Wagner TecKids U Lab

Using project-based learning experiences to teach special needs students technology skills

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Wagner TecKids U Lab is a pilot program where kids with special needs learn and create with technology tools, within their Staten Island community. This project is the result of a partnership between Wagner College Education Department and Tech Kids Unlimited, a not-for-profit education organization teaching technology skills to youth who learn differently.

Typically, special needs students are rarely given the opportunity to be creators and makers during in-school or afterschool programs. Conversely, it is exactly these students who seem to have a natural proficiency for technology concepts because of their neurological differences. Technology learning is routine for typical high-achieving students, who are often exposed to technology concepts in school and afterschool programs—this project seeks to give those experiences to a set of special needs youth who are marginalized in this area.

From programming to digital games, app development and building websites, special needs students were exposed to the world of technology through a differentiated curriculum and project-based learning activities. Over the course of three months, between November 1, 2014 and February 1, 2015, students were given the opportunity to participate in three modules of workshops. These were held from 1 to 3 pm on Sundays and included 75 minutes of technology teaching time along with 45 minutes of socialization time (with snacks and games that promote social and emotional learning). Students left each module with completed projects including: a website, a digital game app and various DIY maker projects. A professional development workshop was held to help the teaching staff who were part of the program in early November 2014—Professors David Gordon and Beth Rosenberg co-led this at Wagner College for over 20 teacher-candidates from the Wagner College Education Department.

Project Implementation and Discovery

The Wagner TecKids U Lab highlighted the great need for technology programs for special needs students in the borough of Staten Island. In just three months, 31 kids participated in the program—during cold/flu and the holiday season. Parents welcomed and helped spread the word about the program, with the numbers of participants significantly increasing from the first to the last session. All involved were pleased to see special needs students from different schools socializing with one another through an informal education experience.

Target Audience

The TecKids U Lab target audience was special needs students—learners with mid- to high-level functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders, aged 10 to 16 and living in the borough of Staten Island. Over the course of the three modules, the project served 31 students in total. The students eligible to participate either had an Individualized Education Program or 504 learning designation from the DOE to attend, or were enrolled at a public or private special needs school. Participants in the program had the following challenges: ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Integration and Auditory Processing disorders, Dyslexia, executive functioning working memory issues, along with learning and emotional disabilities. The Wagner counselors in the program were undergraduate and graduate students studying for education and technology degrees.

Organizational Impact

Wagner College’s mission is not only to service the community in which the college is located, but also to provide real-life learning experiences for its students. In addition, Tech Kids Unlimited is trying to reach out to students in every borough of NYC in the hope of addressing future employment challenges for students with special needs. Jointly, these partners sought to answer the following question: how can we expose special needs youth to technology and help them to become the digital producers of tomorrow?

By creating The Wagner TecKids U Lab on Staten Island, the partnership created a welcoming space for the special needs community, inviting these students to become the techies of the 21st century. This collaboration between Wagner College and Tech Kids Unlimited also created a model for education departments at universities to serve special needs youth interested in technology. The project also served as a development and training ground for university students majoring in education and technology fields, who are preparing to be the next generation of teachers. The Wagner staff had a real-life opportunity to practice their teaching skills, gaining proficiency in software and multimedia tools that support the digital learning process. The Wagner TecKids U Lab emphasized collaborative and supportive interactions, making it an ideal training ground for new opportunities to work with special needs youth around technology education.

The program aimed to address the needs of local students and benefited not only from the high caliber of Wagner’s educators but also the appealing technology content. There is a dearth of informal opportunities on the weekends for students with autism spectrum disorders, with parents both needing and wanting their kids to have new experiences around learning about technology.

Challenge and Resolution

One of the challenges in implementing this project was marketing and branding the program to an audience of mid- to high-level functioning students on the Autism spectrum. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder are enormously varied as individuals and in the particular challenges they face. The program was initially intended to engage autistic students with verbal abilities. However, the first workshop was attended by a student with Downs Syndrome and a student with non-verbal autism, who required additional support, presenting an unexpected challenge. Having never worked with Downs Syndrome youth, the staff were pleasantly surprised that this particular student was able to enjoy the program and complete the tasks. Wagner engaged a one on one support for the non-verbal student with a graduate education student, who delivered a behaviorally-focused program geared specifically for this student.

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Participant Feedback

“When I found out about this program it was a great relief. It really is such a treat to have a program like this on Staten Island. I have been involved with Wagner before for swimming and robotics camps but my son has never found a program that seems to fit so well with his specific interests….Having something so close that he likes going to makes all the difference as a parent and for my child.” – Parent of a youth participant

“Working with TKU has been educational, enriching, and fun! It was truly wonderful to watch the students build and customize their own video games. At the end of the last session there were many students who asked when the next workshop was!”- Megan Duffy, Graduate Student, Wagner College

Lead Organization:
Wagner College

Partner Organizations:
Tech Kids Unlimited

Project Goal:
Expose youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder to technology skills using project-based learning, exploring the teaching process for future classroom teachers and the interest level for this type of programming in the area.

Project Tags:
Media Literacy & Production, STEM, Webmaking

Project Portfolio