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SSU professor secures $5 million NASA grant to develop new programs for students with autism

As a physics and astronomy professor at Sonoma State University, Lynn Cominsky has spent decades designing learning experiences for students far beyond her college classroom. She is passionate about lessons that capture the wonder and possibility of studying the universe, from its most basic elements to its largest enigmas.

Her newest educational venture, powered by a nearly $5 million grant from NASA, aims to create opportunities for autistic students to gain hands-on experiences exploring rocketry and astronomy.

“It occurred to me that NASA has a very strong emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion and accessibility,” Cominsky said. “They just don’t have anything for autistic students.”

Cominsky is seasoned hand in the design of science, technology, engineering and math curricula for secondary students. As the director of the SSU-based EdEon Learning Center, she has for years overseen educational programs in STEM for students in fifth grade and above. Her interest in the scientific aptitude of students with autism grew through those experiences, she said.

Through NASA’s Neurodiversity Network, including scientific partners stretching from California to New York, Cominsky aims to launch programming that engages and empowers those students in new ways.

When the social-distancing requirements of the pandemic ease and allow for in-person work again, students will embark on a rocketry program through the NASA network. They’ll put together small electronic payloads that will be attached to a rocket — one that’s not quite big enough for a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center, but is several times larger than the typical rocket high school or middle-school students might use.

“It’s just really good learning,” said Dan Swearingen, co-founder of the Marin County-based Autistry Studios, which offers programs to address the needs of youth with Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism.

Swearingen, an astrophysicist and software designer, is a consultant for Cominksy’s project. “The majority of my students are not interested in being rocket scientists, but they would benefit by participating in this program,” he said.

The students will program their electronic creations to make observations about different factors during the rocket’s flight, such as acceleration, air pressure or temperature.

Cominsky also plans to use the gamma-ray optical robotic telescope at Pepperwood Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa to lead lessons on tracking the orbit of an exoplanet around a star, and analyzing the activity of a supernova to better understand the history of the universe.

Beyond the technical skills that his students will learn through the work, other benefits are wrapped up in the opportunity, Swearingen said.

As a college student in the late 1980s, Swearingen studied physics under Cominsky and she remains one of his favorite teachers.

It was only years later, after graduate school even, that he received his autism diagnosis. That moment came when Swearingen and his wife, Janet Lawson, were seeking a diagnosis and therapy for their son, Ian, who was also diagnosed with autism.

Swearingen said the confirmation in his own case helped explain “a lot of the difficulties I had in grad school. It was good perspective. It made me feel a lot more comfortable.”

But as he and Lawson, a psychotherapist, set out looking for opportunities for their son to get the support he needed to finish high school and pursue a career, Swearingen said, they found a dearth of resources.

“Most programs we saw were (and still are) passive in the sense that they take care of their clients but there is little expectation of growth,” he said. “All the programs we saw were deeply depressing.”

Out of that dearth of opportunities, the couple in 2010 launched Autistry Studios for autistic learners and their families to find support to help guide them toward academic success. For all but the past year during the pandemic, Autistry Studios students have had access to a makerspace in San Rafael, where they practice a variety of skills ranging from motor planning to working in a group.

“We work with individuals on the spectrum and find out something they’re interested in and pursue projects in that area,” Swearingen said. “We try to provide progressive challenge and we grow and change our program based on what will provide the level of challenge for each student. ”

He expects the learning experiences to come from Cominsky’s grant-funded work will be stellar.

“Parents are going to watch their children participate in this program and they're going to go, ‘Oh my God, they did that.’ And it’s going to change their expectations going forward.”

Students in Sonoma County will be offered the chance to participate through the Anova Center for Education, the Santa Rosa hub for autistic students based at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

“The benefits of this program would be an asset to any high school student of any aptitude,” said Annova founder and CEO Andrew Bailey. “We’re extremely happy and proud and grateful to have been chosen to be associated with this.”

For some of his students, Bailey said, the social and emotional strain of summer camps and other learning opportunities can be overwhelming. Cominsky’s program, though, will allow the students to help shape the content by expressing what they’re interested in, resulting in a curriculum built around their unique needs.

“It’s an opportunity to really show their strength at a time in their life when kids are so questioning of themselves,” he said.

Cominsky said the rocketry and outer space observation will offer some students a gateway to further involvement with her research. Over the course of the five-year program, several students will be selected for paid internships, working alongside her and under the mentorship of NASA staff, who will also mentor students through the Neurodiversity Network.

“We just want to find out what the kids are really interested in and develop things with them,” she said.

Bolstering opportunities for autistic students to directly engage with scientific research is a critical aspect of continuing to diversify the workforce, both among NASA’s ranks and beyond, Cominsky said.

“We have to do a lot of work with employers to get them to understand the kind of talents autistic people have,” Cominsky said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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