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Overcoming STEM barriers in school

In Part 1 of this article, we explained that every student should learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects in school. A strong background in these subjects can lead to more opportunities for careers. However, students with disabilities face many barriers to learning STEM and to pursuing career paths involving STEM. In Part 2, we discuss how teachers and support staff can work together to overcome these barriers.

STEM Accessibility in School

As we discussed in Part 1, STEM subject teachers may not know how to teach visual material in non-visual ways. For instance, teachers often explain spatial reasoning with line drawings of three-dimensional shapes, which can be a challenge for blind students. However, teachers can create lessons that include both the line drawings and matching three-dimensional models. In this way, the teacher would be using a universal design approach that could enhance the lesson for many students.

Staff Working Together

Classroom teachers can overcome this and other barriers by involving support teachers in the planning stages of their lessons. These teachers may be teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) or other disability-specific support staff. The two types of teachers can network to share their knowledge and make lessons accessible. For most subjects, a teacher can plan lessons before consulting a TVI, who can quickly make handouts and diagrams accessible. However, for STEM subjects, accessibility might depend on strategies for presenting lessons in different ways. For example, a TVI can help a student who is visually impaired learn about experiment results through their other senses. Moreover, a TVI could show the classroom teacher how to balance the student’s safety with their need to be fully involved with the experiment.

TVIs or other professionals can also support students to show evidence of their learning to their teacher or instructor. In higher levels of math, concepts are often taught by showing equations, statements written in mathematical notation, or diagrams. Students who are blind or visually impaired need to understand the correct notation, either in print or in Braille. A TVI can instruct a student on the correct Braille notation. Meanwhile, the classroom teacher will evaluate the student’s ability to show their work. This example highlights the need for classroom teachers and support staff to be in regular communication concerning STEM courses.

Accessible Testing

Teachers also need flexibility and creativity when developing methods of testing. Teachers can give tests and exams orally and students can answer them in the same way. A scribe can read questions out loud or write down answers that students give verbally. If students can answer a question in words or in a diagram, teachers can provide space for both answer methods. This option allows all students to demonstrate their understanding in a method that works best for them.

Moreover, teachers need to understand exactly what knowledge they are testing in order to evaluate accessibly. They must then find ways for students to show that they have gained this knowledge. For example, in an electronics lab, a blind student cannot read the colour-coded bands on a resistor. However, this student can know what the colours and their order represent. Therefore, if someone else looks at the resistor and reads out the colours, the student can interpret this information. In contrast, in a lab about parallel and series circuits, reading resistance is one step in a larger process. However, the student is not being tested on resistance. Therefore, a student might use an ohmmeter to measure resistance for this activity. These testing adaptations are also useful for students with other conditions, such as colour-blindness.

Flexibility and Problem-Solving

STEM teachers need creativity, flexibility, problem-solving and outside-of-the-box thinking to teach students with disabilities. Therefore, the AODA’s education standards should specify that teaching and testing should be flexible. STEM teachers must adapt to the needs of all students and modify their expectations to address different abilities. Nonetheless, they must provide every student with knowledge and understanding of the required STEM skills and competences. The standards for STEM accessibility in school will need to be specific enough to be enforceable. At the same time, they must be open enough to meet the needs of many groups. Standard creators will need to problem-solve and look at situations from many viewpoints, skills learned in STEM fields.  These strategies will allow them to develop a standard that meets the needs of all students.