Institutional Excellence Nominees

ASCEND program at FAU’s Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute

1. ASCEND program at FAU’s Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute

According to the U.S. National Report Card, 2 out of 3 middle school students score at or below proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, and the statistics are even worse for low-income children in underserved communities. The Florida Atlantic University Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute (SNBI) is addressing the national shortage in STEM career-oriented students with ASCEND (Advancing STEM-Community Engagement through Neuroscience Discovery), an innovative program targeting middle school students in Palm Beach County (PBC).

Since its launch in 2017, ASCEND has grown into an umbrella program with multiple sub-programs, including a 1-day neuroscience mini-camp, Brain Sparks, a semester-long after-school program, NeuroExplorers, and, with the acquisition of a “brain van”, a traveling education program, MobileMinds. MobileMinds is designed to take ASCEND-validated lessons and technologies on the road to support schools in PBC and particularly reach students whose participation may be limited for geographical or socioeconomic reasons.

The ASCEND team comprises graduate student and postdoctoral neuroscience trainees interested in gaining additional training in teaching youth in the community and developing content related to brain science and brain health in the form of fun, engaging activities through in-person lessons, online media, podcasts, webcasts, and virtual reality applications. In addition, MobileMinds works in partnership with the Cox Science Center and Aquarium, incorporating elements of a permanent exhibit, Journey through the Human Brain, developed in collaboration with the SNBI. In just 2 years, ASCEND MobileMinds has visited over 25 Title I and charter schools and reached over 2,300 students and educators across PBC.


2. The Health, Wellness & Aquatics Program at Connections

Connections has developed an innovative Health, Wellness & Aquatics Program to address unique challenges that students with autism experience. This program addresses the No. 1 cause of death for children with autism, which is drowning, as well as lifestyle factors that have a significant impact on their quality of life.

This program starts with a fitness program where a personalized fitness plan is created for each student by a certified personal trainer who understands the motor challenges and lack of desire for structured exercise that many students with autism experience. All students in Pre-K through 8th grade have shown improvement in gross motor skills, and 84% of high schoolers have maintained or improved their weight while during the fitness program.

The nutrition program helps self-restricted eaters gain exposure to healthy foods and applies a systematic approach that has proven effective in helping students expand their diets to include fruits and vegetables. In 2023, the school built a garden that older students maintain. The harvest is shared among classes for learning and has piqued students’ interest in trying these new foods.

The aquatics program includes weekly, one-on-one swim lessons designed specifically for students with autism, who usually acquire this skill differently than neurotypical peers. More than 70% of Connections’ students have learned to swim 5-10 yards independently. Connections’ adaptive aquatics program was shared as a model at the 30th Annual Statewide CARD Conference in 2023 to help more children with autism acquire water safety skills.


3. Aerospace and Innovation Academy

The Aerospace and Innovation Academy (AIA) provides unique STEM experiences, opportunities, and after-school and summer programs for students ages 10-19 within three domains: aerospace engineering, entrepreneurship, and STEM education policy. The AIA offers access to the Wolfpack CubeSat Development Team (WCDT), BLUECUBE Aerospace, Inc., and the AIA SPACE Clubs. The AIA oversees the first middle school team selected by NASA in the U.S. to launch a CubeSat, and to date have launched 2 NASA-selected CubeSats and delivered a third mission for launch. In addition to developing spacecraft and learning astrodynamics, students conduct high altitude balloon missions and annually advocate for STEM issues at state and national levels. They write, publish, and present at ~8 national and international conferences annually. Student work may be found at the AIA YouTube channel, weekly podcast “Let’s Go To Space: BLUE-SKY Learning”, or blog. (,,

The Aerospace and Innovation Academy (AIA) engages young people with authentic engagement with industry and other STEM professionals, strongly emphasizes having a risk tolerant growth mindset, and the Wolfpack’s motto: “Fail fast, fail often, learn from your mistakes.” The AIA Wolfpack team employs a “BLUE-SKY Learning” philosophy and embraces a “Techies and Talkies” approach for engagement. Wolfpack students work well in teams, mentor younger students, and are confident and practiced communicators. The Wolfpack best positions students to remain in the STEM pipeline through their college years. In 2022 AIA students working with BLUECUBE Aerospace were responsible for a Edison Invention Award in the category of Education – Experiential Learning, an Honorable Mention in the ISS National Lab Sustainability Challenge. AIA Wolfpack students were finalists for the Global Space Sustainability Challenge and were selected via BLUECUBE as one of 7 companies for the NASA iTech Focus Event. Older AIA Wolfpack university students currently at UCF, UF, Georgetown University, and Worcester Polytechnic Univ. are developing AMARIS, a CubeSat-based lunar rover. The WCDT helped to organize an international coding hackathon contest based on a space agriculture theme, and aligned to their next mission to space, the FlipSat-1. The Wolfpack signed a third Launch Service Agreement and will launch the FlipSat-1 in 4Q-2023.


4. Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience

MPFI is not only tackling critical questions underlying brain health, but is also sharing our science with K-12 students and teachers throughout Palm Beach and Martin Counties, free of charge. Through extensive education outreach programs, students of all ages participate in hands-on activities and demonstrations, learning about how our brain makes important connections and getting the chance to experience the exciting tools and technology that real scientists use to pursue their curiosity-driven research.

During Brain Exploration Day, hundreds of community members visit the Institute to learn all about memory, movement, and everything that makes us who we are. The institute sends staff and trained neuroscientists to schools in our community to give students the chance to conduct their own neuroscience experiments through hands-on activities and brain crafts. High school students participate in special events like Career Day and the Brain Bee, and teachers receive specialized training and resources to use in their classrooms through the Institute’s innovative TEACHS program.

Last school year, more than 7,000 students in the county benefited by MPFI’s Education Outreach programming, which enormously impacts students’ perception of science as a field, boosts their scientific literacy, and, most importantly, inspires them to envision themselves as future scientists.