#240 – Reaching and Teaching Neurodivergent Learners in STEM, with Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke

Unpacking Education November 29, 2023 36 min

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke to explore the connection between neurodivergent learners and STEM education. Dr. Asbell-Clarke draws upon years of research and practice to explain how STEM education, project-based learning, and universal design for learning all play unique and powerful roles in maximizing the talents of students, including neurodivergent thinkers. Dr. Asbell-Clarke and her team have applied this research and learning to create a collection of teaching and learning materials called INFACT (Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking), which are freely available on the TERC, EdGE, and AVID Open Access websites.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

You don’t have to be really good at tests to be a great problem-solver. I believe that unleashing the potential of these diverse learners is the key to our future.

Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke, from her TEDx Talk, “We Know More Than We Can Tell”

Unlocking Assets and Solving Problems

Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke has spent a large portion of her career studying neurodivergent learners, and she says, “I’m a citizen in this world with all these problems, and if these kids aren’t tapped into, we don’t have a chance. These are the kids that are going to be at MIT if we get them there, and they’re going to be the innovators and solvers.”

Major technology companies have come to this same realization, actively seeking out and hiring neurodivergent learners who are uniquely qualified to identify and solve problems. Jodi reflects on her experiences working with these students and says, “The true gift was really seeing those kids for what they could do, and just realizing that if we could assess them differently and give them different opportunities, there’s so much there.”

Throughout our conversation, Jodi helps us unpack how STEM education, computational thinking, project-based learning, and universal design for learning can all work together to unlock the potential in all of our students, especially neurodivergent thinkers. The following are a few highlights from this episode:

  • About Our Guest: Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke is a senior leader, research scientist, and director of EdGE at TERC. She has degrees in math, astrophysics, and education, and she has focused much of her educational work on game-based learning, project-based learning, and STEM education. Through an Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Education, she and her team at EdGE have developed a collection of teaching and learning materials called INFACT.
  • How Students Learn Best: Dr. Asbell-Clarke has dedicated a large portion of her career to researching and discovering how students learn best. She says, “Being able to think about education differently was a gift that I was given. I was given enough experience to know I didn’t want to do it the way schools were doing it.” This mindset led to research around game-based learning, project-based learning, and how STEM education can be used to uniquely benefit students who are neurodivergent thinkers.
  • Neurodiversity: Dr. Asbell-Clarke defines neurodiversity as “the natural variation within brains. All brains work differently.”
  • Neurodivergent Thinkers: This is different from neurodiversity. Dr. Asbell-Clarke explains, “I don’t define it as strictly ADHD, or autism, or dyslexia. While those would all be included, first of all, in our experience, many learners experience more than one of those, and those classifications are very limiting in sort of a pedagogical or research way.”
  • Reaching All Students: Dr. Asbell-Clarke says that practices benefiting neurodivergent learners benefit other students as well. “There are so many factors that exhibit similar behaviors, and those are increasing in today’s classroom,” she says. “Children who are under stress, anxiety, trauma, hunger, sleep—all those things—they all affect what we call executive function.” She continues by asking, “How do we support people’s executive functions, and how do we reveal and nurture the cognitive assets that every student brings?” She concludes, “And when we do that, we can be inclusive of neurodiversity while also not excluding anybody from that intervention or that practice.”
  • Assets of Neurodivergent Learners: Dr. Asbell-Clarke has found that many neurodivergent learners excel in the area of computational thinking, which includes skills like pattern recognition, creativity, systematic thinking, and persistence.
  • New Book: Dr. Asbell-Clarke recently released her book, Reaching and Teaching Neurodivergent Learners in STEM, which provides practical strategies that teachers can implement in their classroom.
  • Project-Based Learning: Dr. Asbell-Clarke co-taught in a project-based learning classroom for 8 years, and that experience taught her the power of this versatile approach to teaching and learning. She says, “The same curriculum could be a different experience for every kid.”
  • Strategies: Dr. Asbell-Clarke and her team discovered a number of strategies to help neurodivergent learners succeed academically and to help them effectively access their executive function skills. Strategies included using graphic organizers, highlighting tools, metacognition, and multiple modalities of expression. These strategies and more are outlined in her book.
  • INFACT: INFACT (Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking) and the related work is the culmination of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. These resources are available on the websites for TERC, EdGE, and AVID Open Access. Dr. Asbell-Clarke explains, “The essence of the materials is to teach those foundational thinking structures, problem decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design. They’re what we call computational thinking, and it’s a mode of problem-solving. It’s not just coding. It’s not just robotics. It’s not just games and puzzles, although we do all those, but it’s a mode of problem-solving, and we apply it to daily life problems.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What do you know about neurodivergent thinking?
  • What do you know about computational thinking?
  • How can neurodivergent thinkers benefit from STEM education?
  • How is neurodivergent thinking an often untapped asset?
  • What are the benefits of project-based learning?
  • How might you use the INFACT teaching and learning materials?

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