Empowering autistic children: Experiencing a museum through a customised app

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For most of us, a visit to the museum is a chance to relax, to learn interesting stories from our past. We can probably remember school visits to museums when we were younger. However, for some children, the visit can be challenging: namely autistic children.  

Some research highlights that involving children with autism in recreational activities helps to support inclusion, reinforces positive behaviours, and enhances well-being.  Within this context, a museum visit is considered a pleasant way to spend leisure time, as it provides interesting stories to inspire and engage visitors; while offering opportunities for experiential learning through play-based activities. 

In response to the growing international drive for equal rights and diversity, museums have been encouraged to embrace new ways to provide access to services, with a focus on providing access to people with a diverse range of disabilities. This coupled with an ongoing rise in diagnoses of autism has led museums to address issues of integration. Considering the needs of autistic visitors, museums have attempted to integrate an individualised supportive environment and to provide sensory-friendly activities. In addition, improvements have been made to the physical spaces of these environments. Responding to the prevalence of digital media, museums have gone one step further to consider digital practices as a means of engaging visitors with various impairments. However, the adoption of mobile services in museums seems to target specific groups, and there is little work regarding digital platforms developed specifically for autistic people.

With technology for autistic users being well researched with many attributed benefits, the role of technology in museums represents a timely area of study – this is the focus of my PhD work.

Benefits of technology for autistic users includes:

  1. Slower presentation of information/communication;
  2. Reduced pressures of completing activity (with others);
  3. Computers and technologies can be predictable, systematic and logical; all supporting the strengths of the autistic communities.

With this in mind novel technology programs have been developed to promote various aspects of education, communication, and entertainment, as well as social skills. 

My PhD study has been focused on addressing the potential of using digital services in a museum for autistic visitors. It investigated the views and impact of a digital museum experience (through a museum-based app) of autistic children. One of the main aims was to examine whether a museum-based app could be a mediating tool to enable groups of autistic children to have an inclusive experience in a barrier-free environment. 

My study was conducted in several stages, and cycles of an iterative process were included to help build an optimal version of the touch-screen interface. This study was conducted in collaboration with a special educational needs school and the M Shed museum in Bristol. The design and development of the app was based on existing literature coupled with recommendations and feedback from the participating children.  

So far, the findings suggest that a museum-based app was viewed as a useful tool to provide equal opportunities for autistic children in which to participate with museum-related activities.  Given that autistic people can encounter profound challenges in their daily life and feel marginalized from society, a specific adaptation is necessary in this context (a museum). The use of the app during the visit seemed to act as a bridge and to guide the children by focusing on specific exhibits in the gallery. The data also revealed that the choice of the exhibits through play-based activities encouraged the children to be more motivated and to remain focused on the requested tasks.

Overall, the findings from this study support the idea that:

  1. The use of technology-based museum activities can contribute to the inclusion of the autistic community.
  2. The role of partnerships with specialists from different fields are an important aspect of providing high quality outcomes.

This study aimed to shed light on an under researched area and to inform future policy and services provided by museums. This, in turn, could help young autistic people (and their caregivers) access museums in meaningful and supportive ways – and so they can get more out of the experience. 

Author: Dimitra Magkafa is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Arts, Cultural Industries and Education, the University of the West of England.

Practical steps to build science capital in the classroom

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How much do you value science?

That will depend on your “science capital”, that is, how much science you’ve been exposed to. Science capital is based on the idea that all of us have differing amounts of cultural beliefs, values, qualification and experiences, which we gather from our families, education and lives, and which shape our values toward careers and social situations.

Many children will have no knowledge of adults who work or have worked in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, which may give them less science capital. This can have a significant impact on children’s aspirations as regards STEM careers, and so increasing children’s science capital is vital to broadening their future career choices.

Capital Gains

Juilet Edmonds, Fay Lewis and Laura Fogg-Rogers, from the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England (UWE) are hoping to change the status quo and increase children’s science capital through initiatives in schools, but there are also many ways in which you as a teacher can boost your students’ Science Capital:

Invite a Scientist

A survey at a recent children’s conference revealed that children weren’t just interested in what scientists were discovering, but also by their personal experiences of working in science. Therefore, inviting scientists into school via the STEM ambassador network, or simply asking a parent in STEM, and getting them to share what kind of person they are and the key qualities for their job, helps children. Girls in particular need to see themselves as scientists and so inviting in female scientists or mums who are scientists is great. This helps them to identify female role models.

Activities with Real-Life Context

Doing science activities that focus on making the world a better place, have been show to raise children’s interest and improve attitudes towards science. So why not try engineering challenges? – such as the EU ‘Engineer’ project challenges or borrow the Design Process Box free from Dyson.

Or maybe explore aspects of science and scientists that benefit the quality of everyday life, e.g. the grip on training shoes for forces or the work of Professor Margaret Boden on artificial intelligence. Tthe BBC Radio 4 series The Life Scientific is useful for biographies of modern scientists.

A Culture of Science – in School and at Home

Children’s attitudes towards science are partially formed through the culture they experience at home, but some families do not have the money, time or confidence to visit science centres or museums. So it’s important to find accessible ways to get families involved.

You could set homework that involves a parent, like watching a fun but interesting television programme, such as Operation Ouch! (CBBC), related to your science topic. Or organize a weekend science centre outing with children and their families (apply to the PTA to cover the costs)

But it’s not just families, schools and teachers are also thought to influence a child’s attitude to science. Attitudes are not formed overnight, and one-off activities are unlikely to have a long-term impact on children’s attitudes. So it’s critical for schools and teachers to transmit messages about how they value science and promote it in and around the school and embed it in practice.

This can be tricky in primary schools with the dominance of literacy and numeracy in the curriculum, but there are ways to fit science into classwork. Maybe break a subject up and use a bit of English time to record science findings, or, alternatively, maths time to do data analysis.

None of these actions alone will compensate children for low science capital but a consistent programme throughout the school and in class could have a significant effect. Many scientists and engineers still recall a special teacher who got them into science – you could be that teacher!

Authors: Juliet Edmonds, Fay Lewis, and Laura Foggs Rogers.

Engineering Science Education: Teaching Science Through Engineering

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In UK primary schools there are very few teachers who have any scientific qualifications above GCSE level.  Many also report that they struggle with science subject knowledge and that this causes them to feel less confident about teaching science.  Unfortunately we know that these aspects can have a negative impact on children’s learning and attitudes to science.

Our work, supported by a grant from the Engineer’s Professors Council and a UWE Spur 6 grant, aimed to address this by using engineering as an alternative approach to teaching science.  UWE trainee primary school teachers (ITE students) were paired with UWE undergraduate engineering students working together within a knowledge exchange framework to design and deliver engineering activities to local primary school children.  The pairs of students worked together to challenge children to design and make solutions to ‘real-life’ problems such as designing and building a machine to clear up after a class party; a floating device to enable you to take your phone swimming with you and a device to carry secret messages to a friend.

Research findings have shown that rather than de-skilling the pre-service teachers, pairing them with an ‘expert’ engineering student appeared to be a vital contributor to the positive outcomes of the project.  Working as paired peers significantly increased the trainee teacher’s confidence in both engineering and science subject knowledge as well as their confidence in their ability to teach these subjects well which can directly contribute to positive outcomes for children.  The engineers reported that they were more likely to take part in public engagement activities in the future as a result of participation in the project.

Over 800 local primary school children have also had the opportunity to become engineers for the day at our ‘Children as Engineers’ conferences run jointly by the Departments of Engineering and Education and Childhood.   For the children who have participated in the project using an engineering approach to teaching and learning science has supported their scientific understanding, as well as helping them to engage with the engineering design process.  The children were more positive about science, and future career plans in science and engineering, and they demonstrated a much greater and more accurate awareness about engineers and engineering.

As a result of this work a toolkit for training teachers and engineers to jointly teach science through engineering has been developed. This has now been embedded into the undergraduate programmes for ITE and engineering students.  This work is being supported by a HEFCE (now Office for Students) grant which will help us to evaluate longer term, sustainable impact.  The development of a tool-kit which can be used by other higher education institutions is our long-term goal.

Enabling the students and children to work together challenges children’s preconceptions about engineers and the role that they play, supports engineering students in their public engagement skills and develops the subject knowledge of the trainee teachers.  In the words of teachers from the schools involved ‘The engineering project was amazing!!  The children gained so much’ ‘the whole school is absolutely buzzing’.

In the words of the students themselves…..

Engineering student participant- “working with the teaching students was sublime.  I was amazed at their skills in the classroom.”

 

ITE student participant- “I really enjoyed the day, it was extremely useful to work with the engineers.  I was surprised at how we were able to share ideas so well.  I learnt so much.”

 

ITE student participant- “I was amazed at how doing the practical work revealed so much about the children’s learning and understanding.  It has really made me think about the types of lessons I will do in the future.”

Dr Fay Lewis ,Senior Lecturer in Primary Math and Science Education