Sophomore Eve Burrus learned to “Never give up, even when you get frustrated with yourself. When working in a group, I’ve learned also to be patient with the group.” Junior Peyton Solley echoed Burrus and added, “I learned how effective it can be to get a cohesive team working together.”
Burrus and Solley were two of eight students who participated in a four-week summer pre-employment workcamp called WRaP, Workforce Readiness and Preparation, a pilot program presented by Currey Ingram Academy and Vanderbilt University’s Initiative for Autism, Innovation, and the Workforce.
The program is based on a Denmark program called Specialisterne, which works to enable jobs for people with autism and similar challenges. Specialisterne, which translates from Danish “The Specialists,” is a socially innovative organization, and one of the first companies in the world with a team of specialized IT business consultants all of whom have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Approximately 75 percent of all their employees are on the autism spectrum.
“When properly assessed, trained and employed, people with autism are extremely high performing employees in critical and challenging jobs such as email analysis, software testing and data analytics,” notes the Specialisterne developers.
Like Specialisterne and Vanderbilt University, Currey Ingram understands that “the special skill-set that often goes hand-in-hand with autism: attention to detail, strong logical and analytical skills, an above-average ability to concentrate for long periods of time, diligence and zero-fault tolerance,” which gives individuals on the autism spectrum an edge when it comes to a wide range of tasks within the field of IT.
As part of the four-week summer program, Currey Ingram students learned coding and designed robots that completed tasks to solve an array of problems.
For example, students created animal robots that responded to color sensors. Others created robots to perform tasks, such as picking up objects and moving them to other locations. For the final project, students worked in two teams to design a robot or system to improve the safety of students in school. A panel of judges provided feedback to the teams about their work.
In addition to the technical skills, students developed real-world skills required in a workplace, such as teamwork, collaboration, and making presentations. They learned how to deal with challenges, including running out of time, dealing with a software bug, handling different skill levels of teammates, and having to work in a team rather than solo on a project.
Senior Sarah Stein got involved with WRaP after her mother signed her up. “But I didn’t know we’d be doing robots. Also, I’d like to get a job in the future, so I thought this program could help me out.” After spending four weeks in the program, Sarah led her team in its final presentation. “Seeing how different people work and changing how you have to work in order to help people in the group,” was one of her takeaways.
For history teacher Trevor McKey, the opportunity to interact with his students in a different way has been a highlight of the program. “This program is a cool way to connect with both students who I’ve had in class and who I haven’t taught yet,” said McKey.
McKey, English teacher Scott Field, and Stephanie Diaconis, Employment Services Manager from Specialisterne, were the instructors.
“WRaP is a challenging, rewarding and rich experience for people on the Autism spectrum (ASD), and it pushes students to be uncomfortable as it stretches their comfort zones,” added McKey. Scott Field, English teacher and WRaP instructor commented, “During the school year, it’s a challenge to get students to work with their classmates, but during WRaP, this was a requirement every day. They learned to be flexible, communicate and work with their teammates.”
Dr. Hannah, Assistant Head of School for Academics and Program, commented, “I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the students grow in just four weeks, They were not only able to identify strengths and challenges in themselves, but also in their team mates. The abilty to reflect and accept feedback are essential to success, and these eight students demonstrated remarkable growth in these areas. For example, Sierra Horsley discovered she had leadership skills; Walker Frist improved in his team work and communication skills; Preston Batts demonstrated creative solutions and perseverance; William Metcalf demonstrated the ability to support his team as well as other teams in solving problems; and Patrick Donelson demonstrated clear communication in his presentation. Next summer, we plan to open the enrollment to the community so that more students can benefit from WRaP.(Communications intern Mackenzie Wood, class of 2020, contributed to this article.)