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Teaching STEM to special needs students

Student with special needs learning through play

There are plenty of challenges in teaching STEM to special needs students, but the rewards go beyond the classroom – careers in digital technologies offer plenty of opportunities for people with different abilities. Special needs education specialist Rory Critchley from Joondalup in Western Australia gives his tips for successfully engaging students with STEM.

“There’s going to be a massive deficit in filling the need for digital skills and we’re not going to fill that with just the top total students in school.”

Communication and physical challenges

“The biggest challenge in teaching STEM to special needs students is probably all-around communication. Students with disabilities have a massive range of abilities and many of those students aren’t conventional communicators.

“Some have limited verbal ability, or they have a bit of delay in being able to communicate. A lot of them need additional support through Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) devices.

“That might be a iPad with a program that has different pathways of speech that they can choose from with images. It might be a physical book, called a POD book where they have to make selections and create a sentence using that.

“And they go from being really basic, with six or eight choices on a page, to over a hundred choices on a page so they can make full complete sentences.

Teaching Digital Technologies

“When you’re teaching STEM to special needs students, the first step is making sure that they’ve got that communication ability. You can create also your own kind of modifications to an already existing piece of software, or a program.

“There’s a really good piece of software called Chooseit! Maker where the students can make physical choices based on pictures, audio, or video.

“Other students are limited in their ability to hold a piece of technology or swipe at screens. You’ve got to find that physical tool for them to use and that, we call them alternative pencils.

“A lot of the work we do involves connecting devices to physical switches, so that they can use a Swann switch to navigate the screen and one to choose. I

“I’ve recently done a little bit of work using a virtual reality headsets with eye-tracking software. If you are, for example, looking at space and you want them to look at the moon, you can actually see where the student is looking in the VR experience.

“There are just so many great resources out there. It’s taking them and tweaking them so that they’re accessible for students that have a higher level of need.

Making Minecraft accessible

“We were doing game design last year and a lot of the students were struggling with Minecraft. They got the concept, but they were finding it hard to actually design in the software.


“We tried a few things that didn’t work at all and were terrible. And then we found them a really simple basic thing called Bloxorz where the students pick up these little tiny blocks, put them into a physical 13×13 board, to design an aspect of the level.

“So the green block is land, blue is water, yellow is a coin, purple is an enemy. By giving them an aspect they can first create physically and then transfer into the digital space, helps them gain a little bit more of an understanding.

Physical coding

“I’m a bit nervous about buying expensive tools on the school budget. But we  did invest in a couple VR headset this year and we got one that you can set to record. So I push everything out from my computer, and I can watch what the students are doing.

“That’s really good for bringing them into introduction, introducing concepts in a standard setting.

“We can provide students with an experience and get them an introductory understanding of what we are talking about, and then follow them to see if they were actually engaging, and focusing on the aspects of the activity that we wanted them to.

Other useful tools

“The Osmo kits have been really, really good, as has Code-A-Pillar. A lot of our students don’t really understand forwards, backwards, left, right. So we start by introducing those concepts  physically, with hands-on activities.

“The most random tool I can think of is we found some really good maps at Ikea that the students could create little sequences in a direction to get a pilot to go through a maze!

Read more: Coding resources for schools and students

Why is teaching STEM to special needs students important?

“Teaching STEM to special needs students is important because obviously at primary school level we’re preparing them for high school.

“There’s a couple of really good things over in WA that are really proving the worth of some of these students. We have kids in university, even an amazing autism academy where they take students aged about 16, 17 and train them to be software testers.

“The end result being that being a university they have links in industry with a couple of the big mining companies and they get these students internships with them. The success of this is showing that these students can go in and be a viable, useful part of the workforce.

“We all know where the workforce is going in terms of technology. There’s going to be a massive deficit in filling the need for digital skills and we’re not going to fill that with just the top total students in school.

“We need to be getting these students engaged from pre-primary.

“If they do find that they have a passion, or a knack, or an interest, then they’ve got those foundational skills that can be built upon in high school and if possible university, and then into the workforce.

Special needs STEM teacher Rory CritchleyFollow Rory on Twitter @RoryJames. 

Read more: 7 easy STEM activities for students with developmental disabilities


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