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Spotlight on Dr Stefan Schutt

The Work-based Education Research Centre's Dr Stefan Schutt has spent much of 2011 in the spotlight, but he hasn't let it distract him from his research.

Most of the hype has been around a technology club for young people with Asperger's Syndrome called the Lab.

The award-winning researcher and educator has recently been filmed for ABC TV, spoken on ABC and RRR radio, been in the Age, local papers and industry magazines discussing his research. To top it off this month the Lab won a Maribyrnong Council community engagement award.

The Lab offers one-to-one tuition by technology professionals in programming, 3D, digital design and gaming for eight to 16 year-old young people with Asperger's Syndrome who enjoy computers.

While Schutt welcomes all the attention around the Lab, as a way of raising awareness of the need for such services, he measures the program's success by its impact on those involved.

"The feedback from participants and parents on how the Lab has changed their lives is where it's at," he says. "We've seen kids making friends for the first time and others reduce anxiety medication by up to half."

There is a group of 10 children using the Lab weekly and a waiting list of 40, including demand from interstate. Schutt says the Lab's popularity, like the media attention, shows the demand for programs like this.

"It just hit a nerve and people instinctively realized that it makes a lot of sense: many kids with Asperger's are into computers and the whole idea of moderated socialisation can help," he says. "A program like this was just there waiting to be found."

Schutt will soon visit the University of South Australia to talk about setting up a similar program there. Meanwhile he is developing an online version of the Lab that would include modular electronics tutorials for the kids.

The project's evolution says a lot about Schutt's approach to research: Impatient to get it off the ground, he and co-founder Dale Linegar were looking for sites to set it up before having any funding. They eventually found a run-down Footscray art studio and opened the Lab there in July this year, subsidized by Linegar's co-habited computer programming business.

This shop front enterprise model was inspired by American author Dave Eggars and his 826 Valencia project, where McSweeney's literary journal staff help disadvantaged kids with writing.

The Lab has recently moved to the former Fletcher Jones factory in Maidstone and been funded as a showcase project for the new Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing.

Schutt calls himself a novice researcher but says his methods have so far taken him where he wants to go.

"The approach with the Lab was to simply get out there, participate and deal with the people as partners rather than observing them as an outsider," he says. "We wanted to do something that made a difference then look at the research that came from that."

Schutt says this modus operandi has taken his research "all over the place" from web-based systems for sharing life stories and virtual worlds for construction teaching to tailoring computer technology for the disabled.

"The one constant for me in my research has been the 'tech' side and applying that in meaningful ways," he says. "As a researcher I find it a real privilege to be able to indulge your curiosity and to feel like you're making a bit of a difference along the way."

Prior to working at VU, Schutt established and ran Australia's first Computer Clubhouse, an international skills initiative for disadvantaged young people. He has also worked as an internet industry producer and developer, and before that as a musician and copywriter.

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