The STEM Research Center, in collaboration with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, recently received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning to support the Modeling Zoos and Aquariums as Inclusive Communities of Science (MoZAICS) project. MoZAICS focuses on developing an evidence-based framework of inclusive practices for zoos and aquariums to support science learning for individuals with autism across the full zoo/aquarium experience including the general visit, programs, exhibits, internships, volunteering, and employment opportunities. The project will also support the building of a community of practice of zoo/aquarium practitioners dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of autistic individuals and toward building an overall strategy of inclusion across the AZA community.
Over the four-year project duration, MoZAICS will develop a research-informed framework, tools and strategic vision for zoo/aquarium practitioners and institutions to support autistic individuals across the full spectrum of the zoo/aquarium experience including the general visit; exhibits; programs and events; and volunteer, internship and employment opportunities. The project is designed as two phases: (1) the research and development of a framework of inclusive practices and tools for supporting autistic individuals and (2) expanding a network of early adopters to build a community of practice around inclusive practices and an overall strategy of implementation. The framework will be informed through a state of the field study across the zoo/aquarium field that includes a landscape study and needs assessment as well as a review of literature that synthesizes existing research across disciplines for developing inclusive practices for autistic individuals in zoos and aquariums. The second phase of the study will focus on sharing the framework and tools with practitioners across the zoo/aquarium field for feedback and reflection to develop an overall strategy for broader implementation and expanding the existing network of Z/A professionals to build a community of practice dedicated to the comprehensive inclusion of autistic individuals across the full Z/A experience. A process evaluation conducted as part of MoZAICS will explore how the approach taken in this project may be more broadly applied in understanding and advancing inclusion for other audiences historically underserved or marginalized by Z/As.
The MoZAICS project represents one of the first of its kind to support autistic audiences within the zoo/aquarium context and is the first to look at the full experience of autistic patrons to zoos and aquariums across programs/events, exhibits, volunteering, internship, and employment opportunities.
The project team from Oregon State University consists of Kelly Riedinger (PI and research lead) and Victoria Bonebrake (STEM Research Center fellow). Both Kelly Riedinger and Victoria Bonebrake bring expertise in informal STEM learning and have experience working with individuals with disabilities, including autism.