FRIDAY, MARCH 29TH, 2019
PIZZA AND REFRESHMENTS WILL BE PROVIDED!
FRIDAY, MARCH 29TH, 2019
PIZZA AND REFRESHMENTS WILL BE PROVIDED!
A collaborative program at Allegheny College is helping area children and teens with social difficulties develop their communication skills and build friendships — LEGO brick by LEGO brick.
“This club is very unique in the way that it uses the platform of LEGO projects to bring kids on the autism spectrum and with other forms of developmental disabilities to a setting where they are building something together,” says Chowdhury, assistant professor of psychology at Allegheny. “Through this platform, children can build some of the social skills and self-confidence that they are limited in, as part of their diagnosis.”
One Saturday a month during the winter and fall, children from the Penncrest School District gather in the college’s Carnegie Hall for the Allegheny-Crawford LEGO Social Club. They spend 90 minutes building LEGO projects together, interacting with each other, and presenting their work during the program, which is facilitated by Allegheny faculty Monali Chowdhury and students.
LEGO Club was first brought to this part of Pennsylvania by the Autism Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania in Erie in 2014. The Allegheny-Crawford site was started in February 2018 via Chowdhury’s collaboration with the Autism Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania and professionals of the Penncrest School District, including school psychologist Brittany Adkins.
“We had a definite need in Crawford County for a program like this for students on the autism spectrum.”
Penncrest School District
Parents in Crawford County can have difficulty finding social activities that children with developmental disabilities will engage with, says Adkins, who reached out to Chowdhury after learning of the professor’s expertise in autism research.
Says Chowdhury: “It is sometimes a struggle, because these children may not feel like they fit in — social interaction is out of their comfort zone, and they may not want to return to activities that are not of interest. But a LEGO-based program is a natural draw. Since it is something that children enjoy, it is easier for them to work on some of the social pieces that they would not have been comfortable with otherwise.”
The Allegheny-Crawford LEGO Social Club held its first meeting in winter 2018 with more than two dozen K–10 students — twice the number that organizers had expected to sign up. Attendance has continued to grow; about 50 children have participated in LEGO Club thus far.
Creating Academic and Community Connections
Allegheny students serving as research assistants have played a key role in the program’s success, Chowdhury says. They contribute to the planning of the program, assist with preparations each week, and interact directly with children during the Saturday sessions.
Junior Cassie O’Brien has worked with the LEGO social club for two years. The psychology major says the program has given her a new perspective on research.
“All of my past research experiences have been in the lab — giving out questionnaires, assessing data. The social club has really shown me how different research can be. You can get involved and see the aspect that you were researching right in front of you. That’s really powerful,” says O’Brien, who is minoring in communication arts and political science.
Brent Temeng, a 2018 Allegheny graduate, was as an undergraduate research assistant with the club during his senior year. Temeng says he appreciates the opportunity Allegheny gave him to pursue his interest in serving the community through an opportunity outside of his academic major — economics — and his minors — computer science and studio art.
“This LEGO project allowed me to be a part of something — not to just be a student, but be a volunteer for the community I lived in,” Temeng says. “I think that’s a beautiful part about it too.”
Building on a Successful Start
During a session of the LEGO social club, participants first build on their own and then move on to more structured group building time. The program concludes with three children volunteering to talk about projects they brought in from home and field questions from their peers. Chowdhury and the student research assistants say they have seen definite progress in children as they attend more sessions of the club.
Chowdhury points to participants who initially may have worked at a table by themselves but now have become more likely to work in groups. “They have a conversation — however basic that conversation may be — but still a starting point for that whole social reciprocity piece that is one of our goals,” she says.
That interaction helps to foster spontaneous teamwork and reinforce the importance of communication and problem solving among participants, Chowdhury says. Neurotypical siblings and friends also can attend the club, which provides opportunities for peer mentoring.
The questions that participants ask each other during the sharing session also have become less formulaic and more genuine, O’Brien says. For example, children may at first ask only basic questions such as “How long did that take to build?” But as they become more comfortable, O’Brien says the inquiries have reflected a deeper level of interaction — such as “What does that piece do?” or “How did you think of that idea?”
And the stories that children share about their projects show an immense amount of creativity and abstract thought, Chowdhury says, attributes sometimes not associated with children on the autism spectrum.
“Even as a scientist who has been involved in autism spectrum work for years, what has impressed and amazed me is the level of imagination in the stories behind the models that the children tell,” she says.
Adkins, the Penncrest school psychologist, says that “the turnout has been awesome and that she has been “really pleased with the early friendships that are blooming.”
Adkins also notes that parents stay in a waiting area during the club. They “find community with one another, which is a hidden benefit of the program,” she says. Some even have arranged LEGO-building playdates outside of the club for their children — supporting the goal of fostering friendships.
Chowdhury says that evidence of the program’s success includes qualitative feedback from parents. For example, parents have shared that their children tell them they “won’t miss” a session of the club and choose it over other activities. Another parent shared that “LEGO Club has helped us become connected with the thoughts of our bright boy and for that, my family is eternally grateful.” Quantitative data collection continues this semester in the form of structured observation of the children.
This assessment research data will help organizers improve the club in the future. “Clearly, there’s a need for the program as evidenced by the response we have received from families, and we’re looking forward to building on the work we started,” Chowdhury says.
Appropriate permissions have been obtained to use images of Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social Club members.
Congratulations to Dr. Ryan Pickering, who is the next vice chair of APA’s Committee on Socioeconomic Status. For more information please click here:
Dr. Ryan M. Pickering and Dr. Darren R. Bernal
It’s been less than five years since Trevor and Michelle Colvin proudly wore their caps and gowns at Commencement on Bentley Lawn, but they’ve already been making an impact on the students that followed them at Allegheny College, thanks to a commitment to service and philanthropy they have woven into their lives.
Trevor and Michelle have remained engaged with Allegheny alumni, staff, students and prospective students in a variety of volunteer roles, including keeping in touch with former classmates, appearing on career panels and participating in the Gator Greetings program.
“Allegheny was our home for four years where we made our best friends and memories,” says Michelle. “We chose to keep our relationship strong with Allegheny post-graduation by serving as class agents and by helping to organize our Class of 2014 fifth-year reunion.”
Despite being busy in their educational pursuits and careers, the Colvins have put serious thought into their philanthropic priorities. “We make decisions based on life experiences,” says Trevor. “We give to organizations that we feel have helped us become who we are as well as organizations that are doing good in our community.”
The former Michelle Holcomb is in her fifth year of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a doctorate in cognitive psychology, studying how aspects of a reading context influence language comprehension. Trevor is a senior analyst at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. His work focuses on the integrations of newly acquired hospitals and physician groups, as well as the executive reporting of key revenue cycle analytics.
They met in their first year at Allegheny, married in 2016, and currently live in Pittsburgh with their “fur children,” Dolly (a calico cat) and Nala (a German Shepherd dog). While at Allegheny, Trevor played football and was a managerial economics major and a religious studies minor. Michelle played soccer and was a psychology and biology double major.
“We were both four-year athletes at Allegheny so a lot of our focus is dedicated to athletics,” Michelle says. “We also got involved with alumni during our senior year as part of the senior class gift committee. From there, we saw the opportunity to continue serving Allegheny.
“We hope to get others excited about supporting the College soon after they graduate,” she says. “There is often a misconception that valued donors are only those who give the highest amounts. But we’ve learned that serving is a process, and it starts by getting involved as soon as possible.”
The Colvins say their current philanthropic priorities are Allegheny College, their church and the United Way of Pittsburgh. “Start small. Any form of help serves a cause,” Trevor says. “It’s not just monetary help; time is a big donation. Identify causes that align with your beliefs and make positive impacts on society. The habit becomes a fulfilling lifestyle.”
Now that they are cultivating success in their community, the Colvins say they are believers in a liberal arts education. “Our classes and degrees from Allegheny didn’t teach us everything,” says Michelle, “but they helped prepare us to learn anything.”
Come join Psi Chi and Sigma Tau Delta in unveiling the Oddfellows House of Horror on Friday, November 2nd! Walk through the spooky building from 7-8 pm or come in for a zombie survival game from 8-10 pm. Admission is free of charge but we will be accepting donations to the Alec Dale Fund and the Meadville Public Library.
(Bring your textbook!)
Psych 110 Foundations of Psychology
& other 100-level Psychology Courses