Honoring Learners With Special Needs In STEM And Beyond

Image: Getty / Student Engaging With Teacher On Laptop

The Inspirational Story of NASCAR’s Armani Williams

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

Most 17-year-olds are excited to get their driver’s licenses to gain a little freedom. For Armani Williams, driving is less a rite of passage than a passion. In 2017, he made his debut on the NASCAR circuit.

Armani also has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In an interview, Williams described his biggest challenges as communication and social interaction. Like many with autism, he says he struggled with sensory processing issues that were overwhelming at times. A screaming loud race track could seem impossible to deal with, as could the complexity of his studies — but he has learned to step back to take stock of his surroundings, search online for what he needs assistance figuring out and proactively work with others to avoid misunderstandings.

Armani also pointed out that ASD isn’t only about deficits and credits his ability to concentrate for hours behind the wheel to the intense focus that is often an attribute of autistic individuals. According to Autism Speaks, an individual with ASD may display varying degrees, and a combination of, sensory processing challenges, social-emotional difficulties and speech-language deficits impacting functional communication. These challenges could profoundly interrupt health, learning and skill attainment without adequate support and intervention.

Image: Getty + NASCAR via Mike Tedesco/ Armani Williams K&N Pro Series West at Evergreen Speedway

STEM For Students With Special Needs

When Armani and I had the opportunity to initially connect at a local leadership event, he inspired me to draw upon my experience as an educator and think deeply about how to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) accessibility for students with special needs. I have always been passionate about leveling the playing field to bring STEM to all, but much of my work up until now has focused on socioeconomic and gender inequality in STEM education. This is a worthy goal, of course, but we’d be remiss not to include students with special needs in our efforts to make sure every child gets a solid background for success in STEM.

I believe students with ASD and other challenges can thrive in fields as complex as collegiate-level mechanical engineering (Armani’s current passion) and beyond. But how do we make sure all students get the support that they need to excel?

Making STEM More Inclusive

There are many approaches I think we should explore to accommodate special needs students in the classroom, and many of these strategies could overlap to help make STEM subjects easier to grasp for those with special needs.

• Growth Mindset: Change the language and reward systems in STEM classrooms to recognize grit and the ability to keep trying to solve problems in the face of failure, a concept explored in a 2017 EdTech interview piece. After all, the scientific method is all about experimentation, and the only failed experiment is one you don’t learn from. Praising kids for effort rather than achievement is a great place to start building a growth mindset that could be beneficial for those who learn in different ways.

• Hands-On Work: The best STEM teaching I’ve seen offers plenty of real-world opportunities to observe forces in action and ways to experiment with everyday items to understand how thing work. Whether it’s by offering coding opportunities or getting outside to explore nature, tangible learning can make STEM come alive for all students — but it could be especially valuable in helping those who learn differently internalize abstract concepts and develop a deeper interest.

• Flipped Classrooms: Homework can be a real struggle for students if they’re sent home to practice concepts they don’t fully understand. In a flipped classroom, however, background information is given ahead of time in the form of videos or articles to read at home. Students can come to school with questions and then put new concepts into action under the direct guidance of their teacher — support that could make a huge difference in comprehension for students who learn differently.

Image: ResearchGate via Alessandra Giglio / Flipped Classroom: A Graphical Definition

 Embrace Technology: As the EdTech interview discussed, well-designed learning apps could make STEM subjects more accessible to special needs students by providing targeted, individualized practice. Voice-to-text software could make writing easier so students can flourish in STEM even if their writing skills or fine motor skills lag. Text readers and video lessons might also help students with reading difficulties keep up and make sure that a learning difficulty doesn’t derail success in STEM.

• Regular Movement And Flexible Lesson PlansSustaining self-regulationand focus may be typical challenges for children with special needs — though fidgeting is pretty much universal. That means that all students could benefit from movement breaks (as described by MiddleWeb) during lessons and the opportunity to move around the classroom for a change of pace. Staying flexible and creative with learning centers and differentiated activities in the classroom could help everyone participate. By making the most common accommodations available to all instead of making them something special, you can normalize varying learning styles, set them up for success and decrease stigma.

Image: Motorsports Tribune via Luis Torres / Armani Williams’ #34 Racecar

The Final Lap

When I learned about Armani, it became clear to me that it’s easy to assume we know what ASD looks like or what a student with special needs is capable of. In reality, however, there is no single type of student with special needs. Every person is an individual with a full range of challenges as well as unique strengths. I believe our job as educators is to support all students as individuals and make sure they get what they need to thrive.

To make this happen, we first need to erase some of the stigma surrounding challenges like ASD. I believe it’s a myth that these students can’t succeed in STEM or other academic subjects. Armani is one example; for another take on life with ASD, I strongly recommend the series Atypical on Netflix. It does an excellent job of putting a human face on a condition that isn’t well understood but must be if we are to succeed in making STEM education truly accessible to all.


Image: Mediapunch + Shutterstock / Atypical Cast at PaleyFest LA

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on February 26th, 2019.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”

Blockchain: A Revolution For STEM Education

Image: Getty / Teen Working On A GPU Rig

Fostering An Appreciation Of Decentralization

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

These days, it seems like everyone is talking about blockchain technology. News about bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is hard to resist, especially when their value shoots up and down and everyone wants to know how the blockchain can make them rich or poor — financially. But the real value of blockchain isn’t necessarily tied solely to disrupting the monetary status quo. It also lies in how this technology could transform and streamline transactions and recordkeeping in all sorts of fields — specifically education.

A Blockchain Primer

If you’re not familiar with how blockchain technology works or need to brush up, it’s helpful to compare cryptocurrency with the way your regular bank does business. Banks basically have all your account data on one digital spreadsheet to keep track of your transactions. That’s fine, but a highly centralized data system is vulnerable to hackers, and you can’t send money to a family member without going through an intermediary (the bank). Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, depends on a totally decentralized network of users to store information about all transactions. There’s no bank as a gatekeeper, but information (the block) is added to a permanent chain that no one can change. It’s safer because everyone in the network has access to the information at all times, so if someone is trying to change the record, everyone can see that happening — and stop it.

Image: Financial Times / PwC United States

An Educational Revolution

Last year, MIT delivered its first blockchain diplomas to graduates — on their smartphones. It was more than just a digitized certificate: Unlike a paper diploma, which could be easily lost or falsified, blockchain ensures that this important piece of data is never lost. It also cuts out the university or traditional clearinghouse as the intermediary needed to issue transcripts. Instead, students have direct access to their educational records right on their phones. Whether their house burns down or they move across the world, their diploma is secure.


Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 1 of 3

Anatomy of a digital diploma: “The MIT digital diploma ‘makes it possible for [students] to have ownership of their records and be able to share them in a secure way, with whomever they choose,’ says Mary Callahan, MIT registrar and senior associate dean.” -MIT News

Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 2 of 3

“Using MIT’s new digital diploma system, employers and schools can quickly verify that a graduate’s degree is legitimate by using a link or uploading the student’s file.” -MIT News

Image: Learning Machine / MIT’s Digital Diploma 3 of 3

“The presentation layer has a customized image of a traditional MIT diploma; the content layer contains code with the student’s public key and generates the image; and the receipt layer proves the transaction has been recorded on the blockchain.” -MIT News


This is more than just a matter of convenience. If other credentials like certificates and badges are also stored on the blockchain, it will become much easier for students to move between universities and dictate their own educational trajectory because barriers to transferring credits would begin to fall away. In this world, MOOCs could also be more easily completed for meaningful credit that leads to a degree. A person’s entire educational record could be accessed at the touch of a button.

If individual educational records were encrypted in this way, K-12 assessments could be better coordinated as well. Instead of annual high-stakes tests that vary by state and grade level, one could imagine a more longitudinal assessment system that tracked achievement over time. For example, if an eighth-grade student passed a tenth-grade geometry test, she would carry that accomplishment on her record wherever she went, allowing her to continue her math education at the appropriate level for her as an individual, rather than having to retake the same test for the next several years. In this way, blockchain could help revolutionize personalized education.

Integrating Blockchain Into STEM Education

Image: Getty / Two Students Studying Electronics

If blockchain is the wave of the future (as it certainly seems to be), it seems logical to make sure that today’s students are prepared to engage with this technology in their careers. This is already happening in higher education, as colleges like Virginia Tech and NYU add blockchain concentrations. Studying blockchain capitalizes on a number of STEM disciplines, including computer engineering and higher math to encrypt the data.

Because the technology is relatively new and complex, there are currently very few opportunities for K-12 students to learn more about blockchain. Though some independent courses do exist, there is a real need to develop age-appropriate curriculum in this area. For younger students, understanding the basics about networks and honing relevant math skills is a good start; for older students, financial literacy dovetails nicely with cryptocurrency to spark interest. Additionally, learning to code is always an important STEM skill, and classes in Python will be particularly useful in understanding blockchain. As with all STEM education opportunities, the earlier it begins and the more hands-on it is, the more likely kids are to stick with it and see themselves as the blockchain contributors of the future.

A Philosophy Of Decentralization

Image: Getty / Students Building Computers

Finally, it’s worth noting that blockchain represents a major step in the cultural shift towards decentralized knowledge. Just as the technology itself eliminates an intermediary that stands between you and your money (or your educational record), so too does it hint at a world in which stuents may have more direct access to and control over their education. If blockchain leads to decentralized records and greater access to global databases of knowledge, education will be further democratized and many more people will have access to the learning that they desire.

This movement comes at a time when education — and particularly STEM education — is highly corporatized. There’s money to be made from selling people an education, but it would be a real mistake to allow corporate monopolies to have all the power over what we teach our students. Despite colleges becoming ever more commodified, no single organization “owns” STEM education. In order for the STEM education movement to thrive, it must remain decentralized and accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic standing or country of origin. It should also not be co-opted by special interests that value profits over innovation and authentic learning experiences.

Image: Getty / Student Studying On A Tablet

By teaching students the STEM basics they need to understand blockchain, we can also foster in them an appreciation for the values that it brings to the table. It’s a valuable technology, to be sure, but it’s also steeped in a culture that sees information as something everyone has a right to obtain freely, without having to pay a mediator for access to it. In this philosophy, knowledge is a birthright — and an effective STEM education can help keep it that way.

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on November 30th, 2018.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”

‘Tis the Season of STEM

Image: Getty / Cardboard Holiday Robot

Smart Gifts, That I Did Not Get Paid To Review

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

Play is essential, as it gives plenty of opportunities for hands-on development of executive functioning, fine and gross motor skills, creativity, communication, socialization, and sensory processing. Well-designed toys open the door to general learning and can also target specific areas, including the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math.

To commemorate National STEM Day, which was celebrated on November 8th and in anticipation of the holiday season, I’ve curated a list of novel toys, games and kits that foster STEM learning through play. There are countless “educational products and gadgets” on the market, but not all are created equal. Here is a list of my favorites (out of 200 plus items sprawled out all over my office), broken down by age and price point to help you find the perfect gift on any budget. Key: $ = < $40, $$ = $40-$75, $$$ = $100+


Lower Elementary (Grades K-2)

Brackitz Pulleys 77-Pcs. Set

Young children can learn about simple machines with this kit that includes a crank, bucket, hooks, hubs, axles, and more. Emerging engineers can follow directions to build eight different contraptions or go off book for total creativity. $39.99 at Brackitz. ($)

Image: Brackitz Pulleys 77-Pcs. Set / Brackitz Education


Botley™ the Coding Robot

Screen-free coding for children? The designers of Botley™ have made it not only possible, but also fun. Kids use the coding cards and a remote control to input directions, then watch Botley™ follow their commands. The set also comes with activity pieces to build obstacle courses and tasks for a bigger challenge. $59.99 at Learning Resources. ($$)

Image: Botley™ the Coding Robot / Learning Resources


Magformers Sky Track Adventure 64-Pcs. Set

Magformers are magnetic blocks that click together to let your child build a track for a battery-operated space shuttle to travel. Your child can create a rollercoaster, have the shuttle use an elevator between tracks, and test out the 360-degree spinner as they learn about the laws of motion. $129.99 at Magformers. ($$$)

Image: Magformers Sky Track Adventure 64-Pcs. Set / Magformers®


Upper Elementary (Grades 3–5)

STEM at Play® BONES! Dissect Owl Pellets Kit

Bring ecology and veterinary science home with this owl pellet dissection kit. Your child will use included tools to pull apart real owl pellets to identify what owls eat. An included guide helps budding biologists identify animal bones and assemble their skeletons. $24.95 at ETA hand2mind. ($)

Image: STEM at Play® BONES! Dissect Owl Pellets Kit / ETA hand2mind


HUE Animation Studio

This clever kit comes with a flexible USB camera, a book about animation, and software to make it easy for your child to make her first stop-motion masterpiece. Explore the science of animation, or use the time-lapse feature of the camera to observe flowers blooming or snow crystals melting. $69.95 at HUE. ($$)

Image: HUE Animation Studio / HUE


Sensors Alive: Bring Physics to Life

This bioengineering video game uses a sensor to gather real data about temperature, sound and light levels in your home to create creatures adapted to live in these special circumstances. The game combines physics and biology in a unique way to spark imagination. $149.95 at Thames & Kosmos. ($$$)

Image: Sensors Alive Bring Physics to Life / Thames & Kosmos


Middle School (Grades 6–8)

Creation Crate Electronics 1.0

Learn to build small electronics and code them with a unique monthly project from Creation Crate. This subscription box brings computer science to your doorstep with a new project every month. $29.99 per month at Creation Crate. ($)

Image: Creation Crate Subscription Box / Creation Crate


Snap Circuits® Bric: Structures

Turn that LEGO collection into moving toys or well-lit skyscrapers with SNAP CIRCUITS® components. This kit comes with special adaptors that let kids add easy-to-use circuit boards to LEGO and other compatible bricks. $44.95 at Elenco. ($$)

Image: Snap Circuits® Bric: Structures / Elenco Electronics


Because Learning Sensor Kit

This technologically advanced electronics kit includes eight different sensors, including ones for UV light, an accelerometer, gyroscope and more. Young scientists can gather and analyze all kinds of data while exploring basic circuitry for a slew of cool experiments. $216 at Because Learning. ($$$)

Image: Because Learning Sensor Kit / Ardusat


High School (Grades 9–12)

STEM: Epic Heroes

This fast-paced card game has players racing to complete steps of the scientific method to make discoveries. Kids and adults will learn about famous scientists while trying to outwit each other with strategy. $20 at STEM: Epic Heroes. ($)

Image: STEM Epic Heroes / STEM the Game


Turing Tumble

Turing Tumble is an addictive game that makes coding concrete with simple switches and marbles. Users build systems to solve puzzles in the included comic book. With practice, you’ll be able to build a machine that creates patterns, solves problems, and more. $64.95 at Turing Tumble. ($$)

Image: Turing Tumble / Turing Tumble, LLC


Cue the Cleverbot

Older kids will love learning about AI by to coding their own robot. Chose from four customizable personalities and use your smartphone or tablet as the interface to teach Cue all kinds of interactive tricks. $199 at Wonder Workshop. ($$$)

Image: Cue the Cleverbot / Wonder Workshop


**Bonus Gift**

A little something for you…

Galton Board

The Galton Board is a mesmerizing desktop toy that demonstrates normal distribution in statistics. When you flip the board into motion, tiny steel balls fall randomly through a pin board, showing the beauty of the Bell Curve in real time. $49.99 at Galton Board. ($$)

Image: Galton Board / Four Pines Publishing


Whether you’re shopping for a confirmed science geek or just trying to provide some high-quality play time, STEM gifts open up a whole new world of possibilities for their recipients. You’re never too young — or too old! — to learn a new skill or make interesting discoveries about how things work, so be sure to spend time exploring these items alongside your child. Furthermore, you’ll get to spend some quality time together while modeling active, lifelong learning. By inviting your child to solve problems and tap into their creativity with STEM toys, you’ll be encouraging the flexible, higher-order thinking skills while making STEM concepts fun and accessible — and that’s a gift for a lifetime.

Image: Getty / Girl Holding LED‘s

This article was originally featured in Medium on November 15th, 2018.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”