Microsoft invests in UI program to help autistic students pursue STEM careers

 

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URBANA — Microsoft and other tech firms have always hired software engineers or data scientists who may have autism, whether they're diagnosed or not, executives say.

The Seattle-based software firm has made a more concerted effort over the past three years, hoping to tap into the technical skills and creativity those with autism often provide. But those workers also tend to need more support.

So Microsoft decided to invest in the hiring pipeline with a $200,000 grant to the University of Illinois for the new Accessibility Lighthouse Program, which kicked off Monday.

The program is designed to build a path for students with autism to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as STEM fields, in part by improved training in social communication skills to make them job-ready.

The money will also be used to build a digitally accessible classroom using Microsoft tools, increase the number of computer science students who can make accessible software, and support the use of digitally accessible tools across campus for students with any type of disability, officials said.

The UI has long taken the lead in enabling students with physical disabilities to fully participate in college life and earn degrees, said Harold Javid, Microsoft's university relations lead and a UI engineering graduate.

"Our intention in partnering with the university is to enable it to aspire to be a lighthouse to students with a broad range of disabilities by exploiting the growing advances in digital accessibility," Javid said in a release.

Educators and advocates have made great strides helping students with autism get through elementary school, high school and even college successfully, said Linda Tortorelli, director of The Autism Program at Illinois.

Where those students struggle is on the employment side — finding or keeping a job. While they may excel intellectually, particularly in STEM fields, they may lack social communication skills, she said.

"What's exciting is to have the corporate world really recognizing the value and the talent of people who have autism and who think differently, and wanting to invest in those other aspects that need to be addressed," she said.

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Adults with autism tend to be "over-educated and under-employed," said Jen Guadagno, Microsoft's senior inclusive hiring program manager.

The job-readiness program is intended to help students understand how to apply, how to interview, and how to think about their next steps, said Guadagno, who visited campus Monday with other Microsoft officials to launch the program.

"It's creating a candidate pipeline," she said.

Guadagno said job candidates with autism bring "great talent" and "out of the box thinking" to the work place.

"They're pretty bold and direct: Why are we doing it this way, it makes no sense, can we try it this other way," she said.

But they often struggle during the interview process. An interviewer, for example, might say, "Oh I see you have a computer science degree," and candidates will simply reply, "Yes," because it only occurs to them to answer that exact question, she said, rather than explain why they chose the UI or outline a specific project they worked on.

If the recruiter doesn't know they have autism, the candidates might not make it to the next round.

With Microsoft's "front door" hiring program, which involves a five-day recruiting event, screeners know how to ask questions in a different way. Applicants invited to the Microsoft campus talk with different program managers informally and participate in various challenges so company observers can tease out leadership skills and see what accommodations they might need. They go through interview prep and job-coaching, then do formal interviews.

So far, one out of every two candidates has been hired, Guadagno said. Once on board, they're given mentors and more coaching. After three years, attrition for those workers is lower than other employees, she said.

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The Accessibility Lighthouse Program, which runs through June 2019, is a collaborative effort by the Autism Program, the UI Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Special Education.

About half the money will go toward job preparedness and half toward the accessibility aspects of the project, Tortorelli said. The Autism Program will use its $60,000 to develop a blueprint for teaching social and emotional skills to college students with autism, an effort she hopes makes its way down to the high school and elementary level, "to make sure they're going to be successful in the rest of their lives."

In computer science, the program will support work on "Class Transcribe," a project that uses crowd-sourcing to quickly and reliably transcribe college lectures. It was developed by two students who asked other students to transcribe notes from videotapes of lectures.

What Microsoft brings to the project is the ability to do real-time voice-to-text transcription during lectures, using its cloud computing platform Azure, said computer science teaching Professor Lawrence Angrave. The money will fund graduate students and other resources to "move this vision into reality much faster," he said.

The technology can be used by any student who wants to go back and review lecture notes while studying for exams or doing homework, or who can't make it to the class because of a conflict or because they're not physically able, he said.

Because the hour-long lectures are turned into text, the files are also searchable, allowing students to find the particular topic they need to review, he added.

The improved system will be piloted next fall. Angrave said researchers will measure the benefit to students, to see if it improves learning.

"We're going to create the next generation of accessible classrooms and provide new learning experiences and opportunities for our students," Angrave said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).