Each year, prior to the start of a community-based science and social skills program, administrators from The Help Group, faculty from the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and educators from The California Science Center gather to collaborate. The goal is to identify science topics that support The Help Group Village Glen School’s science curriculum and to plan weekly themed learning activities that will translate into hands-on, experiential science at the science museum.

Having completed its fourth year, the community-based collaboration, is flourishing. The unique partnership provides Village Glen School with an enriching curriculum designed to support student engagement in science learning in a public museum space, and to provide students with practical social skill instruction in a real-world setting.

Help Group educators place a great deal of value on the program, offered as part of The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative, dedicated to developing evidence-based intervention programs for children with ASD.

“Our students greatly enjoy their time exploring the fun and informative exhibits at The California Science Center,” explains Pamela Clark, Director of Autism Schools at The Help Group.  “From Dogs – A Science Tale to The Big Endeavor, our students are learning about human inventions and innovations, the life processes of living things and so much more. We know that experiential learning is an essential process in the development of core social skill competencies, and the museum experience helps to build both academic and social successes for our students.”

This program was initially designed by Dr. Ellen Cohn, Clinical Professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools and the Museum of Science in Boston. Its aim was to increase student interest in science and to provide opportunities for young people with autism to socialize in the naturally occurring, community context of an inclusive and accessible environment of a science museum.

Under the direction of Dr. Mary Lawlor, Associate Chair of Research and Professor and Dr. Emily Ochi, Assistant Clinical Professor at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, the program was replicated at The Help Group, and in partnership with The California Science Center located in Exposition Park, Los Angeles.

“At the crux of this program, is the mutually beneficial relationship among USC, The Help Group, and The California Science Center, said Emily Ochi. “From the USC perspective, our students gain valuable, hands-on experience working with students in a real-world, community-based context.  They can carry this experience with them throughout their careers as occupational therapists.”

Using the innovative, Buddies Exploring Science Together (BEST) model approach, Occupational Therapy graduate students from USC are paired with middle school-aged Village Glen students to provide scaffolding supports for weekly field trips. Each week of the program, which takes place throughout the spring semester, USC students engage Village Glen students to set individual goals with a focus on social interactions, and read customized social narratives in class prior to the bus ride to the museum. The social narratives are used as a tool to prepare students for what to expect on the field trip, and to offer strategies to support novel social situations, sensory inputs and science learning.

“The field trip program with the students from The Help Group was my favorite experience from occupational therapy school, so I had to participate in the program twice,” shared Zack Pinto, a USC Occupational Therapy Doctoral resident who collaborated on the implementation of this year’s project. “The connections that are formed are incredibly rewarding and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all of the students that participated. This program has helped me grow as an occupational therapist by teaching me about the importance of community-based programs, and I hope the students from The Help Group enjoy it as much as I do.”

It’s clear that the program is effective in providing challenging and rewarding experiences related to science engagement, social participation, and fostering a sense of accomplishment for participating students as demonstrated by program evaluations conducted by USC graduate students and faculty.

Our thanks to USC’s Dr. Mary Lawlor, Dr. Emily Ochi, David Turnbull, PhD (cand.), science educators at The California Science Museum, and all Help Group faculty and staff who made this year’s collaboration such a fun and memorable one for our students!