“We need to help students who have unique minds to be successful,” said Temple Grandin, PhD, professor and famed autism advocate, during her keynote address at Pace’s 2010 Convocation ceremony. Inspired by these words, Jonathan Hill, DPS, assistant dean for the Seidenberg School of Computer Science Information Systems, and Beth Rosenberg ’12, graduate student in the School of Education pursuing a MSEd in educational technology, envisioned an environment where students with special needs could explore their passion for technology.
Incorporating a love of technology and learning, Hill and Rosenberg developed the Pace Tech All Kinds of Minds Institute. This summer institute, which is geared towards middle school and high school students with learning disabilities such as ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, and autism, is based on a model of peer mentorship and exploration.
With the aid of a $10,000 Verizon Thinkfinity grant, Seidenberg faculty hosted the inaugural institute late last month. A volunteer from the Seidenberg Summer Scholars program along with other support staff assisted the students enrolled in the All Kinds of Minds program with hands-on tech assignments and group work. The students learned about physical computing, robotics, gaming, and game development.
“This is one of the only technology programs in the area that is suited for these types of learners,” says Rosenberg. “We hired two teaching artists, a social worker, and counselors,” she says. “Working with the kids takes a lot of patience and love, but it also takes a lot of hands. The more individual attention students get, the more likely they are to succeed.”
Rosenberg describes how the students learned about the inner workings of electronic gadgets, locating sensors, arduino boards, lights, and other miniature mechanical components. “We brought in old cell phones and we decided to destroy them—break them open and see what was inside,” she says. “The kids were so into it.”
One of the major goals of the program was to expose the students to the kind of work they could be doing as a future computer scientist or technologist. “You can be schooled to the nth degree,” says Rosenberg, “but if you don’t have a skill to sell, then you don’t really have anything.” Rosenberg and Hill agree that these talented learners could prove to be successful in the job market. With a bit more time and attention, these students could go on to a future in the computer science field.
Guest lecturers also attended to speak to the students about different aspects of computing and the many possibilities that technology holds. Seidenberg student Jeremy Pease ’13, one of the winners at this year’s Pace Pitch Contest, attended the institute as guest lecturer and counselor. “Presenting in front of eight very intelligent—but distracted kids—was just as rewarding as it was challenging,” said Pease. “It was immediately clear that they all wanted to learn. However, simply telling them about new technologies and giving them a PowerPoint presentation wasn’t going to cut it.”
Luckily, the format of the institute accounted for that—with only eight students per class, it gave students the ability to work almost one-on-one with instructors. By having a small group, each student got the individual attention he or she needed.
“[Physically] showing them cool new augmented reality technology kept them engaged and allowed them all to interact with the computer,” Pease says. “Seeing them really excited about this technology, I knew the presentation was a success.”
And Pease isn’t the only one who thinks so! “While Zach occasionally plays video games; this was his first attempt at actually thinking about what went into a game. He has a whole new perspective,” says parent Karen Elder, of her son, Zach. “It was a true learning experience for him and he enthusiastically shared everything he did with his friends and teachers at school.”