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Above: Strategies to accommodate instruction for students with disabilities in STEM education. Photo Credit: DO-IT Center, University of Washington.
How can instructors make appropriate accommodations and modifications while maintaining a safer teaching and learning environment for ALL students and themselves?
A strength of technology and engineering (T&E) education programs is that they provide a unique context for students with varying abilities to apply their knowledge and skills in nontraditional ways. These courses help prepare students with valuable skills needed for college and career readiness. Makerspaces, fab labs, and STEM labs often serve as the unique setting where these formal and informal T&E learning experiences occur. However, due to the amalgam of tools, equipment, chemicals, and other materials found in these spaces, they present potentially hazardous situations with resulting health and safety risks for any student or instructor. Moreover, students with disabilities may require additional accommodations or modifications to protect them and others from these hazards/risks. Providing accessible learning opportunities while upholding the safety of all occupants in a makerspace, fab lab, or STEM lab requires careful consideration, including planning, implementation, and active supervision.
National statistics regarding students with disabilities in public education are an important reminder of why instructors must be prepared to work with students who have varying abilities. Within the U.S., 11% of students between ages 12-17 receive services classified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Of those students, approximately 39% have learning disabilities, 17% have a speech or language impairment, 15% have other health impairments, and 10% are autistic. The other health impairments category can refer to limited strength, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy, hemophilia, Tourette’s syndrome, and many other impairments that can adversely affect a student’s educational performance (IDEA, 2004).
Individuals with disabilities have made significant contributions to STEM fields. For example, Steve Jobs (the late CEO of Apple Inc.) was on the autism spectrum. More recently, Kursat Ceylan, the CEO of Young Guru Academy who has been blind since birth, invented the WeWalk smart cane to warn visually impaired users of obstacles. The WeWalk can be paired with Google Maps and has voice control features to aid in navigation and an ultrasonic distance sensor that vibrates the handle when obstacles are sensed (Puente, 2019). Regardless of their varying abilities, all students can be inspired by STEM and contribute in unique ways. The innovative and design-based nature of T&E education courses allows students to excel in ways they may never have in other classes.
Legal and Safety Obligations
Students with disabilities have a legal right to receive access to a fair and equal education. It is the instructor’s legal responsibility to ensure they are providing accommodations or modifications specified in the student’s individual education program (IEP) or 504 Plan. Accommodations and modifications assist students with disabilities but have different goals. Accommodations help to reduce or eliminate the effects of a student’s disability without lowering academic expectations (e.g., extended time to complete a test), whereas modifications are implemented to adapt the criteria being assessed (e.g., reducing content demands). Both accommodations and modifications could appear on an IEP and 504 Plan. The instructor also has a legal obligation to maintain the health and safety of all occupants in a makerspace, fab lab, or STEM lab when making any accommodations or modifications under duty or standard-of-care responsibility. Therein lies the difficult decision that many school systems must address—can the appropriate accommodations or modifications be made without jeopardizing the health and safety of that student and others in the space, including the instructor?
If the instructor feels the student could harm her or himself or others in the facility, they should communicate their concerns in writing to the building administrator and the student’s IEP case manager. The instructor should note all health and safety concerns and request a meeting to reevaluate the student’s participation in the class. In many states, the instructor is viewed as the professional with expertise in that lab area, and therefore responsible for determining if any student creates an unsafe teaching/learning environment. If the teacher has good reason to believe the student creates an unsafe learning environment, then the strategies in Figure 1 should be discussed in collaboration with the building administrator and the student’s IEP case manager.
As mentioned earlier in this section, you should first contact the building administrator and IEP case manager in writing about your concerns. This will likely prompt a meeting with the case manager, parent, and student to examine potential changes to the student’s IEP. One example of an agreed-upon accommodation could be allowing the student to observe lab activities while not directly conducting the hazardous experiments or processes. They can still learn the content and demonstrate understanding in safer ways such as collecting data, writing a summary report, or drawing pictures to explain the process. In more severe cases the student can watch an online video of the lab or process and complete assignments as previously described. The second option is to have a paraprofessional present who is trained in the same safety criterion as the students, allowing extra supervision and assistance. However, this creates an issue if the trained paraprofessional is absent and a substitute is not trained on the same safety criterion, in which case the instructor should provide a safer alternative assignment. The third option is to provide an alternative class format featuring fewer labs to limit potential hazards while still delivering similar content. This could include the instructor or trained student assistants demonstrating/conducting the hazardous activities for students, allowing them to still experience the lab activities, but in a safer manner. The above scenarios would allow the instructor to provide equal access to similar learning opportunities for all students while fulfilling their obligation to uphold the safety of everyone present.
Court rulings further exemplify the legal importance of this issue, ensuring that students are appropriately placed and supervised in makerspaces and labs. In one case a student with a disability was injured while using a table saw under the supervision of an instructor (they also received prior instruction and testing on how to properly use the saw). As a result of several expert testimonies, the court ruled that the student received the proper safety instruction and was appropriately placed in the T&E education course based on his capabilities. Therefore, the school system was not found negligent for placing this student in an unsafe setting, and the teacher was not negligent for lack of appropriate instruction or supervision for this specific student (Love, 2013). This case serves as a reminder that the instructor must pay attention to any special lab-related accommodations and modifications deemed necessary by the student’s IEP case manager.
Recommendations for Instructors
How can educators, school systems, libraries, makerspaces, fab labs, and STEM labs proactively address common issues to limit the risk of accidents involving individuals with disabilities and being found negligent or reckless? The following are just a few recommendations.
Security – Make sure all items in a makerspace or lab are stored in appropriate lockable cabinets and keys are removed from all power equipment switches to establish a lockout when not in use. This will eliminate any accidental use or theft of those items. Students may not know the danger of these items, so the responsibility is on the teacher to provide a safer learning environment (Love & Roy, 2017).
Design and Layout – The University of Washington (UW) conducted research in which a variety of people with disabilities were asked what would make a makerspace more user friendly (Langston, 2015; Steele, Blaser, & Cakmak, 2018). This research provided some of the following recommendations:
Supervision – Depending on the nature of their disability, students with disabilities require some form of supervision and assistance regardless of age. The teacher is aware that the student has increased safety risks; therefore, the type of supervision that aligns with the student’s IEP or 504 Plan and that was decided upon in collaboration with their IEP case manager, must be provided. If there are paraprofessionals who will be with the student, they should also be present for safety lessons and pass the safety tests to ensure they have knowledge of hazards/risks. Paraprofessionals should not be used to replace instructor supervision because the T&E teacher has specialized training and knowledge regarding safety. They can, however, share supervision with the course instructor when both are present. An exception to this would be a paraprofessional who has district-approved training or certification in T&E education.
Accommodations and Modifications – Allowing students to use hazardous equipment or materials should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The instructor should determine, with the student’s IEP case manager, what equipment is safer to use based on the student's abilities and behavioral trends. For example, if a student suffers from frequent seizures, it would be a risk allowing them to use tools or power equipment, knowing there is a likely chance of a seizure occurring while using these hazardous items. In contrast, a student in a wheelchair who has more refined motor skills may be able to use tools and equipment if they are safely accessible.
*Note - Equipment should not be modified other than adjusting the height or location for accessibility. Any modifications that affect the operation of the equipment would be a liability to the person (e.g., teacher) who makes changes or allows the student to use them. If significant modifications need to be made for a student to operate a piece of equipment, contact the manufacturer and have a certified technician make those changes, so they will be responsible if anything were to happen as a result of that modification.
Shape and Color-Coded Signs – Developing color-coded signs with unique shapes can help students quickly recognize hazards. For example, a green circle with the word “safe,” a yellow triangle with the word “careful,” and a red octagon with “danger” would all represent different levels of hazards around a machine or workstation. The shapes and words are helpful for individuals with color blindness (Roy & Love, 2017).
Tactile Prototyping Tools - Providing tactile prototyping tools, such as clay, allows students with visual impairments or who lack fine motor skills to share their design ideas (Langston, 2015; Steele, et al., 2018).
Scaffold Instruction – Students with attention deficits will benefit from scaffolded instruction. One strategy includes the instructor posting a print or e-text version of safety or protocols at each lab station or machine. Another method is to create posters of the machines with QR codes linked to safety protocols for each piece of equipment.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – A framework for the design and implementation of accessible instructional materials and workspaces, UDL harnesses the power of technology-enhanced, high-leverage practices to enhance instruction for all students. An example is allowing students to choose which learning pathway they will take to demonstrate mastery of an objective. The instructor may present a continuum of options ranging from a high level of support (e.g., direct instruction with a predeveloped plan of action, assessment, and assessment rubric), to lower levels of support (e.g., guided inquiry where the student articulates the plan, assessment outcome(s) that align with the objective, and a rubric for evaluation). Instructional materials should be accessible in multiple formats, and videos should be closed-captioned. Some additional examples of UDL in practice can be found in the article by Basham and Marino (2013).
Additional Strategies – This article presents some broad strategies and recommendations for assisting individuals with disabilities. For strategies and recommendations related to specific disabilities, please see the suggested resources and references listed below.
While this article presents numerous facility design, legal, and instructional considerations, instructors should continue working with their special education department, administrators, and facilities department/architects in their district to ensure their makerspace or lab is designed to be as inclusive and safe as possible. Sharing the resources highlighted in this article can help open dialog regarding this topic. Instructors and school districts must remember that, ultimately, any accommodations or modifications that are made must not compromise the safety of the student or others (including the instructor).
The following are excellent resources provided by other STEM education content areas and are applicable to many aspects of facilities design and instruction in T&E education:
1. University of Washington: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center
a) AccessEngineering – www.washington.edu/doit/programs/accessengineering/
b) AccessSTEM – www.washington.edu/doit/programs/accessstem/
c) Making a Makerspace? Guidelines for Accessibility and Universal Design – www.washington.edu/doit/making-makerspace-guidelines-accessibility-and-universal-design
2. National Science Teaching Association (NSTA): Science for Students with Disabilities - www.nsta.org/disabilities/
3. American Chemical Society: Teaching Chemistry to Students with Disabilities (4th edition) - www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/education/publications/teaching-chemistry-to-students-with-disabilities.pdf
Basham, J. D. & Marino, M. T. (2013). Understanding STEM education and supporting students through universal design for learning. Teaching Exceptional Children. 45(4), 8-15.
Langston, J. (2015, August 5). How makerspaces can be accessible to people with disabilities. University of Washington News. Retrieved from www.washington.edu/news/2015/08/05/how-makerspaces-can-be-accessible-to-people-with-disabilities/
Love, T. S. (2013). Addressing safety and liability in STEM education: A review of important legal issues and case law. The Journal of Technology Studies, 39(2) 28-41.
Love, T. S., & Roy, K. R. (2017). Tools and equipment in nontraditional spaces: Safety and liability issues. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 76(8), 26-27.
Puente, A. (2019, September 11). WeWalk smart cane gives blind users access to Google Maps. The Daily Dot. Retrieved from www.dailydot.com/debug/wewalk-smart-cane-google-maps/
Roy, K. R., & Love, T. S. (2017). Safer makerspaces, fab labs, and STEM labs: A collaborative guide! Vernon, CT: National Safety Consultants, LLC.
Steele, K., Blaser, B., & Cakmak, M. (2018). Accessible making: Designing makerspaces for accessibility. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 9(1), 114-121.
U.S. Department of Education. (2004). Individuals with disabilities education improvement act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1415.
The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Linda Roberts, former Administrator for Pupil Services at Glastonbury Public Schools in Connecticut, for her professional review and contributions to this article.
Tyler S. Love, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Elementary/Middle Grades STEM Education and Director of the Capital Area Institute for Mathematics and Science (CAIMS) at The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken R. Roy, Ph.D., is the chief science safety compliance adviser for the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and Director of Environmental Health & Chemical Safety for Glastonbury Public Schools in CT. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Matthew T. Marino, Ph.D., is a professor of Exceptional Education in the School of Teacher Education at the University of Central Florida. He is a former secondary science teacher, special education teacher, and technology coordinator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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