For a few hours on October 12, some of the biggest names in innovation will be “hanging out” in Irvine for a very special event, simply called Very Special Innovation Fair, hosted by new community member STEM³ Academy, now occupying a brand new campus right on Von Karman Avenue. Microsoft, SpaceX and Raytheon are just some of the companies collaborating with the pioneering school at this event, to encourage STEM enthusiasts of all ages and abilities, and their parents, via some pretty cool concepts. 

“This will be the first time we are offering the event in Orange County now that we have opened the school here,” says Dr. Ellis Crasnow, director of STEM³ Academy and STEM education at The Help Group. He is a pioneer in developing new teaching models for empowering students across the autistic spectrum and an entrepreneur engaged in transforming lifelong opportunities for special needs students. “It’s really an opportunity for us not only to show the community what it is we do and what our approach to education is but we also have a lot of relationships with a lot of industry and commerce who will be there to show what they do, making this a collaboration between community, parents and industry.”

Dr. Ellis Crasnow (Courtesy of STEM³ Academy)

The Help Group’s STEM³ Academy is the only K-12 school in the nation to provide a STEM curriculum to students with social and learning differences who benefit from more individualized educational instruction. With two existing campuses in the Los Angeles area, STEM³ Academy recently opened the doors to its first campus in Irvine for the 2019-2020 school year. The school prepares students for meaningful careers in a variety of fields, such as engineering, cyber-security, biomedical, coding and the humanities. 

“I am so thankful to have a STEM³ campus in Orange County for my son, he is thriving in the enriched environment created by the staff,” says J.J., a parent of a student enrolled here in Irvine. “Dr. Crasnow has a genuine fondness for kids like my son, and has been hugely helpful in getting him to this unique school. My son loves going to school each day!” 

In addition to STEM³ Academy, The Help Group Learning Center is also housed on the same campus and supports both special needs and general education K-12 homeschooled students in academic and nonacademic subjects. Founded in 1975, The Help Group is the largest, most innovative and comprehensive nonprofit of its kind in the U.S. serving children, adolescents and young adults with special needs related to autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, developmental delays and other emotional challenges. 

Children on the autism spectrum have a number of natural abilities and aptitudes, which lend themselves to STEM pursuits. One in particular that Dr. Crasnow mentions is they often have superior abilities with visual discrimination, the ability to look at two images which are very nearly similar and pick out what the differences between them are. Another area is in debugging software for computer programs, as they are skilled with finding errors in code. That gift also comes into play in quality assurance. 

And while big corporations hiring those on the spectrum might appear a tad bit altruistic, the truth is it really pays them to go after that sector of the population for a couple of reasons. For one, this is a section of the population that has been very underserved and underfocused for a very long time. Secondly, there’s a huge demand for skilled labor such as data analysts and software engineers, that isn’t being met, resulting in companies having to look for talent in places where they haven’t traditionally.

Dr. Crasnow’s excitement for what the community will experience at the fair is palpable as he highlights some of the activities and companies that will be at the event. They include virtual reality experiences, coding, 3D painting and mixed reality by Microsoft, an L.A. Zoo interactive exhibit, hands-on science project by Discovery Cube, aerospace hardware display by Raytheon, the ultimate drone demonstration by DroneBase and PAGO Paper Engineering, among several other uniquely positioned experiences. 

“It’s been a very rewarding experience sharing drone technology with the bright and curious students of STEM³ Academy. Dr. Crasnow and the staff are so passionate about what they do, and have been a pleasure to partner with. This will be our third time exhibiting at the Innovation Fair and we look forward to seeing the excitement of the kids (and their parents) experiencing drones in person,” says Erik Till, head of marketing at DroneBase, one of the vendors at the upcoming Very Special Innovation Fair.  

(Courtesy of STEM³ Academy)

This is the first year that the Very Special Innovation Fair is in Orange County (previous editions have been held in Los Angeles). The free, family-friendly event is a showcase of discovery and imagination that is equal parts science-fair, high-tech exhibition, art show and community carnival. Inspired by the maker movement, it will include activities and experiences offering the opportunity to build things, participate in experiments and demonstrations, and take various gadgets for a test drive, among other experiences.

The response from the Irvine community toward the new campus and its offerings has been phenomenal, according to Dr. Crasnow, who was very active in the community even before the school opened, speaking at a variety of venues on why STEM is important for kids with special needs, what the value is and what the academy’s particular approach to education is. He says, “We want to be part of the community, to be supportive and transparent, show everyone what we are doing, and we invite them to participate with us.”

Very Special Innovation Fair is on Saturday, October 12, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at STEM³ Academy Orange County, 17861 Von Karman Ave, Irvine.

Learn more on  stem3academy.org/innovation-fair/.