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The City Journals

STEM makes big impact without a big noise for students with special needs

Nov 27, 2018 02:54PM ● By Jet Burnham

Sam Thackery was free to experiment without the discomfort caused by crowds of other students. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Thousands of local students got their hands on science, technology, engineering and math activities at STEM Fest, held Oct. 24–25. The Mountain America Expo Center was buzzing with excitement and electricity (literally).

But the swarming crowds and sudden loud noises are not so fun for some sensory-sensitive students such as Keri Jones’ daughter.

“This is not something we would typically ever do because she typically doesn’t have interest in things that make noise or are quick movements,” said Jones, whose 9-year-old daughter is sensitive to crowds.

Jones brought her daughter to a special sensory-sensitive STEM Fest session for students with special needs, which was held between the morning field trips and family night. The two-hour block of time was quieter, with fewer people and no background music or loud exhibits.

“We’re providing children with special needs and their families the same experience, the same access,” said Katherine Kireiev, STEM communications manager at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “It’s almost like a VIP, carte blanche to have a very private, intimate hands-on experience with these industry partners.”

Jones was surprised when her daughter, who is not usually interested in science, had fun exploring the booths of more than 100 industry representatives engaging children in STEM-related jobs skills activities.

“Because we can come here and it can be consolidated into a quieter spot, it’s working well,” she said.

Exhibitors made minor modifications to their activities to engage a more-sensitive audience.

“They’ll say there's going to be a loud noise,” said Alyssa Tribe, mother of a special needs child. “They’re warning me ahead of time because my son is sensitive to noises.”

Paul Brewer performed his regular science magic show at a lower volume for the special afternoon performance.

“We try to take out loud noises like popping balloons and things that might startle,” said Brewer, who said the kids didn’t have to worry about being able to help on stage. “They want to be just like the other kids—they want to be chosen to come up and have fun.”

Crowds normally keep 12-year-old Sam Thackeray away from these types of festivals even though he loves science. During the sensory-sensitive time slot, he was able to participate in all the experiments and visit all the booths without the extra stimulation of masses of people talking loudly and pressing in.

“He’s had more time to explore without all the extra stimulation,” said his mother, Cheryl Johnson.

Chase Taylor, another 12-year-old, doesn’t mind crowds but he has trouble waiting in lines because of his ADHD.

“If he was to have to stand in line, he would get antsy,” said his mother, Chandi Taylor. “He wouldn’t have as much fun.”

Camille Press, communications specialist for S-Power, hoped the kids had a good experience at her booth and the event overall. She believes that making a positive connection with industry role models will help kids have a more positive view of STEM careers.

“These fifth-graders are going to be in college soon; we’re going to need them when they’re done,” said Press. “It starts with STEM Fest—it starts with a seed.”

Kireiev said STEM Fest is a part of priming Utah’s future workers to help achieve Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of filling 40,000 high paying, local economy jobs. The festival experience exposed them to real-life application of subjects they may already be interested in and introduced them to job opportunities they didn’t know existed, she said.

“We are trying to prepare them and provide them foundations from which they can spring into great careers,” she said. “The earlier the exposure, the better.”

Kireiev said a variety of skills and abilities are necessary to meet the needs of STEM industries and that many STEM jobs require the laser-focus that comes naturally to those with autism.

“We want to highlight the accessibility of STEM opportunities,” she said. “That’s what STEM is really about. There is no limit to what any single person can do.”