Researchers receive SSHRC grant to examine after-school STEM program for students with autism

By: Gerry Rucchin
August 14, 2018

Professors Anton Puvirajah and Nicole Neil have received a SSHRC Insights grant to examine an after-school STEM program for youth with autism.

Professors Anton Puvirajah and Nicole Neil have received a SSHRC Insights grant to examine an after-school STEM program for youth with autism.

Professors Anton Puvirajah and Nicole Neil at the Faculty of Education have received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant to investigate if a weekly after-school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program will help students with autism with their STEM attitude, aptitude and social skills.

The program will involve about 20 children between 10 to 12 years of age.

“There aren’t too many students with autism who go to post-secondary institutions but when they do, they predominately go into the STEM fields,” said Neil.

The SSHRC grant is filling a research gap. Neil said researchers and clinicians have done a lot of early intervention with children who have developmental disabilities, such as teaching language skills. But, there isn’t a lot of research after early intervention has occurred.

“Now we have a whole bunch of kids growing up and they’re graduating and we’re saying what’s next for these individuals? What are they going to do as adults? How do we support them to be thriving community members? That part of the research is really missing,” said Neil.

STEM education – a social justice issue

As a scholar who has examined STEM education and underrepresented minority students in the United States, the research grant continues Puvirajah’s work with another underrepresented group in STEM education – those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Puvirajah has two goals for his research. First, he wants students with autism to receive a proper STEM education. Also, he believes it’s important for society to have a STEM-informed workforce.

“It’s an issue of social justice, making sure everyone has equal opportunities to be engaged in STEM,” said Puvirajah.

What’s more, the research grant brings together two different sets of researchers at the Faculty of Education: Curriculum Studies and Applied Psychology. Each team will develop its own thesis based on its research. The curriculum researchers will analyze the after-school program’s learning modules while the applied psychology group will examine how the program affects the youth’s social skills. The research paper will connect each research group’s findings, said Neil.

This is the first-time Puvirajah has worked with applied psychologists. He calls it a wonderful opportunity to be working with a researcher from another field.

“This is a great partnership,” said Puvirajah. “It’s an opportunity for us to bring applied psychology and STEM education into something that is fruitful and something that is practical as well. We haven’t seen too much of that.”

Impacting the community

Depending on the study’s results, Neil believes community agencies will be able to use the after-school program for their clients.

“If the program is successful and we have positive results from it, we might offer the program to places like the YMCA and the Merrymount Children’s Centre where they can run the program in the community,” said Neil.

While Neil said the after-school program won’t solve every issue, she believes that youth with autism deserve access to after-school programs that target their needs.

“We all deserve to have enjoyable, fun activities, and to enjoy exploring our potential future career.”