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November 8, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 8

STEM Empowerment Starts with Inclusion

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Today's technologies provide vast opportunities to improve the educational experiences of all students. At North Penn School District near Philadelphia, where one of us (Jackie) teaches, access to general education for students who require more support—such as those with autism and intellectual disabilities—has been at the center of our education mission for the last decade.
We have both worked for years in inclusive education, Jackie at the K–12 level and Kate in both K–12 and higher education. For the past few years, we have worked together to understand and improve inclusive practices and cultures in schools. It was a student at North Penn named Isabella who most recently reminded us of the power digital tools have to support children's diverse learning needs.
Isabella is a middle schooler who loves learning and engaging with her school community. She has quadriplegia, so she is unable to verbally communicate her thoughts. Teachers maintain high expectations and have tried their hardest to make sure Isabella has what she needs to actively participate in general education classes, including the use of multiple-choice questions.
But it became clear that Isabella's multiple-choice options and assistive technology weren't helping her communicate and participate to her full potential. She was frustrated. So, her education team (which Jackie is part of) problem-solved how to better support her. The team scoured Universal Design for Learning websites to determine ways to make the curriculum more accessible. The most promising was an eye-gaze device made with inexpensive parts, including Dollar Store sunglasses and an old PlayStation camera. Once built, Isabella could pair her laptop with the device, which would allow her to use her eyes to control many of her classes' computer programs and generate speech by selecting preprogrammed phrases. She would have a reliable and effective way to communicate and participate. We simply needed to build it.

Inclusion and Equity Powers Student Innovation

After learning about Isabella's access barriers, a group of teachers and three students from North Penn High School's Technology and Engineering Academy—a STEM program designed to introduce rigorous problem-solving activities—wanted to build the eye-gaze device. The students were motivated because they knew the tool would be an immense help for Isabella when she entered high school in a few years. Project Hawk-Eye was born.
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Because the project was not for a class, students worked before school, after school, and during lunch and study hall to plan and build Isabella's eye-gaze device. When they ran into roadblocks, they problem-solved without hesitation. When the circuit board they bought didn't work, they created a new one from scratch. When they realized the device would be too heavy for Isabella to wear, they started over and created lighter parts on a 3-D printer.
It was clear that for students, this work was one of the most authentic and meaningful STEM experiences they'd had in school. Rather than just sitting in a classroom and learning about the power of science in theory, they were putting that power into practice and creating a solution for a student they knew and cared about.
"It brought relevance to theory," STEM educator Mike Voicheck reflected. "They probably failed a couple hundred times along the way, and that is all learning. When they fail, they learn they need a new approach."
In the end, Project Hawk-Eye's device was not the answer for Isabella— it stopped working during the testing stages—and the team secured a new device instead. Although students were disappointed that their homemade version wasn't Isabella's communication solution, they had still been part of an invaluable project. When Isabella learned of all their hard work, she felt incredibly supported by her community and valued by her peers.
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An Empowering Education

Meaningful options for STEM curricula are limitless when we provide students with opportunities to see that their work can champion inclusion and equity. Project Hawk-Eye showed our students and staff that when we place inclusion and equity at the center of our work, we give our students authentic connections to one other, to the curriculum, and to the community.
"We made a conscious effort to just stand back, let the students apply what they learned, and own it," said Curt Reichwein, the chair of the high school technology and engineering department. "It empowered them, and it was empowering for us as teachers."
But the solutions don't always have to be as complex as Project Hawk-Eye. For example, we have begun teaching students to create video tutorials for peers with disabilities or English language learners as visual study supports for test and labs. Educators can also draw on Universal Design for Learning as a framework to decrease barriers by giving students multiple ways to access information, engage in learning, and demonstrate what they've learned. This might mean integrating STEM with the arts, in which students can explore technological techniques that inform music or digital media.
When inclusion and STEM curricula combine to become a pedagogical priority, the innovation and learning can exceed our expectations. As Reichwein, the chair of the high school technology and engineering department, explained, "These students understand that we can change the world."

Kate MacLeod is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maine at Farmington and founder and consultant at Inclusive Schooling. Her teaching, research, writing, and consulting are guided by a passion for inclusive education and social justice.

MacLeod is a former high school special education teacher in New York City and now works with administrators, educators, and families around the country to create more inclusive practices for all students. Her research and writing are focused on understanding the culture of inclusive schools and best practices for supporting students with complex support needs, including those with challenging behaviors.

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