Delivering Accessible STEM Education to Youth with Disabilities During a Pandemic

May 31, 2021

Educators have long recognized that no two children are alike. Classrooms across Canada have made significant improvements over the years to create accessible learning environments. But, as the pandemic wears on and we adopt new hybrid learning models, educators are, yet again, finding it hard to accommodate the diverse needs of their students. Remote learning presents many barriers and this couldn’t be more true for those with disabilities who rely on in-class support and face-to-face interaction.

Educators and parents are worried. According to Statistics Canada, > 58% of parent participants whose children had a disability reported being very or extremely concerned about the school year and their children’s academic success, compared with 36% of parent participants whose children had no disabilities. (Statistics Canada, School closures and COVID-19: Interactive Tool, 2021)

Now, more than ever, accessibility requires innovation. Despite the pandemic’s many setbacks, Actua’s network members  have found innovative and meaningful ways to deliver STEM programs to youth with disabilities. Here are just a few examples:

Waterloo Engineering Outreach & KidsAbility

Engineering Science Quest (ESQ) is a leader in science and engineering camps in Canada and is run by the University of Waterloo’s Engineering Outreach program – a valued member of Actua’s network.

Starting last year, ESQ partnered with KidsAbility Centre for Child Development to run a virtual engineering workshop series for youth with an autism spectrum disorder. Together, they ran two nine-week STEM programs via Zoom – one with youth aged 7 to 9 and another with youth aged 9 -12. In the sessions were two leaders from ESQ and 2-3 Instructional Therapists (ITs) from KidsAbility.

At the beginning of each session, the ITs would review the calming techniques kids could use throughout the session, such as deep breathing, body breaks, asking questions and taking breaks. The ITs were also on hand throughout the sessions to provide support to individual participants if needed

The session included various activities, from designing rain boots that fit on a participant’s foot, making lava lamps with oil and water, building circuit board games and building cities that could float on water. The activities presented participants with a problem (i.e., I don’t have rain boots and the store is closed) and then encouraged them to have a conversation to discuss how to solve it with innovative solutions. By the end, participants would build their solutions and then test them on camera, and the group would talk about what worked and what did not, why that is and how to fix it.

The concept of the Engineering Design Process (Problem -> Plan -> Model -> Test -> Problem) actively showed the participants that when faced with a problem, all they had to do was make a plan. When they built a project and it failed, ESQ encouraged participants to try something new as opposed to giving up and exhibiting negative behaviours. Participants looked at these problems “as engineers” which meant they had to be ready for change and new problems, and understand that these problems are just new, fun challenges. 

This approach had an immense impact on participants. For example, one of the older participants struggled to remain calm when things didn’t go according to plan. They would often yell, give up and get angry when something didn’t work. An ESQ leader spent a lot of time with this participant’s team, reviewing the engineering cycle and explaining how an engineer’s entire job is to solve problems, and if something failed it only meant their problem changed from “what can I build” to “why did this fail”. In the last week of the program, this participant had their project fail – quite significantly. Just as the leaders were preparing to jump in and support the participant who they assumed would get upset, the participant took a deep breath and said to themself “I’m an engineer, solving problems is what I do” and proceeded to problem solve and fix their project.

Accessibility Tips from ESQ:

  • Provide visual instructions (i.e., screen sharing during a virtual session or providing printouts for participants to look at along the way)
  • Use the video conferencing chat feature in sessions, and encourage participants to ask many questions to gain feedback and adapt accordingly
  • Making documents with large fonts and easy-to-see colours

SuperNOVA & Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority

SuperNOVA, Actua’s network member at Dalhousie University, offers programs that encourage participants with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities to pursue STEM fields, especially those who have been historically blocked from higher education and STEM.

Working closely with instructors at Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA), SuperNOVA adapted their existing STEM program to address the needs of participants with visual impairments. They offered three different workshops – one to elementary students, one to junior high school students and another to high school students. The workshops explored STEM topics to not only enhance students’ skills and confidence in STEM but also their ability to use online accessibility tools.

The program was developed with clear and precise instructions, using repetition to convey important information. High contrast images were also included with image descriptions and enlarged text. Activities were adapted using materials that would be easier to work with and could be engaged with through sound and touch. For example, elementary students used an adapted fossil-making workshop to learn about prehistoric biodiversity, junior high students used their sense of sound to identify different noise sources in the Oceans, and high school students used an online platform to create electrical circuits while utilizing image descriptions in the presentation.

SuperNOVA also worked with local community partners to develop and deliver their STEM programs to students who are hard of hearing, recognizing the lack of first language education in STEM. They worked directly with sign language interpreters before the workshop to understand what materials would be most helpful to these students. 

Accessibility Tips from SuperNOVA:

  • Work directly with teachers and coordinators from local community organizations like APSEA to identify the most effective ways to adapt your programs
  • Consider accessibility features, such as image descriptions of large images
  • Incorporate multiple modes of delivery for new information
  • When necessary, find first language users who can answer questions in ASL to build rapport with students and work with sign language interpreters before workshop delivery to clearly understand the needs of the students
  • Remember, no group of students are homogeneous in their needs or interests!


If you’re an Actua network member looking for more tips, we encourage you to take Actua’s training module on Accessibility and Inclusion for more strategies!