Probes, Models, and UDL in the Elementary Science Classroom

The dream of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to use computers to create flexible learning activities that can meet the needs of a wide range of young students. Flexibility is important for all students, but particularly for students with mild learning disabilities.

In 2006, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, we took up the challenge of creating UDL science materials. Led by our colleagues at CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, progress has been made in applying UDL ideas to language and communications. But creating UDL science materials is substantially different because students need to learn through inquiry, they need to observe, and they need to learn general quantitative principles that can be applied in many contexts. The goal of our project was to come up with a UDL design for science curriculum using inquiry of real and virtual environments that is effective for a broad range of learners.

Classrooms have students with a wide variety of needs, especially as the number of children receiving special education services within inclusive classrooms increases. Computer-based curriculum has the capacity to meet the needs of this increasingly diverse group of students and provide them with multiple paths by which they can engage the material, as well as multiple ways to acquire and express knowledge.

But flexibility and multiplicity create a number of questions. Does every concept taught require a different treatment that addresses various learning styles, disabilities, and thinking patterns? This could require numerous ways of teaching each concept. Even if we had only a few different treatments of a topic, how would the right one be assigned to a particular student? Would the student or the teacher select the right one? Do we want to target a student’s strengths or strengthen a weakness?

Assessment raises additional questions. Should it match the materials? It doesn’t make sense to ask a student who learned using materials that avoided advanced language skills to then take an assessment that relied on reading and writing. Should there be a different assessment for each treatment? How can we ensure that students who use different assessments learn the essential ideas?

With so many possibilities, developing UDL materials is a huge undertaking. In our project, we created materials for four common elementary science topics at both the beginning (grades 3-4) and intermediate (grades 5-6) levels in order to develop a design that would begin to address these questions.

Last year, 11 teachers and 500 students in two large school districts serving a large number of students from low-income families used the activities. The results were quite encouraging. Student understanding increased, and by about the same amount regardless of reading ability. By and large, teachers liked the approach and reported that students were excited and asked good questions. The inclusion of the stories and math activities helped teachers justify using more science materials.

Our UDL science project was one of the first of its kind and provides a coherent, realistic UDL design for computer-based science materials. Other designs are being developed at CAST and Education Development Center. We look forward to mining these efforts to produce a common set of UDL designs that can become a standard and universal part of all computer-based materials.

The primary UDL design features of our approach are the following:

Multiple paths through each topic. Each unit has six activities from which teachers and students can select.

Formative feedback to teachers. Teachers can tell at all times where each student is within a unit, and what progress is being made.

Inquiry experiences that require minimal language skills. Each unit includes an inquiry of the real world enhanced with probeware and models.

Text-to-speech and electronic glossaries. The computer can voice any text, and new words are linked to an interactive glossary.

Imaginative stories based on each science topic. A fictional story based on real science content engages students.

Math activities in each science topic. The link between math and science is made in context, not as isolated topics.

Hints and graphing support. Five levels of hints provide students with increasing support on questions embedded in the unit. SmartGraphs provide feedback based on features of the graph.

Assessments designed for different cognitive strengths. Sketches and annotated snapshots of models and graphs provide alternative ways of demonstrating understanding.

Robert Tinker ( is President Emeritus of the Concord Consortium.

Carolyn Staudt ( directs the UDL project.