Using Technology to Support Struggling Students: "Doing" Science Like a Scientist

The type of physical tasks often present in many science lessons can present significant barriers for many students with learning disabilities or physical impairments. How can teachers find ways for these students to participate?

In an increasingly complex world, all students need to be scientifically literate. While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students. All students need to understand what it means to think like a scientist, and how to evaluate information that is called "scientific". Many of the careers of the future will require that students have the ability to collaborate and solve problems using STEM skills. Struggling students are no exception — they will need the same types of knowledge and skills, and will often require additional supports to be successful.

Research has shown that the most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in authentic activities that ask them to think and behave like chemists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers or archeologists — that is, when they are engaged in activities that mirror the real-life tasks of STEM professionals.[i] These activities might include the use of virtual environments and simulations, developing models of scientific phenomena, and using collaborative tools like email, video conferencing, and classroom wikis. These types of activities can present new challenges for struggling students and students with disabilities. In this series of science info briefs, Using Technology to Support Struggling Students in Science, we'll examine five different dimensions of science learning, the areas that may be challenging for struggling students, and how technology tools may help.

Physically 'doing' science — challenges for struggling students

Physical tasks are an important part of many science lessons, from taking soil samples, mixing chemicals, using Bunsen burners, recording data, and performing dissections. This type of physical work can present significant barriers for many students with disabilities — students with dysgraphia, poor motor control, emotional/behavioral disorders, orthopedic disabilities, cognitive impairments, and many others may all have difficulties with some of the physical requirements of the science classroom.

Educational and assistive technologies can help students with the physical demands of science lessons by providing alternative experiences for building science proficiency and knowledge. These technologies can benefit students in two ways. First, they provide students with a substitute for the natural world, as with simulations. Second, they can allow students to visualize and interact with the natural world in ways that would typically be impossible, because the processes involved are too fast, small, slow, or large to be easily perceived by people, or are not practical to repeat. For example, a virtual dissection both ensures access for a student who is unable to safely use a scalpel, and allows for multiple viewings, repetitions, and manipulations of organs and tissue without the need for multiple dissections.

Educational technologies can make a difference in three key areas:

  • Virtual experiments
  • Simulations of the natural world
  • Observation and measurement supports

Virtual experiments and activities

When — because of disability, cost, time, safety issues, or accessibility — students are unable to engage in certain science activities, virtual experiments and dissections can a viable alternative. [ii] These types of activities give students opportunities to see a representation of real bench science and to manipulate it with virtual tools.

Simulations of the natural world

Virtual worlds involve using a computer to display a setting and allow simulation participants to work and interact with it. Simulations may be relatively simple, as with simulations which allow students to manipulate animal population density, food supply, and other conditions affecting reproduction and the ecosystem. Other virtual worlds are significantly more complex, allowing groups of students to work in the environment at the same time, making observations, collecting data, testing hypotheses and communicating with one another.

Virtual instrumentation/data collection

Technology now enables a wide range of devices to connect to the Internet so that science activities can be conducted virtually and over great distances. Tools and websites are now available that enable students to interact with scientific equipment virtually. In addition to providing a more accessible experience, this technology can afford students opportunities to use equipment that is often too expensive or dangerous for the classroom.[iii]

Implications for educators

Teachers can utilize technology and classroom supports in a variety of ways to accommodate students who have physical barriers to performing standard science tasks:

  • Explore using instructional technology, including classroom projection or interactive whiteboards, to support student visualization and modeling.
  • Arrange teams so that students with disabilities are paired with other students who can support them in performing some tasks (mixing chemicals, making cuts with a scalpel, etc.).
  • Search the TechMatrix for tools that support science learning for struggling students.
  • Consider incorporating the resources listed below into your science curriculum.

Technology resources

Howard Hughes Medical Institute BioInteractive: Virtual Labs
HHMI's virtual labs are fully interactive laboratory simulations which include a bacterial identification lab, a cardiology lab, a neurophysiology lab, and a virtual ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) using human antibodies to diagnose disease. It features built-in glossaries, quizzes, background information and other materials for the classroom.

Adaptive Curriculum
This interactive visualization and simulation software for middle and high school science features many different activities and simulations linked to national science standards. It also features virtual labs, simulations, quizzes, built-in glossaries, lesson plans and other classroom materials.

JASON Mission Center
The JASON Mission Center is the online repository of related educational content associated with the JASON Project. Students can make use of online games, simulations, virtual labs, and other multimedia resources; teachers can access curriculum materials, and purchase curriculum units for 5th through 8th grade students.

The Virtual SEM for Students
These pages use JavaScript to create the illusion of controlling a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Students can choose different 'samples' and gain virtual experience examining them under a high powered microscope. The website includes many educational materials and information about SEMs.

NASA's Virtual Microscope
The Virtual Microscope is a NASA-funded project that provides simulated scientific instrumentation for students and researchers worldwide as part of NASA's Virtual Laboratory initiative. The virtual microscope aims to present the user with a method for exploring these pre-captured image data as if they were using the real instrument in real-time. It includes educational materials and training animations.

The Bugscope project provides free interactive access to a scanning electron microscope (SEM) so that students anywhere in the world can explore the microscopic world of insects. Bugscope allows teachers to provide students with the opportunity to become microscopists themselves-the kids propose experiments, explore insect specimens at high-magnification, and discuss what they see with mentor scientists-all from a regular web browser over a standard broadband Internet connection.

NASA Virtual Field Trip
The Virtual Field Trip is an immersive multimedia application developed to support student and user exploration of areas on Earth that have been identified as analog sites to regions on Mars. Analog sites are those areas that share some common traits with sites on Mars and have been identified based on their significance and importance to NASA.

Froguts allows students to practice steps for frog dissection before or instead of hands-on dissection. The lab is interactive and provides explanations. Dissections of fetal pig, squid, and owl pellets are also available.

Digital Frog
Fully interactive frog dissection that teaches students about frog anatomy and major body systems as well as allowing students to explore the diversity and ecology of frogs. It includes several accessibility options for students with disabilities or other learning needs.

Online laboratories (iLabs) are experimental facilities that can be accessed through the Internet, allowing students and educators to carry out experiments from anywhere at any time. Remote labs enrich science and engineering education by vastly increasing the scope of experiments that students have access to in the course of their academic careers.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

[i] Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.; Tan, S. C., Yeo, A. C. J., & Lim, W. Y. (2005). Changing epistemology of science learning through inquiry with computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 367-386.

[ii] Huppert, J., Lomask, S. M., & Lazarowitz, R. (2002). Computer simulations in the high school: Students' cognitive stages, science process skills and academic achievement in microbiology. International Journal of Science Education, 24(8), 803-821.; Robertson, D., Johnston, W., & Nip, W. (1995). Virtual frog dissection-interactive 3D graphics via the web. Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, 28(1-2), 155-160.

[iii] Hardison, J., DeLong, K., Bailey, P., & Harward, V. J. (2006). Deploying interactive remote labs using the iLab shared architecture. Paper presented at the ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY.; Huppert, J., Lomask, S. M., & Lazarowitz, R. (2002). Computer simulations in the high school: Students' cognitive stages, science process skills and academic achievement in microbiology. International Journal of Science Education, 24(8), 803-821.

National Center for Technology Innovation (2010)


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