AE student seeks to share STEM with autistic youth
Courtney Leverenz is a self-proclaimed aerospace engineering outreach advocate. During her junior year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying aerospace engineering she took her advocacy to a cosmic level by creating an event combining her passion for aerospace engineering with her desire to share the subject with disabled youth, particularly those on the autism spectrum.
The educational outreach event Leverenz designed is called S.O.L.A.R. Power: Space-Oriented Learning and EmPOWERment. The event would look and feel like science fairs for general populations—interactive exhibits and hands-on and demonstration exhibits. But this event would also include some special accommodations to make disabled individuals feel more comfortable, such as calming sensory room if a participant needs to take a break during the activities.
Leverenz is quick to recognize that reworking the activities was a team effort between her and other members of a student organization called Illinois Space Society, a chapter of the not-for-profit organization Students for the Exploration and Development of Space that features technical projects, professional development, and educational outreach dedicated to space exploration and development.
“We modified some of our most popular educational outreach exhibits, such as Liquid Nitrogen, to be more inclusive towards disabilities,” Leverenz said. “We nixed the ‘penny smash’ section, which can be frightening for those on the spectrum. Instead, we will have a wet wash cloth that hardens when dipped in liquid nitrogen.” This was not the only exhibit Leverenz and her team plan to modify. The S.O.L.A.R. team currently plans to rebuild the orbital simulator to allow height adjustments for wheelchair visibility.
Leverenz shared her vision of S.O.L.A.R. with SciAccess and was invited to be a speaker at its science accessibility conference. The conference will take place at The Ohio State University on June 28 and 29. Keynote speakers at the event will be Anousheh Ansarik, who is the first female private space explorer, and renowned autism advocate Temple Grandin.
It was actually Leverenz’ sister Christine’s diagnosis of autism that initially led her to work with special needs programs at the park district in her hometown. When she began studying at U of I, she pursued educational outreach opportunities to help encourage disabled individuals’ interest in STEM subjects. In her freshman year, she became an active member Illinois Space Society. As a member of the executive board, she has participated in various technical projects, including rocketry and mission design, as well as planning different educational outreach events.
She hopes to partner with Illinois Space Society to launch a pilot version of S.O.L.A.R. next year as well as a small-scale classroom visit. Courtney hopes that S.O.L.A.R. inspires children with disabilities to become involved in STEM and everyone has the opportunity to reach for the stars.