're having a difficult time problem solving, but our students [on the spectrum] find a place where they can thrive, and they can be experts, and they all share a common interest, and they're part of the Maker’s Club, and they're a Maker. It’s an identity that they have, and even with the neurotypical peers, they all share one common interest, and they're all strong in different areas…They're finding other interests that are in common too. And they just have the space to do it. So for me, working as a special educator, that is what I highlight the most when I see them working together and problem-solving and talking in this space…The benefit of having them there is these relationship buildings and for the neurotypical students to see like, oh, we have something in common. Let’s talk to each other. And they say hi to each other in the hallway, so it spreads out.