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Towards Equitable Learning Environments for All


By: Inas Essa

 

Childhood is the basic phase of learning and development, on which everything after is built. As such, each experience children go through during this period is so important and impacts them dramatically.

Learning about science in science centers and museums could be fun for children, as it offers them multiple ways to express themselves through diverse experiments and shows. Yet, it can be uncomfortable for people with disabilities who love science, but are not able to engage with these experiments and environments.

People with disabilities face various challenges with typical science labs and barriers that may prevent them from gaining and demonstrating knowledge, and fully participating in lab activities. To make science centers and museums more equitable and engaging for all, some considerations should be kept in mind, shown in communication, and implemented in the environment to achieve the main goal of informal science learning  for all.

 

 

How Can Equitable Informal Science Learning Be Achieved?

The goal of making the environment suitable for learners with disabilities could be achieved in two categories: physically and cognitively.

For some special-needs learners, like autistic children and those who have mild intellectual disability, the environment of science centers, museums, and exhibitions could be too stimulating, which requires turning down the noise.

How to deal with that?

  • Using sensory level guides to indicate how loud or bright an exhibition is helps caretakers identify which ones are suitable for children with special needs.
  • Providing the visitors with items such as earmuffs and textured toys that can be used as stress balls can be really useful, helping them cope with their feelings and remain calm and focused.
  • Curating inclusive programs and exhibitions would help visitors with special needs as they may feel anxious when they do not know what to expect in a science center, leading to emotional meltdown when they become unable to regulate their feelings.
  • Designing quiet spaces where visitors can retreat when they feel overwhelmed would be helpful.
  • Adding visual signs and instructions to help special-needs children understand the tasks at each exhibition would also help, as they tend to be strong visual learners.

 

 

Universal Design and Accommodations

These two approaches would help visitors with disabilities engage more with the environment. While the universal design (UD) is proactive, making accommodations is reactive.

Universal design is such a framework to meet the needs of all learners and be usable to the greatest extent possible without the need for further adaptation or specialized design; that way minimizing the need for future accommodations.

  • For example, including an adjustable-height workstation would not require further accommodation for visitors who use a wheelchair or someone who need to remain seated due to a health issue.

On the other hand, some accommodations include alternate formats, assistive technology, and other adjustments for special-needs visitors. For visitors with disabilities, the needed general accommodations should include:

  • Using wheelchair-accessible labs and field sites.
  • Providing a lab partner.
  • Using plastic instead of glass.
  • Addressing safety procedures for students with a variety of sensory and mobility abilities.

 

 

Customizing the Environment

Speaking of specific disabilities like blindness, the science center should include:

  • Verbal descriptions of demonstrations and visual aids.
  • Braille text and raised-line images.
  • Braille or tactile ruler, compass, angles, protractor.
  • Braille equipment labels, notches, staples, fabric paint, and Braille at regular increments on the tactile ruler, glassware, syringe, beam balance, stove, and other science equipment.

For Low-Vision visitors:

  • Large print, high-contrast instructions and illustrations.
  • Raised-line drawings or tactile models for illustrations.
  • Large print laboratory signs and equipment labels.
  • Video camera, computer, or TV monitor to enlarge microscope images.
  • Hand-held magnifier, binoculars.

 

 

Learners with mobility impairments will need:

  • Uncluttered lab with wide aisles.
  • Preferential seating to avoid physical barriers and assure visual access to demonstrations.
  • Wheelchair-accessible, adjustable-height work surface.
  • Handles on beakers, objects, and equipment.
  • Surgical gloves to handle wet or slippery items.

 

Deaf and hard of hearing would need:

  • Preferential seating to view demos and watch instructor captioning for video presentations.
  • Written instructions before the lab.
  • Visual lab warning signals

 

 

Learning and attention disabilities would need:

  • Combination of written, verbal, and pictorial instructions with scaffolding.
  • Repeated demonstration of the procedure.
  • Frequent, brief breaks.
  • Preferential seating to avoid distractions and minimize extraneous stimuli.

 

Interacting with Visitors with Disability

In addition to the setting-up of the environment, special communication would also be required. The educator or facilitator should ask them if they need help before assisting, and talk directly to the person with a disability, not through the person's companion or interpreter.

They should also be descriptive with visitors who are blind or have low vision. With visitors who have mobility impairments, facilitators should sit or position themselves at the approximate height of those sitting in wheelchairs when they interact.

With visitors with speech impairments, listen carefully and repeat what you think you understand and then ask the person to clarify or repeat what you did not understand.

With deaf or hard-of-hearing people, facilitators should face them so they can see and read their lips.

 

Modifying the Experiments

Along with applying amendments to the science center and museum environments, modifying experiments is also necessary to generate more effective results and reap better benefits. The aim of this is to fit sensory needs to make children with special needs comfortable while doing them so that they enjoy and learn effectively.

Some ideas for modified experiments:

  1. Fingerprint Balloon

Teach them how each one of us is unique and how our fingerprints show that. Color the child’s finger with a marker and press it down on a balloon. After you blow the balloon up, your child will be able to see an enlarged fingerprint. That would be a great introduction to fingerprints and DNA.

 

  1. Collect Three Specimens

It is an outdoor activity during which children collect three different 'specimens' from the environment; leaves, rocks, etc. They should be natural so that they learn the difference between natural and human-made objects.

After that, let each one sketch the ones they collected. Then, give them a chance to share their sketches and discuss commonalities.

 

 

  1. Sticky-note Matching Numbers

To teach basic math skills, a Post-It Number Match Game is a great way for that; its requirements are simple: some markers, sticky notes, tape, and a paper cut.

Create a wall display with dots for each number and a numeral on a sticky note to match. Then, hide the numbers and send the kids on a hunt. That would be fun and they would love the accomplishment of finding each number, counting out the dots, and applying each note to its spot.

 

  1. Microscope activities

Microscopes are a classic way to get kids interested in the world around them with its tiny creatures and microorganisms. So that, starting with a student microscope kit will make it accessible for young children with disabilities to engage in how microscopes are made, their different parts.

Also, the kit should include learning aids such as books, experiment cards, and prepared slides. Additionally, microscopes with digital cameras would be perfect for guided learning exercises, as they make it easy for educators to display specimens on larger screens for easy viewing.

 

More Engagement Opportunities for Children with Disabilities

In a nutshell, a disability-inclusive science center should be an opportunity for children with disabilities to thrive as inclusive STEM would be key in their cognitive development. With these tweaks on the environment and experiments, educators can provide a range of appropriate STEM lessons that benefit children with disabilities and help them feel engaged.

Learning is a collaborative process; helping children with and without special needs share their experiences together would benefit them. Encouraging cooperation between them and delegating tasks to everyone would make it more fun and beneficial.

 

References

careerswithstem.com.au

straitstimes.com

washington.edu

astc.org

friendshipcircle.org

study.com

classroom.synonym.com

washington.edu