Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Project REACH at CSI, is partnering with the Education Develop Center’s (EDC) and NYU’s IDEAS Maker Program, through a $1.3M grant from the National Science Foundation entitled, Making Mentors: Enhancing Access to STEM Careers for Autistic Youth through Mentorship Programs and Makerspaces.

The grant, which was awarded in April, expands on earlier work funded by two previous NSF grants to Dr. Wendy Martin of the EDC. Earlier collaborations between the EDC, New York University, New York Hall of Science, SRI, and autism inclusion schools in NYC formed the foundation for the IDEAS Maker Program. Making Mentors adds CUNY to this collaborative network by pairing autistic college students at CSI who major in STEM fields with autistic high school students on Staten Island.

“Last summer while on sabbatical in Argentina, I was very happy to be invited to help develop this NSF grant and was thrilled when the grant was subsequently funded on our first try,” said Dr. Gillespie-Lynch. “Through our new grant, led by Dr. Martin, autistic college students in CSI’s Project REACH mentorship program will help develop and provide innovative supports to autistic high school students in Staten Island high schools. This new grant builds on the two prior NSF grants through which the EDC and NYU developed a Makers program for autistic youth by expanding to empower autistic CUNY students to join autistic NYU students in acting as role models for autistic high school students. This work is particularly dear to my heart because it spotlights autistic CUNY students as key leaders of needed change in our society and because one of the other Co-PIs, Dr. Ariana Riccio of the EDC, got her doctorate at CUNY and worked as the coordinator of Project REACH while doing her dissertation research.”

Dr. Gillespie-Lynch also sees the new program as a return to groundwork laid by Project REACH in the past. “Our first collaborating high school on Staten Island, Tottenville High School, was also the site of a pilot mentorship program wherein autistic college students in Project REACH provided guidance to autistic high school students some years ago,” she said. “It’s very exciting to return to a school that we have already collaborated with years later with far more knowledge and resources to develop something more amazing than we had on our first go.”

CSI mentors will assist their high school counterparts with their projects, build on their interests and strengths, and help guide students as they transition into STEM majors in college. Dr. Gillespie-Lynch is confident that students she has worked with in Project REACH can provide excellent mentorship and is excited by the promise this project holds for CSI students as well.

“The grant is perfectly aligned with CUNY’s mission of promoting social mobility for traditionally underserved students,” she stated. “Our grant seeks to help autistic high school students develop the skills they will need to succeed in their dream jobs by pairing them with autistic college student role models. We seek to help both autistic high school students and autistic college students achieve their career goals by providing positive autistic role models for autistic high school students while empowering autistic students to help others and practice job skills while doing so. We hypothesize that our program will help both autistic high school students and autistic college students become more confident in their skills and identities while improving their quality of life and ability to seek out jobs that match their skills and interests.”   

According to the EDC, the three-year project will go a long way toward discovering how mentorship programs can prepare autistic high school students for entry into their fields of interest in college and beyond. “Researchers from EDC will explore whether the mentorship program fosters increased self-identification with STEM fields, self-advocacy skills, and improved quality of life among all participants, both mentors and mentees,” said the EDC when announcing receipt of the NSF grant. “Research from this project will advance knowledge of how strengths-based, participatory approaches can support autistic youth in pursuing STEM career pathways.”

Mentors will meet at least twice monthly with their mentees. Mentors will also meet weekly with project team leaders to check in on their experiences, plan activities, and address issues that arise.  

“Our new grant is a great opportunity for students and faculty at CSI to learn from and share our insights with collaborators at EDC, NYU, and local high schools,” said Dr. Gillespie-Lynch. “I am so happy that CSI’s Project REACH has been able to take a lead in modeling participatory approaches to developing supports for autistic people locally, nationally, and internationally and that our efforts to make autism research more socially valid by collaborating with autistic people to do it are increasingly recognized by funding agencies.” 

If you are an autistic CUNY student  who might be interested in mentoring an autistic high school student at Tottenville High School through this new grant, please reach out to Dr. Gillespie-Lynch at kristen.gillespie@csi.cuny.edu

For more information on the EDC and the IDEAS Maker Program, visit their Website.