Making STEM education more accessible and effective for diverse learners
A Senior Research Scientist at TERC, Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki develops alternative approaches to mainstream education that benefit neurodiverse learners. He designs innovative curricula and assessments utilizing neurocognitive tools, game-based learning, and even virtual reality. He also shares his educational knowledge through professional development workshops for teachers, improving the accessibility of STEM education for students with disabilities.
Dahlstrom-Hakki began his career in psychological science at UMass Amherst as a PhD student in the Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience program. He worked alongside Alexander Pollatsek and Keith Rayner who pioneered the use of eye-tracking methodology for understanding the cognitive processes involved in reading and visual perception. His dissertation research involved tracking human eye-movement patterns to try to find out if viewing recognizable shapes (i.e., an apple) or various colors onscreen could help guide an individual’s visual attention.
Dahlstrom-Hakki also joined collaborative projects including a study of driving safety and eye-tracking with Donald Fisher, the Director and Co-Founder of the Human Performance Lab. His favorite project at UMass was working on Cliff Konold’s development team for TinkerPlots, a data visualization and modeling software that taught students math, statistics, and other sciences.
“When I worked with Cliff Konold in the Statistics Education Research Group…we worked with some middle schools in Holyoke, and we would test statistics lesson plans and activities with students there and get feedback and improve what we did. I really enjoyed that work…it focused on struggling learners, some of whom had disabilities. After I got my PhD, I really wasn't interested in going in a very abstract research direction. I was more interested in the in the work I did in these research assistantships,” says Dahlstrom-Hakki.
He ultimately connected with a position at Landmark College as an Associate Professor and Senior Academic Researcher at their Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT). There he worked with the college’s student body made up of entirely neurodiverse learners. These students may be encountering obstacles like having difficulty with number sense, attention or executive function challenges, or language processing problems.
At LCIRT, Dahlstrom-Hakki performed grant funded research centered on finding more effective ways to support these students, focusing specifically on statistics and science education. Additionally, he organized workshops, trainings, and an annual summer institute for educators who wanted to better serve neurodiverse learners in their school or college. Eventually becoming the director of the institute, he also started a graduate certificate program for working teachers to learn the latest practices for helping this population.
One of Dahlstrom-Hakki’s aims is to find solutions to the problems neurodiverse learners have with main-stream education. “The overarching approach we adopted is a universal design mindset…the idea behind universal design is if you create educational content that serves the students at the margins then your educational product is likely to better serve all learners, not just those on the margins,” he conveys. Creating curriculums that accommodate a variety of learners will build a more sustainable system right from the start.
One issue any student may struggle with when learning a new subject is finding the motivation to keep at it. Dahlstrom-Hakki has found that using lesson content that is personally relevant to students can be vital to holding their interest. “If students don't see the end use or purpose for the information you're providing to them, like ‘how is this going to help me in the real world?’…for many students with executive function issues and I would argue for many learners who have no disability, it’s not a natural learning process,” he notes.
For example, if a math lesson used real data about a videogame that students already play, this could help to pique their curiosity. Establishing greater interest in a subject will help an individual allocate the brain power necessary to learn and stick with it, even when confronted with difficulties.
In his search to engage students in a fun and exploratory way, Dahlstrom-Hakki began using game-based learning to reach those having difficulty. He states, “Games have a lot of power to engage students and motivate them and really help them be in a safe space where you can try over and over, and fail time and time again, and see it as a natural part of the process.” Learning how to deal with failure and persevere is an essential part of mastering a new skill.
His experience with game-based learning brought about a connection with TERC, a research-based non-profit with a mission of engaging learners through research, educational initiatives and tools, and professional development, with a focus on STEM.
Now a Senior Research Scientist at TERC, Dahlstrom-Hakki is involved with grant funded projects including the creation of a computational thinking curriculum for grades 3-8, and the development of a virtual reality (VR) STEM mystery game that is being co-designed in-part by Landmark College students. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the game will be broadly accessible to everyone, with particular attention paid to the needs of autistic learners. Mission to Europa Prime involves exploring an abandoned science station, solving puzzles focusing on STEM and computational thinking, and discovering new clues to solving a mystery.
“It's great to work with the students…we really see them as equal partners in shaping this, not necessarily just as a focus group or a sounding board but they’re getting the opportunity to participate in all aspects of the design process,” says Dahlstrom-Hakki. The Boston Science Museum and the Pacific Science Center will also be involved in testing the game with the public.
VR technology has added some great benefits to game-based learning. For instance, when a student with attention issues uses VR, they are able to block outside distractions much more effectively. “The huge advantage of VR is you have full control over somebody's environment. You have full control of their view and usually their hearing as well,” Dahlstrom-Hakki relates. For individuals who are sensitive to noise or bright colors and lights, the gaming environment can be altered on the fly to create a more comfortable space for learning.
“We're looking at what other supports can we add to help guide attention if a student is struggling with a puzzle, without making it too easy or too obvious that we're helping,” Dahlstrom-Hakki says.
In his profession, Dahlstrom-Hakki enjoys the many opportunities he gets to explore new technologies and research directions. The everchanging process of creating and testing different approaches to neurodiverse learning is very exciting and fulfilling. He is truly making a difference by giving more students an accessible, effective, and fun STEM education.