Technology Tools to Build a More Accessible STEM Program


Use accessible technologies and authentic STEM experiences to encourage STEM for All 

Mainstream technology tools with built-in accessibility features, and the availability of virtual reality, simulations, and augmented reality offer new opportunities for students with disabilities to access and engage with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) content. This brief presents ways for educational leaders to align the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) practices using accessible technologies and STEM tools with principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They will enable educators to create STEM programs that are accessible for students with disabilities to prepare them for a lifetime of scientific literacy and STEM-related careers.

The NGSS practices identify skills scientists use when working in the field, including the following:

  1. Asking questions and defining problems
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Incorporate the strategies below to help your students become more proficient in the NGSS practices.

Using in Your Classroom: 

Physically “Doing” Science

Physical tasks are an important part of many STEM lessons, from taking soil samples, mixing chemicals, using Bunsen burners, recording data, building models, and performing dissections. These examples of physical work can present significant barriers for students with disabilities. Educational and assistive technologies can help students with the physical demands of science lessons by providing alternative experiences for developing science proficiency and knowledge.

Technology, such as virtual experiments and simulations, can benefit students in two ways. First, they offer students a substitute for the natural world, as with simulations. Second, they can allow students to visualize and interact with the natural world in ways that would typically be impossible, because the processes involved are too fast, small, slow, or large to be easily perceived by people, or are not practical to repeat. For example, a virtual dissection both ensures access for a student who is unable to safely use a scalpel, and allows for repeated viewings, repetitions, and manipulations of organs and tissue without the need for multiple dissections.

Teachers can use technology and classroom supports in a variety of ways to accommodate students who have physical or other barriers to performing science tasks:

  • Use instructional technology (e.g., interactive and virtual reality applications) to support student visualization and modeling.
  • Arrange teams that pair students with disabilities with other students who can support them in performing some tasks (e.g., mixing chemicals, making cuts with a scalpel).
  • Connect with other educators and sign-up for STEM learning newsletters, listservs, and collaborative learning platforms to share strategies and ideas.
  • Explore additional teaching strategies and resources for making science accessible for all students.

Student Engagement and Identity with Science

One of the most important dimensions of science education for all students is their ability to engage with science and see themselves as scientists.  Even if students do not plan to pursue careers in a STEM field, scientific literacy is still critical in enabling students to engage productively with scientific language and content in their daily lives. An important element of both identity and engagement are authentic activities that encourage students' active involvement in scientific inquiry. Inquiry-based digital science curricula, scenarios and immersive environments, and e-learning opportunities with distance technology give students the chance to try the role of "scientist". As students work towards solving the central problem (or addressing a driving question), they become more engaged in the learning process, take more control over their own learning, and are more likely to see themselves as scientists.

To encourage students who have a difficult time imagining themselves as future STEM professionals, teachers can consider some of these approaches:

  • Share examples of scientists from all backgrounds, of different races and ethnicities, and with disabilities.
  • Provide opportunities for virtual engagement with scientists via Skype or Google.
  • Identify games and simulations where students get to model being scientists through their virtual activity.
  • Identify programs or resources and technologies for aspiring scientists that can help students see the type of support they could receive.

Science Literacy, Vocabulary and Discourse

Students need to master specific vocabulary and use it in their science writing activities (e.g., observations, journals, lab reports). As students move from general science courses to more in-depth and content-heavy courses, the knowledge and vocabulary required to comprehend required readings and activities become even more critical. These skills can be particularly challenging for students from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds, or with cognitive and/or language-based challenges.

There are several options that include technology that enable teachers to support and accommodate all students, especially those for whom the language of science is a challenge:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary and ensure that students understand nuanced meanings, which can improve students' comprehension.
  • Use technologies that can strengthen students' background knowledge and vocabulary proficiency.
  • Make the expectations of science discourse explicit and let students know that part of succeeding in science both on tests and in life is using the proper language in scientifically appropriate ways.
  • Develop exercises that will help students strengthen their use of scientific discourse, including modeling correct oral and written expressions.

Visualizations, Representation and Modeling 

Science learning involves creating abstract representations and models of processes that we are unable to observe with the naked eye. For example, chemistry texts often use images to represent atoms and molecules, and the processes and changes in them. Because these reactions occur at a very small scale and are difficult to observe, we must use visualizations and representations to help us understand what is occurring. Likewise, we use models and graphics to represent natural processes such as the carbon cycle, which occur over long periods of time and are similarly difficult to observe. Static figures — illustrations, diagrams and images — allow students to see relationships in ways that language alone cannot express.

Additionally, for students with cognitive or visual impairments, the critical information contained in the representations may be inaccessible if presented in a traditional textbook (e.g., text and static graphics). Educational and assistive technologies can make a difference by giving students ways to access and engage in visual representations and modeling using universally designed instructional materials, accessible educational materials, and educational technology.   

To accommodate struggling students for whom visualization and modeling may be challenging, teachers can consider the following:

  • Look for technological resources to expose students to new and different ways of representing the phenomena they are studying; the more representations of a concept, the better.
  • Ensure that students understand that scientific visualization and modeling are more than graphical and visual approaches.
  • Encourage students to discuss and critique some of the approaches to models in textbooks. Ask them why conventions in a particular book or website are used.
  • Challenge students to think outside of the typical hypothesis-method-results-conclusion method; support them in constructing and exploring their ideas through drawings, models, and digital simulations.
  • Create a classroom maker space with simple objects or tools to help students create their own 3D representations from 2D visuals.

Questions, Argumentation, and Use of Evidence

An important part of science learning is knowing how to engage in signature scientific acts, such as formulating questions and using evidence in arguments. When students use evidence to make claims and interact with their peers who are also presenting evidence-based arguments, they are engaging in authentic activities as part of a scientific community. In these interactions, students take on the role of critic and defender of positions, rather than learning about scientific principles through teacher lecture, or textbook reading.

Classrooms that facilitate collaboration and scientific discourse among students have the added benefit of helping students develop their critical thinking and reasoning skills, and encouraging scientific thinking. In a process akin to peer review, students develop questions, present hypotheses and observations, debate conclusions, and use one another's ideas as a jumping off point for their own conclusions. Struggling students may find this process challenging, because it requires being able to abstract their own opinions and beliefs from the evidence, comment on the relationship between the evidence and the claims, and use sophisticated and specific language.

To accommodate students for whom authentic scientific activities are challenging, teachers can try the following strategies:

  • Seek out inquiry-based technology curricula that support students' development of questions and use of problem-based learning.
  • Show students how they can construct a scientific argument using evidence, and explain that this process is probably similar to how they argue for who is the better artist, sports hero, or celebrity.
  • Use visualization tools, including concept mapping, to develop both interrelated questions and question-boards and structured science arguments that have the main features of a claim, evidence and reasoning.
What the Research Says: 

STEM education serves as the foundation of innovation in our society. Innovative products often derive from a problem or challenge that requires a unique solution, making it imperative that all students, including those with disabilities, have access to a rigorous STEM curriculum. Thanks to more accessible technologies and a concerted nationwide effort to address underrepresented populations in STEM fields, more individuals with disabilities are pursuing careers in science and engineering (Sparks, 2017). However, given the historic lack of diverse representation in STEM fields, some student populations are deterred from exploring scientific interests (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). This situation places these students at a disadvantage given that employment in occupations related to STEM is projected to grow to more than 9 million, an increase of 13 percent, between 2012 and 2022. This is faster than the 11 percent rate of growth projected for all occupations over the decade (Vilorio, 2014).

While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students. They need to understand what it means to think like a scientist, and how to evaluate information that is called "scientific". Struggling students are no exception — they will need the same types of knowledge and skills, and often will require additional supports to be successful. To be scientifically literate, students must be able to use scientific knowledge to identify questions, understand concepts, and draw evidence-based conclusions (National Science Board, 2016). To support struggling students, focus attention on building their background knowledge and vocabulary by using tools like electronic resources, multimedia to target background knowledge, and scientific discourse scaffolds (Heller & Greenleaf, 2008).

Research has shown that the most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in authentic activities that require them to think and act like chemists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers or archeologists — that is, when they are engaged in activities that mirror the real-life tasks of STEM professionals. Identity, and perception of oneself as a scientist, are key elements of motivation and engagement with science content (Goldson, 2014). By incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) supported with technology, educators have the tools to support more inclusive, personalized, and accessible learning opportunities for students.


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