Building Capacity in and Access to Informal STEM Learning Settings for Participants with Disabilities

Sunday, September 1, 2019 to Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Making and Tinkering Programs, Museum and Science Center Programs, Aquarium and Zoo Programs, Professional Development, Conferences, and Networks, Professional Development and Workshops, Informal/Formal Connections, Higher Education Programs
Undergraduate/Graduate Students | General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators | Learning Researchers
General STEM
Access and Inclusion: 
People with Disabilities
University of Washington

Consideration of the needs of individuals with a wide range of disabilities is not always considered in the early design stages of an informal STEM learning (ISL) activity or program. The primary access approach for people with disabilities becomes the provision of accommodations once the ISL product or environment is created. In contrast, the Universal Design approach considers users with a wide range of characteristics throughout the design process and works to create products and environments that are accessible, usable, and inclusive. This project, called AccessISL, led by the University of Washington's DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center and Museology Program, includes an academic museology program and local ISL sites, representing museums, zoos, aquariums, makerspaces, science centers, and other sites of informal STEM learning. Insights will be gained through the engagement of people with disabilities, museology graduate students and faculty, and ISL practitioners. The AccessISL project model, composed of a set of approaches and interventions, builds on existing research and theory in the fields of education science, change management, effective ISL practices, and inclusive design processes. The project will collect evidence of policies and practices (or lack thereof) that improve the inclusiveness of ISL with respect to a wide range of disabilities and considers approaches for the design and development of new strategies; explores what stakeholders need to make change happen; uncovers challenges to the adoption of inclusive practices in public ISL settings and explores ways to overcome them; and proposes relevant content that might be included in museology curriculum. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants. 

This project addresses the following two objectives: 

  • For ISL personnel and museology faculty: to increase knowledge, skills, and actions to make ISL programs, facilities, courses, and resources more welcoming and accessible to participants with disabilities and embed relevant practices within their work. 
  • For postsecondary STEM students with disabilities and museology students: to increase knowledge and skills in advocating for ISL offerings that are welcoming and accessible to everyone, including those with a wide variety of disabilities, and to encourage individuals with disabilities to pursue careers in ISL. 

The project employs a student-centered approach and a set of practices that embrace the social model of disability, social justice education, disability as a diversity issue, intersectionality, and Universal Design. A leadership team of interns--each member a STEM student with a disability or a museology graduate student--along with project staff will engage with the University of Washington's Museology Program to identify and implement strategies for making ISL activities and courses more welcoming and accessible to individuals with disabilities. An online community of practice will be developed from project partners and others nationwide. A one-day capacity building institute will be held to include presentations, student/personnel panels for sharing project and related experiences, and group discussions to explore issues and further identify systemic changes to make ISL programs more welcoming and accessible to individuals with disabilities. As prototypes of the AccessISL Model are developed, evaluation activities will primarily be formative (looking for strengths and weaknesses) and remedial (identifying/implementing changes that could be made to improve the model). The model will continue to be fine-tuned through formative evaluation. Evaluation of the model components will focus on the experience of a range of stakeholders in the project. Specifically, quantitative data collected will include levels and quality of engagement, accessibility recommendations and products developed, and delivery of ISL services. Qualitative data will be collected through observations, surveys, focus groups, interviews, and case studies. 

AccessISL project products will include proceedings of an end-of-project capacity building institute, promising practices, case studies, a video, and other online resources to help ISL practitioners and museology faculty that will result in making future ISL opportunities more inclusive of people with disabilities. AccessISL will advance knowledge and ensure long-term impact using multiple strategies: 

  • broadening the STEM participation of people with disabilities as well as women, racial/ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups through the application of universal design 
  • strengthening associations and creating synergy and durable relationships among stakeholders, 
  • encouraging teaching about disability, accessibility, and universal design in museology courses, 
  • empowering students with disabilities and current and future ISL practitioners to advocate for accessible ISL and develops an infrastructure to promote accessible ISL programs nationwide, and 
  • contributing to the body of promising practices with products that will (a) enhance understanding of issues related to the inclusion of people with disabilities in ISL programs and (b) promote inclusive practices. 

Outcomes will benefit society by making STEM opportunities available to more people and enhancing  STEM fields with the talents and perspectives of people with disabilities.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which supports innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of learning settings.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Sheryl BurgstahlerSheryl BurgstahlerPrincipal Investigator
Meena SelvakumarCo-Principal Investigator

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