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Engaging our neurodiverse rangatahi in STEM education.

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

In 2020, The Ministry of Education released a detailed literature review on responding to neurodiversity in the education context. This review was published in response to one of the strategic priorities given in the New Zealand Learning Support Action Plan 2019 – 2025, which aims to provide additional, more flexible support for neurodiverse children and young people.

“Today we are losing enormously talented neurodiverse children and adults because they don’t fit in the box”. - Jack Penman

In this report, five key themes were identified to engage with neurodiverse learners, to ensure we are teaching them in an effective manner:

1. Prioritising and valuing relationships – the educational outcomes of neurodiverse students were greatly enhanced by efforts that made them feel seen and heard by their teachers and peers.

2. Developing agency – this is essential in helping them to feel a sense of ownership over their learning.

3. Supporting students to understand and manage their own behaviour – it is important that teachers effectively notice and reinforce appropriate behaviour as neurodiverse students may not always behave in ways considered as “acceptable” in the classroom.

4. Creating inclusive environments – neurodiverse students need a space that makes them feel accepted and valued for who they are.

5. Embedding inclusive teaching strategies – Neurodiverse students are more likely to learn if information is presented to them in a range of ways that plays to their strengths and interests.

Jack Penman, founder and chief designer at JackBord Works, recently gave a Ted Talk in Kapiti on his experiences in the education system as a neurodiverse student. As he highlights in this talk, not properly engaging with neurodiverse youth is leaving a market of untapped talent in our STEM workforce.

We sat down with Jack, to hear his thoughts on how we can better support our neurodiverse learners in STEM education.

Jack Penman, founder and chief designer at JackBord Works

1. Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Jack Penman, I am an electronics engineer by training. I first discovered I had ADHD and dyslexia when I was at university studying a degree in electrical engineering. In my first year I failed all of my exams and at the end of the year, in my 20s, I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. With this new knowledge I started on medication, and I began to understand how I learned.

The University of Canterbury was amazing and things were put in place to support me. I had a desk of my own in the masters office where I was able to study without distraction. I did my exams in a separate room and had extra time and a reader writer if I needed one. I also did four fewer subjects and as a result I passed all of my exams, which was great.

2. Where did your interest in STEM begin?

Basically, since I was born. I would pull everything apart wanting to know how it worked. All of my toys, TV sets, radios, anything electronic was fair game. I loved pulling them apart to explore what went on inside. To this day I still love to see how things work, how they are made and what they can do. One of the sad things about today's electronics is that the parts are so tiny there isn't a lot to see inside.

3. What inspired you to create JackBord?

Even back in my university days I had always wanted to create a general purpose computer that could do just about anything I wanted. Being ADHD I am very creative so I wanted something that could run with whatever idea I dreamt up at the time. The problem was the technology didn't exist yet or it was ridiculously expensive.

In 2015 I was taking the after-school robotics program at Paraparaumu College and we had about 20 Raspberry Pi's. These were nice but you needed a screen, mouse, keyboard and power supply for each and there were all sorts of other barriers like not being able to connect drive motors directly to them. This further fuelled me to come up with a solution.

An early prototype of the JackBord

In November 2017 I came across the ESP32 module which allowed me to make my dream general purpose computer. So I set about designing a system that would let me teach my students the way I wanted to. Over the next few years I slowly refined the computer that would become the JackBord.

JackBord came from my own challenges and wanting to ensure I was contributing to breaking down barriers in learning and teaching STEM.

4. What are some practical ways we as parents and teachers can support our neurodiverse tamariki in STEM learning?

We need to help them to learn about their neurodiversity and realise that it does not have to be a disadvantage or a burden. Yes it can make life hard at times but overall they have a gift which this world needs desperately, people who think differently.

Another absolutely vital aspect is that these kids need to learn it's ok to be different. Many expend so much energy and emotion trying to be like their peers, they so want to fit in, but often get into trouble doing it. Yet in reality a lot of the time they don’t even know what it is they are trying to fit into.

Parents need to understand that for things like ADHD, medication can be the best option and it really is no different to glasses.

For teachers I would say they have a remarkably valuable role to play. This stems from the fact that the majority of kids with ADHD or dyslexia don't know they have it and often it's their teacher who has the best chance of picking up the signs. This is vital as it means the child does not have to go through life un-diagnosed and underperforming due to a condition they don't know they have. I would love it if all teachers could be empowered with the basic knowledge of ADHD, dyslexia and many more neuro-diversities so they could not only assist early detection but also be the ones who can support the kids on their journey.

Educators and teachers need to be willing to approach things differently for neurodiverse students and often these approaches will work for all students.

When creating JackBord I wanted to ensure it supported varied learning. We have detailed but easy to read written materials and there are videos to ensure those that are not as strong at reading can watch and understand. The commands used to control the JackBord, when you start out, are short so students can derive them without having to memorize them. For kids with autism and ADHD, the command line is good because it lets them focus on smaller tasks without having to handle a lot of other details. This helps reduce information overload which can be a real issue for some.

The physical nature of the JackBord is great for those with ADHD as they tend to prefer engaging with something they can manipulate rather than it all being screens. For kids (like me) with dyslexia the fact you can plug wires into any pin and not need to worry about breaking anything is great.

5. Do you have any messages for young people wanting to get involved in STEM?

Go for it! There has never been a time in human history where we have needed more engineers, scientists, coders, mathematicians and educators. But we need more than that: we need those who see the world very differently, can see solutions others can't, neurodiverse people can be at the very heart of this.

Being neurodiverse myself I know it can be really hard. Sometimes you just want to be like everyone else and not have to struggle so much. But never forget the world needs you to be who you are and do the things only you can do - BE DIFFERENT!

JackBord has helped me to realise my potential and understand how I can harness my potential. STEM offers so any opportunities.

To learn more about the JackBord:

The JackBord provides an excellent opportunity to engage akōnga in STEM, removing the silo-ed learning of “maths” and “science” lessons through a transdisciplinary project. STEM organisations can get involved by:

Paraparaumu College students manufacturing JackBords

● Sponsoring a set of JackBords, or making a donation to the JackBord Trust: Despite directives in the Curriculum some schools have difficulty finding funding from operational budgets for EDTech. Individuals or Businesses can assist young learners by donating JackBords to schools and have the added option of having their branding labelled on the JackBord. Tax deductible donations can also be made to the JackBord Trust. You can direct the Trust to buy JackBords for your designated school, or schools that meet a certain criteria e.g. demographic or decile.

● Using Jackbord as an introduction to coding/robotics: Businesses can use JackBords to show the real world applications of STEM. Technology-based organisations can use these on school visits to introduce coding and robotics to rangatahi whilst acting as role models for future careers that use these skills. The JackBord is flexible and you could create a project that relates to your business or industry.

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