Broadening Participation in Informal STEM Learning for Autistic Learners and Others through Virtual Reality

Saturday, August 1, 2020 to Monday, July 31, 2023
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Media and Technology, Games, Simulations, and Interactives
Elementary School Children (6-10) | Middle School Children (11-13) | Youth/Teen (up to 17) | General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Learning Researchers
Computing and information science | Engineering | General STEM | Mathematics | Space science
Access and Inclusion: 
People with Disabilities

Virtual Reality (VR) shows promise to broaden participation in STEM by engaging learners in authentic but otherwise inaccessible learning experiences. The immersion in authentic learner environments, along with social presence and learner agency, that is enabled by VR helps form memorable learning experiences. VR is emerging as a promising tool for children with autism. While there is wide variation in the way people with autism present, one common set of needs associated with autism that can be addressed with VR is sensory processing. This project will research and model how VR can be used to minimize barriers for learners with autism, while also incorporating complementary universal designs for learning (UDL) principles to promote broad participation in STEM learning. As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of settings. This project will build on a prototype VR simulation, Mission to Europa Prime, that transports learners to a space station for exploration on Jupiter's moon Europa, a strong candidate for future discovery of extraterrestrial life and a location no human can currently experience in person. The prototype simulation will be expanded to create a full, immersive STEM-based experience that will enable learners who often encounter cognitive, social, and emotional barriers to STEM learning in public spaces, particularly learners with autism, to fully engage and benefit from this STEM-learning experience. The simulation will include a variety of STEM-learning puzzles, addressing science, mathematics, engineering, and computational thinking through authentic and interesting problem-solving tasks. The project team's learning designers and researchers will co-design puzzles and user interfaces with students at a post-secondary institute for learners with autism and other learning differences. The full VR STEM-learning simulation will be broadly disseminated to museums and other informal education programs, and distributed to other communities.

Project research is designed to advance knowledge about VR-based informal STEM learning and the affordances of VR to support learners with autism. To broaden STEM participation for all, the project brings together research at the intersection of STEM learning, cognitive and educational neuroscience, and the human-technology frontier. The simulation will be designed to provide agency for learners to adjust a STEM-learning VR experience for their unique sensory processing, attention, and social anxiety needs. The project will use a participatory design process will ensure the VR experience is designed to reduce barriers that currently exclude learners with autism and related conditions from many informal learning opportunities, broadening participation in informal STEM learning. Design research, usability, and efficacy studies will be conducted with teens and adults at the Pacific Science Center and Boston Museum of Science, which serve audiences with autism, along with the general public. Project research is grounded in prior NSF-funded research and leverages the team's expertise in STEM learning simulations, VR development, cognitive psychology, universal design, and informal science education, as well as the vital expertise of the end-user target audience, learners with autism. In addition to being shared at conferences, the research findings will be submitted for publication to peer-reviewed journals for researchers and to appropriate publications for VR developers and disseminators, museum programs, neurodiverse communities and other potentially interested parties.

This Innovations in Development award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Teon EdwardsTeon EdwardsPrincipal Investigator
Jodi Asbell-ClarkeJodi Asbell-ClarkeCo-Principal Investigator
Jamie LarsenJamie LarsenCo-Principal Investigator
Ibrahim Dahlstrom-HakkiIbrahim Dahlstrom-HakkiCo-Principal Investigator

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