One of the great things about living in a city like New York is that there are a lot of resources for kids with autism. I was thrilled to learn about Tech Kids Unlimited (TKU), a technology-based educational organization that works with special needs children. Beth Rosenberg is the Founder and Director of TKU. She and her son, Jack, created TKU when she realized that there was no where for kids like him to learn high-tech skills. Now in it’s fourth year, TKU offers workshops during school vacation breaks, during the summer, and on the weekends. Beth took a few moments to answer some questions for an interview.
Q: I know that your son, Jack, was the inspiration for starting TKU. But how did you actually start? That is, how did it come together?
Beth Rosenberg: TKU came about organically. I’m an educator and I have a child who learns differently; this was the ultimate impetus. I was the former founding director of education at Eyebeam center for arts and technology (www.eyebeam.org) in 1997, so I knew first hand about the power of tech and kids. In 2006, I started consulting at The JCC in Manhattan in the special needs department where I saw a great unused Mac lab and the idea was born. Could we take kids with special needs and teach them technology by creating fun project-based learning projects? I hired an amazing tech educator, and together we worked out a differentiated curriculum and then I marketed it to all my sons friends and more. I then had my high school daughter and all her friends to work in the week-long workshop as counselors for community service. It was a home-grown, organic passion project. We are now on our fourth year and have applied for NFP status, just got a seed grant from The Far Fund along with an individual donor. I just hired a program coordinator and we are expanding our curriculum tech offerings along with partnerships with organizations and schools. Kids who are quirky, learn different, have various learning issues or diagnosis deserve jobs. Can the technology sector open up to our kids? I’m betting that it can and will, if we can get these kids’ level of skills up.
BR: We are expanding our offerings all the time. I like to pilot things out, see if they work, and then repeat the curriculum if it does. Right now we are doing game development, creating websites, sound/audio engineering, video, creating apps and more. We like to use free software, so once we teach it to the kids, they can go home, download it and continue exploring on their own. We currently are running a Sunday afternoon workshop at NYU-Poly in downtown Brooklyn, a February week-long workshop at NYU-Poly and at Pace University, some after-school programs at various special needs schools in New York City. Summer plans include being back at NYU-Poly, Pace and at the JCC in Manhattan. The goal, though, is to expand—to other parts of New York City, then to the west coast, California, hopefully!
Q: Which of these workshops and classes seem to be the most popular?
BR: Each kid has their own interest, so workshops are chosen based on this. No experience is necessary. And, if they have taken the workshop already, we individualize the curriculum for them so that they are doing more and more with the software each time. It takes years to be proficient with tech software, so the more you do it, the better and more comfortable you get with it. Right now, it seems like kids want to learn to program—or, their parents want them to learn—and they may not even know what it means to do so. So, we teach coding and some kids love it and others don’t.
Q: Who do you hire to be your staff? Do they have any training or past experiences with special needs?
BR: Firstly, everyone we hire has to love kids – meaning they have to enjoy being around kids. That’s the number one thing. Too often, I see teachers who just don’t like kids teaching them. I don’t believe you need a special ed degree to teach kids with special needs. A lot can be intuitive.
We hire a social worker, an experienced educator whose content is technology, and counselors made up of graduate and undergraduate students. We also have older high school students who are interested in the field of education and need to fulfill community service requirements. In all, our ratio of teachers to students is about 3 to 1. In addition, in our week-long programs we have guest lecturers to come talk to the kids about career options and jobs. For our animation curriculum last summer, we had an animator come from Dreamworks to talk to the students about his life and career. For our game week, we had individuals from Brainpop.com and Leapfrog spend time talking with the students about their career paths.
We do some professional development for our staff. i am always asking our staff to read articles on disabilities. Since we have been running the program for four years, our more experienced staff helps the new ones. The staff has really gelled into a team. TKU pays competitively and one of my priorities as the founder is to mentor the staff, to help create the next generation of teachers, educators, individuals who are deeply involved with what difference means in society.
Q: What type of kid is attracted to registering for TKU?
BR: TKU was specifically created for special needs kids. I only want to work with kids who are different learners. These can be kids that are on the autism spectrum, have Aspergers, PDD-NOS, ADD, ADHD, sensory integration disorder, dyslexia, processing or emotional issues.
Q: What have you learned about autism and tech since you began?
BR: Since starting this program, I’ve learned that the future for kids with special needs should reside in the technology field. The plan is to establish internships for TKU students where they can use their skills in real working environments. There are so many talented kids who pass through our program. These kids need support and nurturing. With Tech Kids Unlimited, the students are being taught in a project-based learning environment, so they get excited to learn, to experiment, and to create. TKU is trying to take kids who are huge consumers of technology and make them into the future producers of technology. TKU kids are the techies of tomorrow!