Federal legislation requires that students with disabilities have access to the general-education curriculum, and research indicates that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students with mild disabilities being served in regular-education classrooms (Edyburn 2000). This means that teachers must meet the challenge of modifying instruction to include students with a wide variety of needs. Students with disabilities (whether cognitive, physical, sensory, language, or emotional) that negatively affect their school performance and who are included in the general-education classroom may require specific modifications (Lewis and Doorlag 2006). Federal legislation requires that supplementary aids and services be provided to students with diagnosed disabilities to assist them in accessing the general-education curriculum. Such modifications to the curriculum may include assistive technology (AT) devices and services.
AT can be any item, piece of equipment, or teachermade product that is designed to improve a student’s functional capability or help a student succeed in accessing the general education curriculum. Students with disabilities have used items such as pencil grips and text-to-speech devices to succeed in life activities and in inclusive classrooms.
Johnston, Beard, and Carpenter (2006) identified the AT continuum for instructional purposes as follows:
- no tech—no aids required;
- light-tech—easily attainable adaptations teachers provide on a day-to-day basis, which are readily available in the classroom;
- high-tech—computer access and electronic devices.
Light-tech AT for use in the science classroom might include a modified meterstick with staples at the centimeter markings for tactile use by those with visual impairments. Examples of a high-tech device include an instructional software program that converts text to speech for students who function at low reading levels; such devices could be used with headsets by students during classroom time. AT could also include high-tech devices such as talking clocks and augmentative and alternative communication devices (text-to-speech instruments used by individuals with severe language or speech problems). AT is not only useful to students with disabilities; it can be beneficial to regular-education students who need adaptations within the curriculum and provide enrichment experiences for high-achieving students.
Lahm and Morrissette (1994) identify seven instructional areas in which AT has proven advantageous for use with students with mild disabilities: organization, note taking, writing assistance, productivity, access to reference materials, cognitive assistance, and materials modification. In this article, we discuss the application of a wide variety of ATs in each of the seven instructional areas that are especially useful in the secondary science classroom with both special-needs and regular-education students.
Many light- and high-tech strategies for teaching students thought- and work-organization skills have been developed. Light-tech solutions include the use of flow charts, task analysis, webbing or networking ideas, and outlining (Lahm and Morrissette 1994). For example, many students with cognitive disabilities (and regular-education
students) have difficulty managing large amounts of information such as that found in a typical assigned reading passage in a biology or physics text. Graphic organizers help students extract pertinent information from considerable textual data, compare and contrast complex information, and rank information in order of importance. Graphic organizers are available commercially, can be handmade, or are available free of charge from several websites. Grumbine and Alden (2006) suggest initially providing students with partially completed graphic organizers of key ideas and supporting details to accompany assigned science readings; through these examples students become better able to generate their own outlines or organizers.
Commercially available mapping software, such as Inspiration, is an example of a high-tech solution to organizational work and thought problems. Using the software to create concept maps and outlines, students are able to easily visualize concepts, ideas, and relationships as they enter key ideas (which can be represented with a wide variety of icons) and supporting information, and show the relationships among the concepts using connecting arrows and lines. Words can be added to the linking arrows and lines to further clarify relationships among the concepts.
If commercial software is unavailable, concept maps and outlines can be constructed easily using the drawing function of a word processor and icons freely available online. Clip art, videos, animations, maps, diagrams, and other graphic elements can be found online as well and are useful in assisting students who need visual imagery to better understand the concepts in a lesson.
Students with mild disabilities in the secondary science classroom often have trouble learning and remembering science content, especially when lecture is the primary instructional method. Note taking is a difficult skill for all students to master and can be quite daunting for students who struggle with cognitive disabilities and motor-coordination problems. These students may be unable to keep up with note taking and have difficulty understanding their notes upon rereading.
Teachers can use light-tech devices such as advance organizers to assist students with note taking. Advance organizers can include charts, concept maps, outlines, Venn diagrams, and many other tools produced and distributed by teachers prior to lessons. Once students become familiar with different types of advance organizers and how to use them, they may select which one they would prefer to use or may elect to create their own. Advance organizers can be used to help students keep up with a lecture, identify the major concepts of a topic, provide an outline of content, present background information, provide objectives prior to the start of a lesson, or provide relevance for a lesson.
High-tech assistive devices useful for note taking include tape or digital recorders to record lectures for later transcription, overhead projectors or computer-based projectors to provide class notes to students in an outline format, and web-based course management systems (CMS) that allow students to access class notes online. [Editor’s note: For more information on how to use a CMS in the classroom, visit The Science Teacher’s October 2006 article “Using a Course Management System to Improve Classroom Communication,” by Matthew Perkins and Jay Pfaffman.]
Research has indicated that when students have the opportunity to work collaboratively within cooperative groups to discuss, illustrate, revise, edit, and make use of technology, the compositional quality of written projects improves (Kame’enui et al. 2002). Working collaboratively and providing students the opportunity to work within cooperative groups is a means by which teachers adapt many lessons for students. This type of adaptation can provide students with the support they need to complete a specified task. The use of overhead projectors has also been shown to aid students in written expression. Using an overhead projector, teachers can demonstrate how complex scientific information presented in a lab-report format can be modified into a less-formal narrative format (Friend and Bursuck 2002).
Word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, which enable student writers to organize and revise text in order to improve the final writing product, can be especially beneficial to students with disabilities. These programs also allow students to organize their thoughts and ideas while simultaneously checking for spelling and grammatical errors.
Software packages such as Writing with Symbols and Boardmaker assist students by translating words into visual icons. Using this software, students are able to view icons or symbols representing words as they are typed. This software package also features a text-to-speech function. Such visual representation of written language can be used to clarify laboratory procedures, represent complex scientific text selections, and demonstrate scientific processes.
High-tech productivity tools useful to science students with mild disabilities include word processing programs, calculators, calculator-based labs, graphing and graphics software, text-to-speech screen readers, computer-assisted instruction, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). PDAs can be particularly beneficial to students who have difficulty with handwriting (Behrmann 1994). Students take notes using the PDA by writing on the screen using a pen input device, convert that handwritten information in the PDA to computer-readable text, and use the computer for editing and printing.
Computer-assisted instruction is a useful supplement to daily instruction for students with special needs (Christmann, Badgett, and Lucking 1997) because it allows them to work at their own pace. A variety of computer-assisted instruction is freely available online. For example, at the Virtual Cell website (www.ibiblio.org/virtualcell/index.htm), students can select a section of a picture of an animal cell to access information about that area of the cell, zoom in or out on different organelles or areas of the cell, rotate cell organelles, dissect organelles to examine internal structure, and access a large amount of textual information concerning the cell. Many computer-assisted instruction websites include worksheets for use when navigating the sites.
Light-tech student productivity tools might include a notebook with templates for recording laboratory investigations. Students learn the structure of lab-report writing as they are prompted to record hypotheses, procedures, and results in designated sections of the notebook.
Access to reference materials
The internet is a powerful tool that enables all students to access a variety of academic information. Talking devices (e.g., dictionaries and thesauruses, such as the free online Lingvosoft and Talking Dictionary 8.4.5.) and online references (e.g., the Encyclopedia Britannica, Library of Congress, Library Online, and Film Libraries websites) improve access to information for students with disabilities. Reference materials can be accessed using text-to-speech software packages, and tutorials pertaining to the effective use of reference materials are also available. Teachers can find many downloadable products and tutorials via a Google search. Other companies that provide teacher materials have downloads or trial packages on their websites. Because students with disabilities often need more time to process, review, and organize materials, it is useful to copy nonproprietary reference materials onto a CD for students to review multiple times or at a later date.
Materials that provide drill, practice, tutorial instruction, and immediate feedback on content knowledge are important for students with disabilities (O’Bannon and Puckett 2006). Projects that ask students to identify main ideas and respond to key questions through adaptations such as guided reading, highlighting key terms and concepts, and providing visual cues for easier recognition, serve to enhance students’ long- and short-term memories of complex science concepts and processes. Templates such as outlines and concept maps help all students better visualize scientific procedures and processes.
AT devices can be combined with many strong instructional strategies to improve cognition and assist with problem-solving skills (Behrmann 1994). Finally, making a rubric available to students that details how they will be evaluated on specific science projects is important; identifying the expectations that students must meet in order to fulfill requirements for an assignment will help alleviate stress they might feel related to the final evaluation.
Materials creation and modification
Augmentative and alternative communication interventions, such as symbols- and pictures-based communication software, are useful for students with language impairments and reading and cognitive disabilities. Boardmaker, for example, is a database of over 3,000 picture communication symbols in 10 different languages that can be used to translate text-only instruction into picture instruction. Students with reading disabilities, those with attention problems, and English Language Learners (ELLs) will find textual direction interspersed with symbolic instruction easier to navigate than text-only instruction.
|Figure 1. A Text-based Laboratory Activity.|
should be sure that
students understand all
being allowed to proceed.]
To observe a chemical change.
Zipper storage bag Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3)
Film canister Calcium chloride (CaCl2)
Teaspoon Phenol red
Graduated cylinder Goggles
- Put on your goggles and keep them on for the duration of this lab activity.
- Add one level teaspoon of CaCl2 and NaHCO3 to the zipper storage bag.
- Use the graduated cylinder to add 30 mL of phenol red to the film canister.
- Place the lid tightly on the film canister and place the canister into the baggie along with the CaCl2 and NaHCO3. Keep the canister upright and be careful not to spill any of the phenol-red solution.
- Carefully press all of the air out of the bag and seal it securely.
- From the outside of the bag (do not open the bag) work the top off the film canister and spill the phenol red into the other contents of the bag. Observe the reaction.
An example of a text-based laboratory activity without modification is found in Figure 1; the same lab activity modified with Boardmaker software is found in Figure 2. The textual directions in Figure 1 have been simplified with the use of the symbols-based software (Figure 2).
|Figure 2. A Text-based Lab Activity Modified Using Boardmaker Software. [Printed with permission from Boardmarker.]|
ELL students can develop language skills by connecting symbols with their descriptions. If ELL students are presented with a visual representation followed by the written word, the connection will be relevant to material that is being covered. Software could also be used to modify worksheets or create reading books, journals, or posters. If symbols-based software is unavailable, similar adaptations can be produced using pictures imported from the internet or clip art typically included in programs such as Microsoft Word.
A variety of both light- and high-tech AT devices and equipment modifications can be made to materials and equipment in the science lab for students with special needs. Watson and Johnston (2004) report a number of lab equipment modifications and AT devices for visually impaired science students, such as the use of Braille label makers to aid in the identification of chemicals, glassware, and other materials; the use of hand lenses and screen magnifiers or enlarged worksheets; alteration of common laboratory measurement devices for successful independent use by the visually impaired such as the addition of tactile markings to graduated cylinders, flasks, metersticks, and beakers; and the substitution of talking thermometers and timers for traditional visual thermometers and clocks.
Hearing-impaired students will better understand science videos and films with captioning technology, including captioning computer software and personal captioning stations (Kelly et al. 1995). Stinson and Stuckless (1995) describe a new high-tech AT device for hearing-impaired students known as the Computer-Aided Speech-to-Print Transcription System, which allows for the transcription of a spoken lecture to text. Devices such as these are usually made available to students following an AT evaluation and Individualized Education Program (IEP) team decision and are funded by the local education agency.
The number of students with disabilities taking science classes is unlikely to decrease, making it imperative that science teachers are familiar with the available AT services and devices designed to support the education of special-needs and regular-education students. AT devices and services have often been perceived as financially unreachable, too high-tech to implement, and only for those students with severe special needs. Still, funding may be found to implement high-tech devices that can benefit science instruction.
Funding for high-tech devices can come through the school system, the insurance provider, or civic organizations. If the IEP team deems AT appropriate for a student to successfully access the general-education curriculum, the device is paid for by the school system. If teachers feel instructional software is necessary and want to purchase it, many civic organizations provide funding for these purchases. The media center within a school is also a source of funding. Further, many AT devices are low cost and low-tech, and services often involve simple modifications of existing strategies that will benefit both special-education and regular-education students.
Sandy Watson (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of science education and Linda Johnston (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of special education, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
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