A teacher helping a small group of students with a STEAM project
For Teachers

Inclusive Teaching Strategies to Make STEAM Projects Accessible to All Learners

By Kara Wyman, MEd October 19, 2018

The STEAM movement has shed a great deal of light on the many benefits of teaching students interdisciplinary lessons and projects, but how do we make sure all of our learners are able to thrive in this innovative, multidimensional learning environment? We need a range of inclusive teaching strategies in order to meet our learners’ different needs.

“STEAM integration in the classroom should not be dependent on student ability levels; an inclusive classroom promotes STEAM access for all learners. Because projects are simply facilitated by teachers, there are very few boundaries for what students of all abilities can do and create,” says Sarah Elliott, EdD, an adjunct faculty member who teaches in Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: STEAM program.

So we’ve compiled a list of helpful strategies for you to test out in your classroom, thus ensuring every student will reap the many benefits of participating in your creative, hands-on STEAM projects.

Keep students’ perspectives, strengths, and interests in mind

When planning a STEAM project, it’s important to put yourself in your students’ shoes, thinking of where they’re coming from and what they bring to the table. Here are some helpful planning techniques from MiddleWeb, a national resource for those teaching grades four through eight (though these can be applied to any age group).

  • “Assume competency. Believe that students with special needs can learn at higher levels and that you can create an environment to help them do that.
  • Build on students’ strengths and interests. Leverage their strong points to increase their comfort and excitement about learning.
  • Model persistence, communication, creativity, and collaboration. These qualities are especially useful to kids with special needs who may need help with social skills.”

Try shifting the focus to accommodate different learners

“Students who are building language skills, particularly younger learners, can focus their creations on a specific attribute, like color, shape, or height. Ask students to design something using only BLUE materials or only using ROUND objects or constructing something very TALL.” Elliott says. “This is also a helpful strategy when working with English Language Learners, and the bonus is that the emphasis is not on reading in a non-native language, but rather creating something where words are not essential.”

Carefully structure groups

If you’re doing a project-based learning unit with a STEAM focus, think critically about the way you structure student groups. Many STEAM activities incorporate real-world problems and questions. While this is a great way to encourage teamwork and creative problem-solving, not all students function well in groups. Each group should contain at least one student helper and each group should have a range of abilities and strengths that they can collectively utilize.

Some students may need to work in smaller groups or in pairs instead. While teamwork is an essential skill, it’s important to meet learners where they are and recognize that even small steps lead to student growth. “Students on the Autism spectrum have opportunities to learn social cues through team projects while being given the option of working independently on tasks when a team approach isn’t effective. Students can focus on their areas of strength while learning new skills,” Elliott says.

MiddleWeb reminds educators of the importance of helping our students understand that “respect and inclusiveness are non-negotiable behaviors for all teams. Teammates honor one another’s strengths and accept each other’s differences. Give them specific strategies for showing respect through speech and actions.”

Marcia Reed, a California National Distinguished Principal, suggests having two to three “buddies” for students with learning differences. This ensures that they are “included and seen as part of the mainstream” and, she says, it “provides them with social-emotional and academic assistance.”

Implement Universal Design teaching strategies

Whether you work with preschool students or adult learners, here are some Universal Design suggestions from the University of Washington that point to specific in-class methods:

  • “Provide printed materials early to allow students sufficient time to read and comprehend the material. Many students with learning disabilities find it beneficial to use software that can read the textbook and other text-based materials aloud.
  • Use multimodal methods to present classroom material, in order to address a variety of learning styles and strengths (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Provide important information in both oral and written formats.
  • When teaching a lesson, state objectives, review previous lessons, and summarize periodically.
  • Keep instructions brief and uncomplicated. Repeat them word-for-word.
  • Use captioned videos. Although captioned videos are typically used for students who are deaf, they also help some students with learning disabilities and those for whom English is a second language, by ensuring content is presented visually and audibly. Give all students an opportunity to view a video multiple times (e.g., by making it available in a library or on a website).”

Don’t be afraid to ask around

Sometimes we forget the power of simply asking others what’s worked for them when they’re teaching or assisting a particular student. Don’t be afraid to reach out. There’s no sense struggling alone when we’re surrounded by other knowledgeable professionals. You might learn some powerful tips from your school’s speech-language pathologist, counselor, special education teacher, or aide.

Another great resource: students’ parents. They’re often happy to share what works for their child when it comes to activities with multiple steps or projects that involve collaboration and/or working through failed attempts to achieve an objective. If language barriers are an issue, set up a meeting where the school’s translator or a colleague who speaks their native language can translate for you. Involving them from the get-go educates them about the benefits of STEAM and you about the best way to support their child.

Take your STEAM knowledge to the next level

Dr. Lerman, the director of the Inclusive Schools Climate Initiative (a pilot project at Rutgers University), says that many educators are “often less prepared to understand and work with students with disabilities than one might expect.” It’s difficult to meet the needs of every single student when such a range walks through our doors. While we’re eager to help them, gaining the skills and knowledge to engage each one effectively takes time and often requires professional development. Lerman suggests using staff meetings and professional learning communities to “increase knowledge regarding disabilities, improved teaching techniques, and better classroom management techniques.”

You can also advance your STEAM practice by earning your MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: STEAM. Christine Foley greatly benefited from this: “In Concordia’s MEd program, we are shown in each course how leaders can make a difference in our schools and community.” Imagine the impact you could have by learning how to implement STEAM in ways that help all of your students and your community.

Dr. Maurice J. Elias, a psychology professor and the director of Rutgers’ Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab says, “Great attention must be given to the schools to which included students will be transitioning, to help those schools to also have a more inclusive climate. However, as they will soon find, being asked to be more inclusive is at least as beneficial for those providing inclusion as it is for those receiving it.” Every single student will benefit from your efforts to utilize inclusive teaching strategies and we wish you the best of luck with whatever STEAM project lights up your classroom.

Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder, and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She’s served as the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland and is now the managing editor of Concordia’s Room 241 blog.

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