This weekend 48 teams participated in the largest robot competition in Canada: the Windsor-Essex Great Lakes Regional. Teams came from across Ontario, Michigan, New York and California to compete at the University of Windsor. My spouse took my son to partake in the events Saturday morning and he came home with an amazing amount of energy. He was so excited that he decided to build the robot he received last year for his birthday. He has been working on it all weekend to my amazement.
Watching my son’s enthusiasm got me to thinking about other kids and how to get them excited about technology. As a former engineer and now a teacher that works with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, I wondered how students with disabilities can participate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) activities with success.
Based on the research, individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM careers despite advances in adaptive technology. According to the National Science Foundation, individuals with disabilities are employed in only 5–6% of the U.S. STEM jobs. 1
Too many students are told that STEM is too hard or that they aren’t smart enough. STEM can be difficult, but with appropriate support and mentoring, students with learning disabilities can be successful. Some studies show that the use of “advance organizers” such as study guides, charts, and graphic displays is helpful to reinforce vital concepts for students with learning disabilities. Another strategy that is rooted in UDL is to provide an introduction of vocabulary and key terms at the beginning of each lesson. The use of prompts, organizational cues, bridging phrases (i.e. “an important point to remember”), and real-life examples helps to show important concepts.
Many students with learning difficulties have below average reading skills. The layout of science textbooks makes it more difficult for these students to read and understand the text which they are reading. Teachers can help by identifying important items in the text and clarify anything that may be confusing. Teachers can also consider providing chapter notes. Providing visual aids and class transcriptions can help as can a variety of pedagogical instructional strategies based on UDL.
Teachers should provide clear instructions both verbally and written for students with learning disabilities. Complex assignments and experiments are better to broken down into smaller tasks with intermediate due dates.
Finally, students need to be encouraged that they can pursue their interests and study STEM successfully. Providing mentoring and programs that assist students with learning disabilities follow these interests has shown to be just as important as providing accommodations in the classroom. Students gain confidence in their skills and are more willing to take risks and try different things.
Working with students with learning disabilities I am able to see first-hand how passionate many students are about Science and Technology. They are inquisitive and knowledgeable and very much passionate about learning. Difficulties with reading and organization can inhibit their learning. It’s time for us as parents and educators to shift the paradigm and start encouraging kids to pursue their interests no matter how “hard” it is perceived. As educators, we need to evaluate our pedagogical styles to ensure that we are as inclusive as possible and are reaching every child. We need to help our students follow their interests and take risks. We need to help them stay on course and not quit when things become too difficult. What strategies do you use in your classroom to teach STEM to your students with learning disabilities?
- Students with Disabilities Can Participate and Succeed in STEM Education Anya Evmenova, Melinda Jones Ault, and Margaret E. Bausch, 2013.