Among the changing faces in today’s increasingly diverse classrooms are students with disabilities. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures students with disabilities receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE), the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act mandates accountability by including students with disabilities in standardized testing. These two laws have brought students with special needs, who formerly would have been educated in self-contained classrooms, into general education classrooms, thereby allowing access to the standards-based curriculum. An added benefit of including students with disabilities in the LRE is that it provides varied learning and social opportunities for all students.
However, science teachers—who increasingly have students with special needs in their classrooms—report feeling underprepared to work with them. A recent survey by the University of South Florida that examined the preparation of more than 850 K–12 science teachers from around the United States discovered nearly one-third of the participants received no training on teaching students with disabilities. Moreover, of the teachers who had received training, the most commonly cited source was ‘on the job.”
While science teachers receive little training in teaching students with disabilities, their colleagues in special education receive little training in science. Collaboration between science and special education teachers would seemingly provide an easy solution to this problem, but it turns out—like many things in education—the solution is not that easy. Aside from the challenges of schedules, supervisors, and the already overwhelming number of demands placed upon teachers, models of collaboration are not stressed in most teacher education programs. Therefore, support and training for science and special education teachers is imperative to meetthe worthy goal of ‘Science for All.”
Fortunately, teachers are not alone in the quest for identifying and implementing best practices for teaching science to students with special needs. Opportunities for professional development do exist. For example, many NSTA journals include articles about strategies for teaching students with disabilities in science classes. By simply searching terms such as ‘disabilities,” ‘special needs,” or ‘Universal Design for Learning” in NSTA’s online Science Store, teachers can access articles and books providing practical, teacher-tested approaches. Similarly, the Council for Exceptional Children’s journals have many articles specifically devoted to science.
We are thrilled to note NSTA is developing a new website on science and disability (expected to launch in late 2013) that will include background information on various disabilities, specific strategies for differentiating science lessons and assessments, and additional teacher resources. In addition, NSTA’s Special Needs Advisory Board and an associated group, Science Education for Students with Disabilities are comprised of professionals who are continually working to provide support for quality inclusive science practices. We encourage NSTA members to become involved in these groups. And finally, NSTA’s upcoming National Conference on Science Education in San Antonio, Texas, will include several outstanding presentations, many comprising the ‘Next Generation Special Populations: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners” strand. Attendees can view the online scheduler and search for the keywords ‘disabilities” and ‘special needs” for a comprehensive list of sessions.
Some key topics for science teachers working with students of varying ability levels should include the use of disability accommodations and modifications in the science classroom, implementation of technology to level the playing field, strategies for working with special educators to maximize student learning, the science teacher’s role in preparing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Regarding the latter, it is common for students with learning disabilities and others to understand the concepts presented in labs but have difficulty transferring their knowledge to written lab reports. An accommodation that is both differentiated and UDL would allow any student who chooses (not just those with an IEP) to video record their findings and include pictures to demonstrate learning. Scaffolding for lab writing skills can be provided as students gain proficiency in communicating their findings. Another example of UDL is to provide a short video of the content being read/lectured about so students can experience the information through another modality (BrainPOP, BrainPOP Jr., BrainPOP ESL, or Discovery Education are some resources for short video segments on various topics). The student can review these videos, as well as videos of lectures, for additional reinforcement of important ideas.
While UDL seeks to maximize accessibility to the most number of students and minimize the need for specific disability modifications, it does not eliminate them. Therefore, science teachers need to be cognizant of specific strategies and supports for students with disabilities on an individualized basis. Consulting with special education colleagues and exploring some of the many resources mentioned earlier are great first steps in that process.
We firmly believe ‘Science for All” is not only a worthy goal, but also a moral imperative necessitating commitment to ensure every student has the opportunity to experience the beauty, joy, and challenge of science. This can only be accomplished by providing science and special education teachers with the tools, strategies, and supports needed to feel confident, competent, collaborative, and committed to reaching all learners.
Sami Kahn is a presidential doctoral fellow in science education at the University of South Florida. She uses her background in law and science teaching to inform her research on inclusive science practices. She currently serves as chair of NSTA’s Special Needs Advisory Board and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Sara Aronin is an assistant professor in the special education department at West Virginia University. Her teaching and research focus is on differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning in STEM. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.