In July, Faculty of Engineering staff and students delivered a day of engagement activities for neurodiverse pupils at Venturers’ Academy, offering them the opportunity to experience pathways into STEM.
Venturers’ Academy was the first state-funded school for students on the autistic spectrum to open in Bristol. The activity day was funded by Boeing and organised by the Faculty of Engineering’s Industrial Liaison Office in collaboration with the outreach team, engineering academics and Autism Independence.
Coding and creating
In the morning the pupils worked with student ambassadors to complete coding activities in Python, trying to code the most efficient bat hunter. They also spent some time thinking about and designing adaptive technology that skateboarders might use in the next paralympic games. A model of one student’s design is shown above.
Tamsin Dobson, a PhD student in Marine Engineering research and an ambassador for the project explained why she got involved: “I jumped at the opportunity to work with other neurodiverse people and show them that ‘if I can, anyone can’. As someone with autism, I’d found that group work at school could make me very anxious. I still struggle with it even now, so I knew how some of the students might be feeling. It was great to be able to deliver the workshops within the school and to work flexibly, seeing each student as an individual.
I jumped at the opportunity to work with other neurodiverse people and show them that ‘if I can, anyone can’.
“I think this kind of event has many benefits. For the students, they learn about the University of Bristol and get to experience engineering in a different way. For University staff, we can expand our teaching techniques and help inspire a wider range of people into engineering. I hope to be involved in more outreach projects over the coming years.”
Inspiration and interaction
In the afternoon Professor Jason Arday from the University of Glasgow, gave a talk on his experiences as a neurodiverse individual. He explained how it had been a strength for him at various stages in his life, including when he raised £1 million for charity and when he became the youngest black professor in the UK. When Jason asked the students how they felt about having autism, he was delighted with the positive responses including:-
- it enhances my senses
- it makes me gifted
- I think it’s awesome.
Professor Steve Eichhorn from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, had the idea for the project. “Being a parent of a child with autism and special needs (delayed language and speech), this area of education is very close to my heart. I have been keen to run an event like this for some time. Venturers’ Academy have a motto – Everything is Possible – and events like this are very much in that spirit.
Being a parent of a child with autism and special needs (delayed language and speech), this area of education is very close to my heart.
“Anyone can and should be able to access engineering, and contribute to our understanding of it. This event has definitely achieved that. Although Covid prevented me being there on the day, I joined online for Professor Arday’s talk which was amazing. It was so great to hear the level of interaction and engagement with what he had to say.”
The Industrial Liaison Office student team, who led this project, also run initiatives for industry to engage with students including the Industrial Mentorship Scheme, Year in Industry placements and integrated student project units.
They enlisted the help of Aga Kowalska from Autism Independence. Autism Independence provides consultancy, training and guidance for those in a range of professions to bridge the gap between families and providers. Aga helped them connect with staff at Venturers’ Academy and also provided training for the ambassadors and staff in working with neurodiverse students.
Find out more
- Autism Independence
- Faculty of Engineering – Industrial Liaison Office
- Faculty of Engineering – Outreach
The outreach team can be contacted at: email@example.com