Hands-On Ecology: Fostering Neuroinclusivity in STEM Education

Kavita Shah

What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision—seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen [to see] (as in Weltanschauung [worldview]) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.

- Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

In the spring of 2017, I developed an educational series titled Ecology, Evolution, and Engineering for Empowered Brains (EEEebwith a team drawn from the MIT Media Lab and the Empowered Brain Institute, a Cambridge-based nonprofit organization that specializes in engaging the special ability community in STEM-related workshops and activities. Held over eight weeks during the fall of 2017, the immediate goal of the series was to expose Boston-area neurodivergent youth to abstract topics in ecology and evolution through experimentation and play in a creative, hands-on, and— most importantly— artistic manner. In doing so, we simultaneously sought to make the presence of neurodiverse individuals, as well as their learning needs, more visible within the MIT community and beyond. More broadly, through the development of this course and upcoming related sessions, we hope to improve educational outcomes for neurodivergent individuals in STEM fields, and assist in cultivating a future in which guiding principles of neuroinclusion are more seamlessly integrated into pedagogy in the biological and engineering sciences. We hope to build toward a future in which all capable individuals can more easily realize and cultivate their ability to interpret, describe, and protect the natural world.

Neurodiversity, Neurotypicality, and Neurodivergence

Neurodiversity describes the variation in neural structure and cognitive processing within a population. The diverse, individualistic ways in which our brains operate exist as a social category with which we might identify (not dissimilar to other categories such as gender, sexuality, and race). Individuals whose neural operations are further from typical (socially or culturally accepted) than most people's are considered neurodivergent (ND). To address a common misconception: being ND is not synonymous with being autistic, and, likewise, neurotypicality does not imply the opposite of having autism. Of further importance is the fact that neurotypicality should be considered neither the absence of a pathology nor a neurological superiority; rather, it is an alternative, albeit more privileged, lens through which to gauge the world around you.

Autism represents just one form of innate neurodivergence—meaning that the brain has been “wired” differently. Other examples include dyslexia and ADD. However, neurodivergence can also result from experience, as in post-traumatic stress disorder, for example.

Because neurodivergence can take many forms, I originally developed this educational platform for students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in mind. In a study assessing educational outcomes for individuals with an ASD, Wei et al., (2013) noted that autistic people, despite having the highest STEM participation rates, were of those least likely to enroll in two- or four-year colleges. Studies like this and many others highlight the extent to which ND students are left on the fringes of science education, as well as other disciplines. While there have been recent strides to include more underrepresented social categories in STEM, such as women and people of color, there still exists a lack of funding and trained personnel to teach high-level and contemporary principles and technologies to students with neurocognitive or developmental differences—nuances which transcend the boundaries of other social categories.

Empowering Brains

At the Media Lab, we are driven to appreciate alternative means of thinking— modes of cognition that are unique and lead to similarly unorthodox solutions to the world’s most confounding issues. We are compelled to think outside of the box. Valuing non-traditional thinking renders the Lab fertile ground for hosting a safe space in which young ND students can participate in hands-on ecological experimentation, imagination, and creation.

In the fall EEEeb course, “Explorers” aged 8 to 14 immersed themselves in topics ranging from genetic engineering strategies to behavioral ecology, biomimicry, ecosystems and food webs, and even the evolution of eyeless salamanders. Over eight sessions incorporating creative exercises (like “create your own species”), site visits, and field trips—to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the New England Aquarium—students began to develop comfort with basic ecological principles. They were also exposed to more complex, emerging technologies used to sculpt ecological and evolutionary processes—including molecular cloning, CRISPR-enabled gene drives, and more. In one of my favorite exercises, one student, Ryan, envisioned engineering a plasmid which allowed bacteria to produce Kool-Aid.  

Over a short period, Explorers learned to address contemporary issues related to conservation, pollution, and biodiversity. Students reported that they most enjoyed the sessions that asked them to speculate novel engineering strategies to address current issues affecting the biosphere. For example, how can we engineer the global ocean microbiome to slow climate change? How can we leverage technology to track invasive species? Can we utilize CRISPR to engineer more resilient organisms? These questions offered them an opportunity to think grandly, bravely, and collaboratively. 

Paths Forward : A Call to Action

As we gear up for the spring 2018 session of EEEeb - as well as prepare for a new, related series, to be held this summer, City as Classroom, City as Laboratory, which focuses on urban ecology in Boston - we reflect on ways to improve the course, its content, and the future avenues it generates for participants. As such, we continually seek input from passionate educators, NDs, parents, activists, and others.

We believe that the most constructive way to understand neurodiversity is to engage with ND individuals. To get involved as a participant, student mentor, consultant, or simply provide feedback, please feel free to contact me.

To register for the Spring 2018 session of Ecology, Evolution, and Engineering for Empowered Brains, please visit this link; for the Summer 2018 session of City as Classroom, City as Laboratory, please register using this link.


A million thanks to the mentors who co-developed this platform: Devora Najjar, Rafiq Abdus-Sabur, Josh Van Zak, Eva Paige Normandin, and Kavita Shah; to Joi Ito, who graciously sponsored this effort; and lastly to the Explorers, who willed this imagination into reality.

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