Hoda Ehsan, Ph.D., Chair of Engineering and Computer Science, The Hill School
Elissa Milto, MEd., Director of Outreach, Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, Tufts University
Engineering learning is a lifelong process that starts from a very young age as children discover the world through tinkering, touching, and being curious. Some refer to children as natural engineers (Dorie et al., 2014; Genalo et al., 2000). Young children naturally and informally engage in engineering-related behaviors and activities (Petroski, 2003). However, at the same time, research shows that adults (i.e., parents and educators) play an important role in fostering and supporting the development of those skills (Rehmat et al., 2020; Ehsan et al., 2019). In this blog, we will share research-to-practice insight into developing engineering experiences for autistic children, and strategies to engage them in engineering that build on their assets and evaluate their engagement.
Why Engineering for Autistic Children?
Engineering education not only fosters important skills like creativity, problem-solving, and decision making in young students, but by engaging in engineering activities, young students may also see engineering as a vocation that is desirable and possible (Brophy et al., 2008). Engineering and computing related jobs are on the sharp rise, but many will be unable to be filled (Krauss & Prottsman, 2016). Thus, preparation for these jobs needs to begin in the pre-college years, with pre-college engineering education playing an important role in children’s preparation (Brophy et al., 2008). Pre-college experiences for students in elementary through high school can offer foundational skills that are age appropriate and speak to their developmental levels.
Autistic individuals have the potential to choose and excel at STEM-related fields (Baron-Cohen, 2002). While the college enrollment of autistic individuals is much lower than their allistic peers, of those who do get to college, many of them choose engineering, computer science, and other STEM majors (Wei et al., 2013). Some researchers argue that the autistic individuals who choose STEM majors have had access to effective pre-college education in which their potentials were recognized (Pilotte & Bairoktova, 2018). At the same time, there may be students for whom STEM would be a chosen major, but their lack of exposure limits their perceived educational choices and preparation to pursue STEM as a route in higher education and as a career choice. Additionally, when adults in the lives of autistic children are not able to recognize their STEM-based potentials, they may also limit the child’s perceptions of seeing STEM as an appropriate career pathway for themselves. Therefore, to increase the future participation of autistic individuals in engineering, it is important to understand what effective and appropriate engineering learning opportunities for autistic children might look like.
In order to prepare autistic children for a fulfilling future and to provide them with the opportunities to engage in STEM, they need to be exposed at young ages to engineering experiences that are responsive to their strengths and needs. In 2018, Ehsan and colleagues (2018) conducted a systematic literature review on research-based STEM instructions for autistic individuals and found no engineering interventions or instructions that were designed to address the needs of autistic students. Since 2018, the education community became more involved in engineering education research with autistic children, focusing on capitalizing on their interests and potential while exploring their needs and challenges (e.g., Knight, Wright & DeFreese, 2019; Ehsan & Cardella, 2020; Albo-Canals et al., 2018).
Engineering for Pre-College Learners
Before we can talk about engineering experiences for autistic children, we need to think first about what engineering can look like for young learners in K-12. Pre-college engineering is so much more than complicated math calculations and high-level understanding of science. It is a way to identify and address problems and calls on engineers to think and empathize deeply about their clients and potential users and propose creative solutions using the engineering design process.
The Engineering Design Process
There are many models of the engineering design process (EDP) (Figure1). They may differ in the number of steps or language used, but all models represent the complex process that the engineers follow. Although the models may appear linear, engineers move back and forth between the various steps. It is important that pre-college children have the opportunity to authentically engage in the process. Often, engineering activities for children are so highly structured that students do not have the opportunity to follow the natural pathway between stages of the EDP in a way that is appropriate for their design. Often when engineering, students are expected to work on the same stage of the process as the other students in a classroom. While we think it is important for students to gain experience working in all steps of the EDP, we do acknowledge that each engineering design activity may not support engagement in all the stages, but this can be done through multiple activities. For example, one activity may ask students to identify problems for characters in a fictional book and brainstorm solutions while another may present students with a problem and focus more on having them do research and then plan a solution. Some activities may end with conceptual planning allowing students to strengthen their planning skills, while others may be structured so that students also build their proposed solutions and move through the rest of the EDP.
Figure 1. Simplified model of the EDP. Source: Portsmore, 2010.
Engaging Autistic Children in Engineering: Suggestions on Content, Pedagogy, and Assessment
If engineering activities are tailored to learners’ specific needs and backgrounds, they can offer a context in which all children can contribute to solve the problem, practice engineering design, and demonstrate their engagement and learning in ways that are highly differentiated. Thus, educators need to carefully consider appropriate content and structure of engineering activities, facilitation and pedagogical approaches, and assessment and evaluation. Below, we first share three different examples of engineering activities that we have implemented with autistic children in grades 1-9. We then present a summary of research-based and practical approaches we observed being helpful and effective during the implementation of the activities.
Engineering Design Activities
In all of these three activities, students are presented with a problem for which they need to design a solution. Students are given a hypothetical user or client to consider. Thus, they practice human-canter design through these activities. In the first one, high school students work in pairs to design mini-golf obstacles that function. The activity allows them to do teamwork, communicate their ideas, make decisions, all in pairs, which support their social emotional skills. The second one we present is a family-based activity. Students engage in designing a roller coaster for a client. They team up with their parents to examine different needs of the users and the client, and to build a functional roller coaster. During the clock activity, students work together in teams to design a clock for a user who is partially sighted. They have to engage in empathizing with the clients, consider their needs, and then design a clock that works for them.
Miniature Golf Course
Task: Create a miniature golf obstacle course with each pair of high school students designing a different miniature golf obstacle. Students must work together to decide on scale and the order of the obstacles.
Setting: Extended year summer program at a public high school.
Participants: 15 students in grades 8 and 9 with Individualized Educational Plans.
Engineering Design Objectives: Research (prior solutions), plan, create, build, test and troubleshoot, communicate solutions, systems thinking, collaboration.
Social-Emotional Objectives: Collaboration, perseverance, dealing with frustration.
Materials: LEGO robotics kits, craft materials
Task: Design a roller coaster in response to the needs of the amusement park’s CEO. It must be exciting and fun, with loops and tunnels.
Setting: Family-based activity in a university lab.
Participants: Four autistic students in grade 4 participating with their parents.
Engineering Design Objectives: Identify the problem, research (about materials, clients, roller coasters), brainstorm, plan, create (build the roller coaster), test and troubleshoot, redesign/modify, communication, collaboration
Social Emotional Objectives: Communicating solutions, collaboration (with parents), empathy.
Materials: ThinkFun kit–physical building materials, markers, and white boards.
Task: Design and make a clock for someone who is partially sighted.
Setting: After-school makerspace workshop.
Participants: Four autistic students in grades 6 and 7.
Engineering Design Objectives: Research (prior solutions), plan, create and build, communicate solutions, give/get feedback.
Social-Emotional Objectives: Collaboration, perseverance, developing empathy.
Materials: Wood, paint, laser cutter, paper, clock works.
Research-based and Practical Approaches to Activity Implementation
These research-based and practical approaches have proved to be effective in the activities we implemented with autistic students. We suggest that educators consider adapting these approaches when designing and implementing engineering design instructions for autistic students.
- The content and structure of the series of activities, both in terms of engineering and social aspects, provided opportunities for children to move from structured to open-ended problems with multiple options for each child.
- The activities included problems that were relevant and interesting to children, had a multidisciplinary nature, and provided space for self-paced exploration.
- Scenario-based activities, which centered around a meaningful story of a client, helped children develop and express empathy, and built perspective-thinking skills.
- Activities were structured so that collaboration felt necessary, giving children an authentic reason to collaborate.
- During the activity, the educator was present, supporting student engagement using various approaches. Indirect feedback was given initially through questioning and prompting. However, direct guidance was used when needed.
- Opportunities for teamwork were provided and facilitated. When adults paired up with children, children led the activity and adults followed. When children paired up together, warm-up activities were necessary to help children become comfortable working together and practice social norms.
- Encouragement and affirmation helped children to overcome their frustrations when facing failure and their inability to achieve their goals.
- A variety of formative assessment methods were used so that children were able to share their ideas. Chosen methods should play into each child’s strengths. Examples include making a movie describing how a design works, writing about the design, demonstrating how their design works, drawing the design, or verbally explaining what they are designing and why.
- Capturing children’s evidence-based reasoning was one of the main approaches used to assess and evaluate their understanding of different aspects of engineering design. This approach required carefully observing children’s engagement in engineering design.
- In many instances, assessment happened in-the-moment which guided the type of support children needed.
- Children’s non-verbal communication should be included as part of assessment (e.g., a hand motion showing that something should be moving forward).
- Children need a baseline of experience with materials and tools before they can be expected to plan and design with them. It is difficult to incorporate materials into a design if they are not familiar with a material’s properties. Additionally, when autistic children are not familiar with material, we observed that they have the tendency to tinker with the material for a long time, instead of focusing on solving the engineering design problem.
Giving autistic children the opportunity to engage in collaborative engineering design challenges provides them a myriad of benefits, both academic and social. All children work differently, and educators should be strategic about engaging them. The format of the engineering challenges should be highly considered for maximum benefit and engagement and allow the children to practice disciplinary and social skills. Engineering challenges allow autistic children a chance to build on their strengths while teachers provide a structure that helps them work on their differences in a way that builds their expertise and confidence–which may help them see themselves as future engineers. Although we did this work with autistic students, we believe that these strategies would be beneficial for all students including those who are neurotypical and would help level the playing field and increase equitable participation since all children will work within the same framework and can build on their individual interests and strengths.
Note: Through this blog, we use identity-first language (i.e., autistic person) instead of person-first language (i.e. person with autism) since this is the language is preferred by autistic individuals and their families (Gernsbacher, 2017).
Thanks to ARISE Blog Editor, Dr. Meltem Alemdar, for inviting the authors to share their research on engineering education for autistic students. Please read the blog by Meltem and her colleague Jessica Gale, “Consider the Source(s): Supporting the Cultivation of Early Career STEM Teachers’ Self-Efficacy Beliefs.”