2022 Grants Challenge

Leveraging Autistic Strengths for the STEM Workplace

Neurodiverse students thrive academically and socially-emotionally when engaged in STEM-focused, collaborative projects and applied learning. STEM^3 Academy develops curriculum and hands-on projects to support the kinds of skills our students (with autism, ADHD, and a variety of learning and social differences) will need in order to be competitive in college and career. The school will further develop and upgrade its resources in robotics, electronics, computer programming, and engineering.


What is the primary issue area that your application will impact?

K-12 STEAM Education

In which areas of Los Angeles will you be directly working?

Central LA

East LA

San Gabriel Valley

San Fernando Valley

South LA

West LA

South Bay

Antelope Valley

County of Los Angeles

City of Los Angeles

LAUSD (select only if you have a district-wide partnership or project)

In what stage of innovation is this project, program, or initiative?

Expand existing project, program, or initiative

What is your understanding of the issue that you are seeking to address?

A recent study found that over a third of young adults with autism, 34.1 percent, chose a STEM major in college compared with 22.8% for the general student population. This significant difference between the two rates indicates the strong affinity for and interest in STEM that autistic students have. However, fewer than 40% of students on the autism spectrum enroll in college compared to 75% of high school students generally. This shows the degree to which an interested and capable sector of the population is being underserved and overlooked at the very time that the United States generally is very short of qualified STEM employees. The current shortfall in computer programming, for example, is estimated to be 1 million jobs unfilled. Our goal is to ensure that all of our neurodivergent students have the education and experience in STEM to enable them to stand side-by-side with their neurotypical peers in applying to college or in seeking a career.

Describe the project, program, or initiative this grant will support to address the issue.

STEM^3 Academy has, as part of its K-12 curriculum, classes in Engineering and Design, Robotics and Computer Programming. We maintain Innovation Labs for the high, middle and elementary schools, a space where they develop and build projects and test out ideas. The Labs include a wide variety of tools and machines including a CNC Mill, an X-carve, drill press, band saw, 3-D printers, virtual reality platforms and much more. After having been largely inactive over the last couple of years due to COVID, much of our robotics and engineering educational and competition resources need to be upgraded to the latest generation of hardware and software.

Describe how Los Angeles County will be different if your work is successful.

The short term and long term goals of the grant are to upgrade our material resources and further staff training in computer programming, engineering, robotics, and electronics. We will provide workshops and integrate newer technologies and newer versions of existing technologies into the curriculum. Our students routinely engage in competition in Robotics and Engineering challenges. They have taken first place in a coding challenge at Raytheon against 25 schools in the southland, and 3rd place at Northrop in a challenge to build a trebuchet. Their ability to compete and be competitive is essential to their self-confidence and provides opportunities to collaborate and communicate with their neurotypical peers. Having them stand not only as an example of what neurodivergent students can accomplish, but how they can be successful in the broader society, is of inestimable value to our County.

What evidence do you have that this project, program, or initiative is or will be successful, and how will you define and measure success?

One metric of the success of the program is the number and quality of colleges that our students are accepted to. We have students attending UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, a number at UC Davis, the University of Chicago, and many other two-year and four-year colleges. Our courses are authorized as satisfying the A-G requirements for admission to a 4-year college, and in addition we offer a variety of classes at the AP level as a foretaste of what college will be like. This was not always so. In the decade and a half that I have worked with capable autistic students, I have seen a shift in their general motivation as a result of higher expectations on our part, and a more appropriate STEM curriculum which is both engaging to them and provides them opportunity for success. A second metric is how they have thrived in Robotics, computer programming and classes in digital arts, drone technology, 3-D printing and virtual reality.

Approximately how many people will be impacted by this project, program, or initiative?

Direct Impact: 750

Indirect Impact: 5,000