Jonsson School Engineers Help Autistic Teens Showcase Skills
UT Dallas faculty and students worked with participants at the recent Engineering Brighter Futures for Autism event, where they teamed up to build miniature wind turbines.
UT Dallas students and faculty encouraged teenagers with autism to explore engineering careers at a recent event called Engineering Brighter Futures for Autism. The event challenged participants with tasks that required teamwork and focused thinking.
Working with graduate students from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, approximately 14 teens with autism were asked to design and build components of a miniature wind turbine. As part of the challenge, the teens learned how to use software to design a part and then use it on a functioning, mini-wind turbine.
“They were quiet when we first put them on teams. But by the end of the session, they were working so well as a team, which was the whole point of the event this year,” said Sumair Sunny, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who planned the tasks and oversaw the technical aspects of the event.
The event was a partnership between UT Dallas, Microsoft, Autism Speaks, the Autism Treatment Center of Dallas and Saint Louis University. It was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Engineering Brighter Futures for Autism event is a partnership between UT Dallas, Microsoft, Autism Speaks, the Autism Treatment Center of Dallas and Saint Louis University.
This is the second year that UT Dallas has sponsored the event, hosted by the Microsoft store at NorthPark Center in Dallas.
Dr. Arif Malik, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said the challenge is designed to encourage teamwork, while demonstrating the skills that people with autism possess.
“A major purpose of this is to bring public awareness to the social challenges that people on the autism spectrum have in establishing relationships and working with co-workers,” Malik said. “At the same time, however, it is important to highlight the tremendous talents and creativity they bring, especially to the technical challenges like the ones at this event.”
“A major purpose of this is to bring public awareness to the social challenges that people on the autism spectrum have in establishing relationships and working with co-workers. At the same time, however, it is important to highlight the tremendous talents and creativity they bring, especially to the technical challenges like the ones at this event.”
Sunny said the event was a learning opportunity for him and others who may have misperceptions about autism.
“I completely misunderstood what autism is,” he said. “I think there might be so many people out there — and employers — who misunderstand what autism is. People focus on their inabilities rather than focusing on what they can do.”
Josh Leitch, a 17-year-old senior at Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club, has taken engineering courses at his school and was excited to participate in the event.
“It’s very cool,” he said. “I don’t have the chance to do this type of thing very often, but I would love to get into structural engineering.”
His mother, Phelecia Leitch, was thrilled that he could work on a team, learning engineering and team skills.
“This is an incredible opportunity,” she said. “He actually gets to be a leader instead of kind of being pushed back to the side, as a student with special needs. It is wonderful that he has the opportunity to work and connect with other students who have the same disability. I think Josh will definitely land in an engineering career.”
That is exactly what Malik is hoping happens as a result of the Brighter Futures event, and others like it.
“We are trying to bring awareness to employers. Many are starting to recognize that instead of giving a face-to-face interview to hire someone for a job, in some cases it’s better to do an innovation challenge and really see how well people can perform,” Malik said.
“Let’s face it, not everybody can make good eye contact, not everybody can say the things that make the person in front of them feel comfortable. Instead we should be looking at how well can they do the job and how well can they contribute,” he said. “And many of these young people here today can really contribute in exceptional ways.”
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