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Pioneering STEM School Reaches Out to Students on the Autism Spectrum
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Pioneering STEM School Reaches Out to Students on the Autism Spectrum

"We want our students to be able to stand side by side with their typical peers after they graduate."

A Los Angeles-based science, technology, engineering and math school is garnering attention for its pioneering efforts geared toward reaching students who fall on the autism spectrum.

STEM3 Academy, which opened its high school and middle school in the 2015-16 academic year and plans to open its elementary school in 2016, claims to take an "out-of-the-box" approach to reaching students with "learning and social differences," including autism-related disorders, Asperger's and ADHD, who are gifted in the maths and sciences but have fallen behind on their communication and social skills.

"As far as we know, we're the nation's only STEM-curriculum school for students with these needs," Dr. Ellis Crasnow, the school's director, told CNN Money. "Our goal is to help them realize their potential for achievement in school, in college and later in a STEM-based career."

Crasnow stated that the school emphasizes learning over teaching in how it approaches its students and interacts with them. By using a "flipped classroom" model, STEM3 Academy allows its students to use class-time to complete homework assignments and projects while using their time at home to review the lessons for the next class period.

"Our students learn by doing, experiencing and constructing rather than just sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher," Crasnow told CNN Money."We want our students to be able to stand side by side with their typical peers after they graduate."

STEM3 Academy offers its students access to an innovation lab equipped with a CNC machine, 3D printer, CAD machines and electronics. It offers its students the opportunities to enroll in robotics, entrepreneurship and programming classes. The school encourages its students to engage in social interactions with their peers as they work together on projects and assignments. Raytheon, a defense contracting company, and defense technology company Northrup Grumman have approached to school to explore the possibilities of working with its students.

According to its website, STEM3 "is a pioneering new school for bright, curious and motivated 6 to 12 graders with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, ADHD and other social and learning differences who are interested in an array of fields that spring from Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  At STEM3 Academy, we view the differences of special learners as strengths ... The idea of a specialized school for students with special gifts in the STEM disciplines can be the next great step in building independent lives for children with learning differences.  Our out-of-the-box thinkers need an out-of-the-box curriculum as unique as them."

Cullen Whiteside, a junior at STEM3 who has autism and is gifted in math and programming, previously had been enrolled in two other schools, according to CNN Money. His mother, Terry, has been amazed at the progress she has seen in Cullen's life and studies since his enrollment at STEM3.

"It's been a big change," Terry told CNN Money. "Before he wouldn't talk much about his day. Now he comes home and has conversations with me about what he did at school. ... What's so amazing to us as parents is how far Cullen has grown since we started the educational journey," Terry added, saying that Cullen tested in the 99th percentile of the PSAT and has been approached by several top-rate colleges.

"The stats regarding the post high school success of students with special needs is very poor — 80 to 90 percent of them are unemployed or underemployed," Crasnow told CNN Money. "These are horrific numbers and our goal is to change them."

(H/T: CNN Money)

Follow Kathryn Blackhurst (@kablackhurst) on Twitter

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