UDL STEAM for special education classes


by Carmen Watts Clayton

Carmen Watts Clayton

Carmen Watts Clayton

UDL (universal design for learning) lessons in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) for learners with special needs and limited communication abilities can be engaging and successful as a way to build student skills in collaborative project-based learning and communication. Lessons should be project-based, be centered on students’ interests, and build on collaborative activities that allow learners to engage with the materials and each other. Projects can be tailored to utilize materials on hand, common objects, physical phenomena, and natural patterns. Lessons can be theme-directed or connect to units covered on the general education campus.

Editor’s Note: See UDL Idea: Junkyard Wars Student Edition! for some free maker space teacher guides!

Science lessons could include components of identifying, observing, and recording data. Learning the language of data, its collection, and analysis is a universal 21st century skill. Although students may learn primarily through visual or other means, materials can be adapted to assist them in noticing and recording information to share and to reflect on how the processing of using data can influence our decision making. Students with IEPs are also naturally curious. When teachers transfer ownership of the learning objectives to the students and student teams, Common Core standards are met, and higher-level thinking and learning skills are accessed.

When teachers present information, content, and directives in multiple modalities, students learn to build practical research skills. A typical science lesson might include:

  • A warm up
  • The hook/engagement: Presenting the mystery
  • Buy-in: Involve the students in setting criteria or solving a problem
  • Model the learning activity: Precise step-by-step how-to
  • Role-play the sequence: “I Do, You Do with Me, We Do” (build independence)
  • Set up the learning environment for success
  • The lesson addresses the present levels and goals of students
  • Provide support (*Note: Adults support without doing the project)
  • Team collaborations: Members choose their roles and tasks
  • Supported team experiment or engaging with the materials, recording results (open ended)
  • Analysis / reflection
  • Assessment or portfolio

Activities that promote scientifically based observations and analysis by students lend themselves to a really broad range of tools: drawing, describing, organizing, comparing, rating, and expressing student opinions about the content are skills that students with special needs can do given the opportunity and assistance. Recording, charting, graphing, and documenting evidence is a process that is also accomplished through different means. Think creatively about comparisons, assigning numerical values to collected data, and representing data in graphs, charts, and other visual ways. Be creative to help students learn to exercise choice, voice, and the collaborative process during a structured observational process (science).

Students also like to build and create things when they see, hear, and experience new phenomena. Maker spaces are becoming popular ways to support students to learn about tools and processes in making things work (engineering). Students with special needs can engage in maker-space activities too. Sometimes educators can find materials at hand which students can use to create parts, practice using hand tools, and exercise their creative abilities. Many kits and building systems are also commercially available to teachers. If student creations do something at the end of the day, the result could be technology! If not, perhaps it is “Art,” but in either case the student learns about collaborating, building understanding, communicating needs and reflections, engaging in learning objectives, and access to math and science concepts within Common Core standards.

Students will build important conceptual understanding, and see ways their knowledge is not isolated to a single subject or a single classroom. Student will learn content they can transfer to the real world and career aspirations.

Collaborative learning environments for middle school students are typically difficult for students with disabilities, so preparation in the form of pre-teaching and repeating lessons with literary, visual, auditory, and hands-on components is helpful. Remember the basic steps of making materials accessible:

  • Enlarge print materials font size and contrast
  • Provide captions for videos with sound present
  • Check for understanding; allow extra time
  • Seating/positioning options for high-level access
  • Provide materials ahead if possible (flipped curriculum)
  • Provide materials in more than one learning or communication mode

Think flexibly when presenting science lessons to students with IEPs. Presenting Common Core curriculum adapted to students with special needs is fun and engaging, gives you a chance to use technology in the classroom, and encourages students to work collaboratively on goals and transitions. Form relationships to the constructs of scientific thinking and process, rather than an expected outcome.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. – Albert Einstein (1930)

Carmen Watts-Clayton is lead teacher in a moderate/severe elementary special day class. She is a vocal proponent of technology in the classroom and has experience securing donations and grants to support it. You can e-mail her at cwattsclayton@gmail.com with your experiences or questions.


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