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Productive Uncertainty in a Laboratory Setting: Engaging Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in Scientific Research

Al Daviso III1, Jared Tudor1, Jessica DeFago2, Kathleen Kulick2, Laurel Lohrey3, Ali Dhinojwala3, Ruel McKenzie3
College of Education1, Office of Accessibility2, College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering3, The University of Akron, Akron, OH, 44325.


  • Promote and enable STEM career pathways for ASD students
  • Broaden access to experiential learning for ASD students by encouraging active participation in scientific research
  • Continual program development to enhance research experience and support for students with ASD by hosting program review meetings held jointly by the Office of Accessibility, College of Education and College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, and other vested interests
  • To develop a successful research program that specifically targets ASD students and to have elements from the program be integrated into relevant educational curricula

Program Relevance and Background

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect neurological development. Traits that typically characterize ASD include impaired social and communication skills as well as repetitive and restrictive behavior. The severity of these traits often impacts the daily function of those diagnosed with ASD. Despite the challenges imposed by ASD, those afflicted may have unique skills such as the capacity to learn and recall information with exceptional detail, enhanced learning via visual and audio cues, a high attention to specifics and rules, and the ability to hyperfocus. Those with ASD have particular modes of thinking and learning that is outside the realm of standard pedagogical practices. In the proper environment, these modes may help those with ASD to flourish. However, they are normally disadvantaged in basic learning environments. Academia is not wholly equipped to instill and help develop the necessary tools for ASD students to effectively function in society. Our aim is to bridge the learning gap. Scientific disciplines consistently seek creative and unconventional thinkers. Those with ASD may have untapped potential in their capabilities to navigate a scientific research environment if a proper training regimen is in place. The aim is to establish a sustainable route for ASD student success in active scientific research environments by facilitating their development of productive uncertainty. Progress in this program will help to build and extend comfort in the unknown and unfamiliar - which is a primary challenge in scientific research. In particular, the goal of this program is to give ASD students a broad opportunity for guided scientific research on a topic of their interest. We seek to learn how best to accommodate ASD students and their particular needs in order for them to successfully conduct scientific research. Our ultimate goal is to have the capacity to train ASD students to be in the pool of future thought leaders. We will strive to give these students the necessary guidance and reassurance in building their confidence to thrive in scientific environments. Our priority is their success and we aim to individualize implementing the program specific to their interest and skills-set.

Program Details

This program is a part of The University of Akron’s Five Star Fridays Initiative. A total of two candidates will be selected for this program. Applicants for this program must be matriculated at The University of Akron. The ASD student participant will be selected through the Office of Accessibility to be a research assistant in the group of Dr. Ruel McKenzie in the Department of Polymer Engineering in the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. The research assistant will be given the opportunity to develop an exploratory research project of their own interest under the guidance of Dr. McKenzie. The program will be tiered into discrete levels over the course of the academic year to nurture the capacity for the student to productively manage uncertainty in a laboratory setting. To meet the needs of the ASD participant, the program will be individualized under the guidance of the program administrators. This program aims to develop effective pedagogical tools to equip ASD students with the training necessary for high-level activity in scientific research environments. As such, the other candidate will be selected from the Special Education/ Intervention Specialist program in The College of Education (CoEd) to assist, monitor and document progress in the development of productive uncertainty for the ASD participant. The ASD CoEd participant is key to the success of this program as their role is to essentially function as an intermediary for the ASD participant. The progression of this program will rely on the intimate knowledge gained from the ASD CoEd participant. This program will count towards one (1) research credit (Course No.:9841-498-Research Problems in Polymer Engineering) for the ASD student participant and field experience for the CoEd student (Course No. 5610:XXX Special Education Programming).

ASD Student Participant

  • Will commit 3-5 hours each week during the program
    • Ideally on Fridays from 9AM to 2PM; however, the day and time slots are flexible
  • STEM areas of interest for the program include, but are not limited to:
    • Chemistry
    • Physics
    • Biology
    • Mathematics
    • Computer Science
    • Polymer Science
    • Engineering (Polymer, Chemical, Mechanical, Electrical, Materials, Computer, Biomedical, Environmental, Civil)
  • As the program timeline evolves, the list of responsibilities will gradually increase
  • Sample program timeline for Semester 1
    • Week 1 - Orientation
      • Short presentation about program
      • Meet program participants, program administrators and research group
      • Attend group meeting
    • Weeks 2-5 - Lab Rotation Training/Literature Survey
      • Each week a new laboratory activity will be introduced to the ASD student
      • To begin the exploratory project, ASD students will be introduced to library services and conducting literature surveys
    • Weeks 6-8 - Focused Activity: Learning Empirical Approach
      • ASD student picks one scientific activity to focus on
        • Example: collecting data from a specific apparatus
    • Weeks 9-12 - Data Analysis and Interpretation
      • ASD student will learn data analysis techniques.
      • ASD student will be introduced to presenting research summaries
      • ASD student, depending on progress, may be asked to share a slide on research progress at group meeting
    • Weeks 13-15 - Focused Activity: Developing Exploratory Project
      • ASD student will work closely with research advisor to develop research plan and white paper proposal for independent project

CoEd Student Participant

  • Schedule expected to closely mirror ASD student participant
    • May generate up to 75 hours of field work
  • Not expected to be highly knowledgeable in STEM fields
  • Will apply and develop knowledge in special education to help benefit ASD participant in STEM research environments.
  • Monthly progress meetings to review and discuss program trajectory
  • End of semester report describing activities, outcomes and insights gained
  • End of semester presentation to program administrators and other stake-holders summarizing activities and key developments


Targeted Program Paticipants

  1. One (1) matriculated student who has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  2. One (1) matriculated student from the Special Education/Intervention Specialist program

Application Window

  • June 1, 2019 - August 1, 2019

Participant Notification Date

  • August 19, 2019

Program Timeline

  • 15 weeks: every Friday (exact date and times are flexible)
  • Approximate dates: August 30, 2019 - December 6, 2019

Point of Contact


Application for ASD Researcher

There are 2 different ways to apply for this position, choose only 1 method below:

Application for CoEd Mentor

There is only 1 way to apply for this position: