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“Not Like a Regular Science Class”: Informal Science Education for Students With Disabilities

October 1, 2008

By Melber, Leah M Brown, Kayla D

Abstract: For many reasons, students with disabilities are not as thoroughly represented in science careers as are their nondisabled peers. In this case study, the authors explore the effects an informal education program focused on environmental science and delivered to college-bound students with disabilities had on comfort level with science and interest in science careers. Results indicate that the informal nature of the program was well-received and increased individuals’ confidence in their science ability. The authors present suggestions for translating this experience into a traditional classroom setting. Keywords: informal education, science, special education

Of children ages six to seventeen, approximately 12 percent receive services through special education programs (Plourde and Klemm 2004). However, this percentage does not carry over into the area of science careers. Even individuals with disabilities who earn advanced degrees are less likely to earn them in the hard sciences such as chemistry or engineering. In addition, science professionals with a disability are more likely to be out of the labor force than their nondisabled peers. Of those practicing scientists with a disability, only 7 percent were under the age of forty-indicating younger generations of individuals with disabilities are not commonly choosing science as a career path (National Science Foundation 2004). Although many factors have led to an underrepresentation of individuals with disabilities in science careers, a lack of early exposure to quality science experiences is likely one contributing element.

The literature is clear that students’ early life experiences can impact later career choice. Thoughts of possible careers begin early in a student’s schooling (Joyce and Farenga 1999) and exposure to the wide range of careers open to students is important (Rysiew, Shore, and Leeb 1999). An authentic understanding of scientists’ work and science careers begins with a quality science curriculum at the K-12 level and the incorporation of experiences outside traditional classroom settings. The importance of these informal science-learning experiences is clear. When practicing scientists were asked about early influences on their current careers, many cited the importance of informal experiences with science, such as museum trips and outdoor activities, to their career choice (COSMOS Corporation 1998).

Science Instruction for Students with Disabilities

The National Science Education Standards clearly state the importance of “inclusion of those who traditionally have not received encouragement and opportunity to pursue science . . . [including] students with disabilities” (National Research Council 1996, 221). However, for a multitude of reasons, many students receiving special education services still do not receive enough science instruction to be considered in line with national standards documents (Melber 2004). Although the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA; 2004) recognizes challenges associated with teaching science to students with disabilities, it also asserts a commitment “to developing strategies to overcome these barriers . . . ensure that all students have the benefit of a good science education and can achieve scientific literacy” (1).

Many students find that when science is taught in a hands-on, inquiry-based manner, it is a preferred subject area (Bennington 2004). This is especially true for students with disabilities who depend on these experiences to access content (Melber 2004). Mastropieri and Scruggs (1995) and Patton (1995) remind us that hands-on activities and personally relevant topics are critical for engaging students with disabilities in science learning. Furthermore, when creating inquirybased science experiences for students with disabilities, it is critical that educators make students feel emotionally safe and have the freedom to pursue investigations without unnecessary teacher evaluation or interference in the inquiry process (Maroney et al. 2003).

However, simply creating a hands-on experience is not sufficient in reaching students with disabilities. Plourde and Klemm (2004) created a matrix, the Levels of Accessibility Matrix (LAM), to evaluate the level of accessibility of hands-on science activities. A level of four is the highest level of accessibility, specifically “Accessible without need for lab modification” (Plourde and Klemm, 656). Structured correctly, these activities can stimulate many skill areas, such as fine motor, coordination, and cognitive development, for students with disabilities (Bennington 2004). True inquiry-based science is not simply a modification of the traditional curriculum but rather the most authentic way for any student to experience science. In addition, there are affective and self-esteem goals that must be considered when structuring any academic course for students with disabilities, such as the creation of cooperative learning experiences that allow all students to actively and meaningfully participate (Bigge, Best, and Heller 2001). In short, Falvey (2005) addresses the importance of the following: believing in children’s capacities; highlighting children’s strengths, gifts, and talents; and assuming children with disabilities are competent.

Informal science-learning experiences, or learning experiences that occur outside a traditional classroom, are one way these authentic, inquiry-based experiences can be shared with students. These experiences’ collaborative nature can support social and self- esteem goals. The access to specimens provides needed handson interaction. The National Science Education Standards state that connecting with resources outside the classroom is critical to a quality science curriculum (National Research Council 1996). The NSTA (1998) indicates that these experiences can be especially helpful in working with students with disabilities. However, although a number of publications that provide information on the overall importance of informal sciencelearning experiences exist, there is less information as to how these experiences can specifically support learners with disabilities.

Best Practices: Creating an Instructional Model

In this article, we focus on a specially designed science field course created for college-bound high school students with disabilities. The course was one part of a larger, established college preparatory program that Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, Technology (DO-IT) offers, based at the University of Washington (see appendix A).

Although the program is held on a large university campus, the activities are basic enough to be implemented at any school site. The program is inherently informal, including elements that Ramey- Gassert, Walberg, and Walberg (1994) identify as key in differentiating informal experiences from traditional classroom learning experiences (e.g., voluntary, student centered, nonassessed, out of school). Through its informal, hands-on structure, this program strives to provide a quality science curriculum to students with a wide range of disabilities, without compromising the complexity of the learning experience.

The program is five days long, including four days of activities and a fifth day dedicated to creating a summary presentation to share with friends enrolled in other courses. Activities include a range of hands-on explorations of scientific specimens and time on the university grounds conducting field surveys of plant and animal species. All activities include opportunities for written description, scientific illustration or diagramming, group discussion, specimen investigation, and communication of discoveries; all are level three or four in the LAM. Sample activities held in the classroom involve dissection of simple flowers and the comparison of different coloration patterns on several turtle shells of the same species. Examples of work conducted outdoors include identification and census of different pigeon coloration and collection of botanical specimens (see appendix B).

In addition to providing instruction in the area of science processes and content-and an overview of the process of scientific inquiry-the field science course places significant emphasis on the development of selfefficacy in the area of science. The paths to explore the campus are wheelchair accessible, and specimens for investigation are easily accessible from the paths. This allows students to easily partake in all aspects of the course activities, whatever the nature of their disability, without significant assistance from the instructor. As the DO-IT program focuses on the importance of selfadvocacy, teachers implement any additional activity modifications that students request.

Examining Best Practices: An Exploratory Study

Researchers launched an exploratory study (Cresswell 1994) to provide insight into how well the instructional model met students’ needs. Five students were enrolled in the course, all of whom were entering their junior or senior year of high school. Students had a significant diversity of disabilities, ranging from learning disabilities to motor impairments necessitating manual or electric wheelchairs. The researchers collected data through (a) student questionnaires, (b) analysis of student-generated work, (c) instructor reflections, and (d) student reflections. The researchers analyzed data from all sources thematically, identifying areas of the course that had the greatest impact on students. All five students indicated that there were elements in the course that helped them feel good about their abilities to do science and increased their confidence in this area. Students proudly commented on their “ability to participate” and identified areas of personal strength: “it helped me to observe things-one of my strong suits.” Course participants were overheard teaching students from other courses during social events or mealtimes. Although the course did not seem to change any of the students’ perspectives on career choice, one student did indicate, “I will most likely take more science classes in college.”

All five students indicated that they learned new content, with special emphasis on the course’s “first-hand exposure” as critical to their understanding. Perhaps the greatest indicator of content gains came from listening to students sharing with their peers. Because the classroom was filled with live insects, colorful flowers, and specimens such as antlers and turtle shells, students would often wander in to see what their peers were studying. Students eagerly answered their peers’ questions and shared their newly acquired knowledge. Students also gained an understanding of the process of science, acknowledging the importance of unknowns and close examination and the reality that anything can be a clue. Some even began planning independent investigations: “How could they [hydrangeas] have different colored flowers on the same plant? They look the same age so the soil couldn’t have changed acidity-I wish we could test the soil.”

Lessons Learned: Implementing Best Practices

When asked why people enjoy informal learning experiences more than traditional classroom experiences, Howard Gardner (1991) commented that our classrooms would be well served to follow the model of informal learning sites such as museums as they better support learners of all types as well as address motivation and promote enjoyment of learning. The following includes a few methods to implement positive elements of informal learning into the classroom curriculum.

Provide Alternative Assessment Strategies

Students with disabilities may find that their disability prevents them from expressing their understanding and knowledge through traditional pathways. Allowing students to use oral communication, computer presentations, illustrations, diagrams, and group discussions to demonstrate understanding of a topic will provide a more accurate view of student achievement. Consider how you might measure student learning in a zoo or science center. It is likely questioning or discussion would be your primary method of gathering data.

Incorporate Objects and Specimens

Students with disabilities may find that traditional schooling activities are not a good match for their abilities. This can result in a lack of interest or motivation, particularly when these activities may not truly measure a student’s capabilities. When objects and specimens are incorporated, not only does this provide the authentic context so important for students with learning disabilities but it can also increase student excitement, encouraging them to take risks in academic areas such as language arts expression. Writing a paragraph about a tortoise wandering around the classroom is more stimulating than answering essay questions from the back of a textbook.

Plan for Durability

When incorporating objects and specimens, take into account that students with disabilities may need items that are durable. A student with fine motor difficulties may inadvertently drop an object during an investigation. Students with cognitive delays or behavioral difficulties might treat an object roughly out of frustration. To create a successful learning environment, be sure to select items that can withstand student investigation.

Get Out of the Classroom

Many students with disabilities find that informal learning experiences, such as visits to museums or parks, are motivating experiences and allow for learning through alternate modalities. Take advantage of the school grounds, take walks around the block, or visit a local science center to support student learning. Many students with disabilities may not have had the same museum-going experiences as their peers because of transportation issues, limited family funds, or health services schedules. By making science field trips a part of their learning, you are setting them up for successfully using these facilities as science-enrichment experiences later in life.

Prepare for Accommodations

Although flexibility is a critical part of any instructional plan, it is crucial when working with students with disabilities. No matter how well an activity has been planned, it is possible that a student’s wheelchair may need charging or that learner fatigue may cut an outing short. Accommodations for students with disabilities will vary by individual, and thus listing every possible need is beyond our scope. Work with students to determine how best to accommodate their science learning, ensuring they receive the same quality experience as their nondisabled peers, yet carefully tailored to work with their strengths (see appendix C). Just as you would take advantage of a teachable moment in a museum or zoo, such as a special exhibit or animal feeding, take advantage of teachable moments as they arise in class. A strange flower that has sprouted outside the classroom or an unplanned rainstorm can easily translate into an impromptu science lesson.

Empower the Learner

Provide students with learning experiences that allow them to plan investigations, make decisions, and share their discoveries. Students love informal learning sites because they get to choose what they attend and the displays in which they are most interested. Students with disabilities often struggle with self-esteem issues. By providing science experiences in the classroom that empower them and allow them to take the lead, you will build their confidence in their abilities and encourage them to take academic risks in the future (see appendix D).


A motivated student is more likely to apply him or herself to the learning task at hand (Covington 1998), which in turn can lead to greater learning gains. Informal, inquiry-based science experiences, such as the model described here, can assist in keeping students on task and cognitively engaged. When learning experiences take place in novel locations outside the classroom, such as in museums and outdoor spaces, they help all students understand science concepts in an authentic and engaging context (National Research Council 1996). Although important for all students, these types of experiences are critical in meeting “different learning styles and effectively [serving] the complete spectrum of learners” (NSTA 1998, 1). With evidence that “some kids with disabilities have expectations that are lower than they need to be” (Burgstahler 2006, Web site), embracing as many opportunities as possible to increase student confidence can be instrumental in supporting future academic performance and career selection.


Bennington, A. 2004. Science and pre-school children with special educational needs: Aspects of home-based teaching sessions. British Journal of Special Education 31 (4): 191-98.

Bigge, J. L., S. J. Best, and K. W. Heller. 2001. Teaching individuals with physical, health, or multiple disabilities. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Burgstahler, S. 2006. DO-IT programs and resources. http:// www.wash ington.edu/doit/Brochures/overview.html (accessed July 28, 2006).

COSMOS Corporation. 1998. A report on the evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s informal science education program. Bethesda, MD: COSMOS Corporation.

Covington, M. V. 1998. The will to learn: A guide for motivating young people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cresswell, J. W. 1994. Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Falvey, M. 2005. Believe in my child with special needs: Helping children achieve their potential in school. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Gardner, H. 1991. The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic Books.

Joyce, B. A., and S. J. Farenga. 1999. Informal science experience, attitudes, future interest in science, and gender of high-ability students: An exploratory study. School Science and Mathematics 99 (8): 431-37.

Maroney, S. A., K. D. Finson, J. B. Beaver, and M. M. Jensen. 2003. Preparing for successful inquiry in inclusive science classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children 36 (1): 18-25.

Mastropieri, M. A., and T. E. Scruggs. 1995. Teaching science to students with disabilities in general education settings: Practical and proven strategies. Teaching Exceptional Children 27 (4): 10-13.

Melber, L. M. 2004. Inquiry for everyone: Authentic science experiences for students with special needs. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus. http://escholarship.bc.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=1060 &context=education/tecplus (accessed June 6, 2008).

National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Science Foundation. 2004. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/pdf/ nsf04317.pdf (accessed June 28, 2007).

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 1998. An NSTA position statement: Informal science education. Science Teacher 65 (5): 17-18.

_____. 2004. NSTA position statement: Students with disabilities. http://www.nsta.org/positionstatement&psid=41 (accessed July 28, 2006).

Patton, J. R. 1995. Teaching science to students with special needs. Teaching Exceptional Children 27 (4): 4-6. Plourde, L. A., and E. B. Klemm. 2004. Sounds and sense-abilities: Science for all. College Student Journal 38 (4): 653-61.

Ramey-Gassert, L., H. J. Walberg III, and H. J. Walberg. 1994. Reexamining connections: Museums as science learning environments. Science Education 78 (4): 345-63.

Rysiew, K. J., B. M. Shore, and R. T. Leeb. 1999. Multipotentiality, giftedness, and career choice: A review. Journal of Counseling and Development 77:423-30.

Leah M. Melber, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Charter College of Education at California State University, Los Angeles. Kayla D. Brown works with suspended youth in an Americorps program, attends Bellevue Community College, Belleview, WA, and plans to attend a four-year university to study psychology.

Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications


DO-IT Program Description

Many capable individuals with disabilities face challenges as they pursue education and careers. They are underrepresented in many rewarding career fields, including science, engineering, business, and technology. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) serves to increase the participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs and careers. It promotes the use of computer and networking technologies to increase independence, productivity, and participation in education and employment (DO-IT 2006, Web site).


Course Snapshot

The students scattered the minute they exited the building and reached the courtyard. Their instructor continued to shout directions about careful collecting and data recording but the students were already out of earshot and excitedly taking a census of the flora and fauna in the area. The campus pathways so closely adjoined local plant life that students who used wheelchairs were able to collect specimens as easily as their peers. Students that had chosen to work with a partner immediately broke their task into minijobs, with one person responsible for collecting the leaf or flower and the other for recording the vital data. One student preferred to work alone-covering so much territory and collecting so extensively he quickly ran out of data forms and beat his peers back to the classroom.

Although this activity’s focus was on botanical studies, students could not help but be distracted by the large variety of bird life. One of the students moved from group to group, taking digital images of the birds for later identification. Students noted the odd gait of robins and the coloration patterns of the campus’s many pigeons. Squirrels were abundant and students tried with mild success to differentiate among individuals by noting a sparse tail or ragged ear. The biggest mystery of the day was an unusual tree with rusty red bark. Students were especially interested in identifying this unique species.

After a set collecting period, students returned to the classroom to share their specimens with their classmates. Many opted to use the classroom’s Internet access to identify those the teacher could not. The university museum had a Web-based field guide to local flora and fauna students found especially helpful.

Students chose the method they felt was the most effective for recording the day’s observations. Some chose careful scientific illustrations, others relied on short, concise phrases, whereas still others chose lengthy narrative to capture their results. In the end, they compiled all their data into a PowerPoint presentation to share the results of their schoolyard census with the students enrolled in the other courses. The highlight was a video of their instructor modeling the courting dance of a pigeon and several references to the extremely large crow population that overshadowed every other species they had been hoping to encounter. At the end of the day, students returned to their dorm rooms. Several were carrying specimens of the flowers they collected; the varying shades of hydrangeas a hands-down favorite.


Student Reflection

I define science as the study and exploration that connects us to the world, so it makes sense for it to be something everyone can experience. The difficulty is that individuals all have different learning preferences. As someone with a physical disability, I know the importance of finding your own learning style when involved with a field such as science. Participating in the DO-IT field science course provided me with the opportunity to experience different instructional approaches.

People with a disability often have trouble physically and mentally absorbing information and may not get all the benefits of what is being taught because of the approach used. Personally, I had trouble with handling insects during the course. But because of the way the lesson was taught, I was not forced to do what I was not comfortable with, and I did not feel ashamed to say that I did not wish to join the class in that activity.

When learning science, it is essential to be comfortable in what you are doing. The more at ease you are, the more willing you are to learn. I do not like to jump right into things but rather prefer to take my time, assessing the situation at a slower pace. This mostly applies to activities involving physically touching and exploring new objects. This is because I am more of a visual and observational learner rather than kinesthetic. I felt the course addressed these needs and helped me succeed because I was able to explore and learn the way I wanted. This made me confidant when learning new things; I eventually became much braver and excited when taking on new ideas and experiences.

When dealing with students who have physical disabilities, doing physical activities can be difficult. It is important to find other ways to involve them. It is important to ask questions that can involve everyone in class. Asking open-ended questions is important when teaching students who have difficulty understanding questions because they are less specific and allow students to expand on and convey more understanding about the subject. This course specifically addressed this need by beginning all our activities with questions that we had about the activity. For instance, we would explore the ideas and inquiries we had about a task or concept, which led to many in-depth discussions. This was a way of learning that I had not previously experienced in a science class and was one of the most enjoyable parts of my experience in the science fieldwork course. I also enjoyed learning about the levels of PH in the soil and how that affected the color of hydrangea flowers. The lesson on plants made me pay more attention to those minor details, such as the differentiation of colors on flowers, and figuring out the reasons behind it. The program was a truly positive experience for me and the best science-based lesson I have experienced.


Helpful Resources

Making Math, Science and Technology Instruction Accessible to Students with Disabilities: A Resource for Teachers and Teacher Educators. University of Washington, Do-It Program, http:// www.washington.edu/doit/MathSci

The Inclusive Classroom: Mathematics and Science Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities. Council for Exceptional Children, http://www.cec.sped.org/Content/NavigationMenu/AboutCEC/ International/StepbyStep/09.99.pdf

The two aforementioned sites provide helpful tips on creating science experiences accessible for students with disabilities.

Entrypoint2008. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, http://www.ehrweb.aaas.org/entrypoint/index.htm

This site provides information on supporting students with disabilities as they seek careers in the scientific workforce.

Copyright Heldref Publications Sep/Oct 2008

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