Volume III Number 2, June 1996

Technology And Hands-on Strategies For Teaching Science and Mathematics to The Special Education Population

Howard Kimmel
Fadi P. Deek
Laura Frazer
New Jersey Institute of Technology


There is a critical need to restructure the methodology of teaching mathematics and science. The traditional way of teaching is through reading from the textbook and doing problems through rote memory of formula and facts. Hands-on experiences, when used, are only to verify "the facts" stated in the textbook. The situation is exacerbated for special education children. A shift to more dynamic and hands-on methods is required. An active, multi-sensory approach to science and mathematics can be effective for children with disabilities, as it is with any other child. The teacher who relies on reading and writing as the sole means of instruction presents all of his or her students with a disadvantage. Children with disabilities may need to carry out their explorations differently.

Educational technology can be a powerful force for change in education. However, technology cannot be considered a panacea for educational reform (Kimmel and Deek, 1995). Technology, when properly used as an integral part of the curriculum and the instructional approach, can be a very effective tool for improving and enhancing instruction and learning experiences in the content areas involving all students in complex, authentic tasks. The use of technology in the classroom can give all students a learning environment that allows discovery and creativity through the use of computer visualizations, such as modeling and simulations, and has the potential to dramatically change the way we view science and mathematics. Opportunities can range from achieving greater independence and maximizing productivity to connecting with the virtual communities across the world and sharing information and ideas (O'Shea, Kimmel, and Novemsky, 1990). Special needs students can be provided with access to technologies that empower and enable them to be successful in an inclusive learning and working environment (Holzberg, 1995; Wiburg, 1995).

Technology can support the kind of student learning advocated by current educational reform. However, enabling students to benefit from such tools goes beyond the availability of technology in school systems. Less than half of K-12 teachers have had adequate training in the use of technology for instruction to their students. The problem is exacerbated for special education teachers.

Teachers must be ready and equipped to prepare and deliver instruction using new approaches which include technology, and hands-on and collaborative teaching.


New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), in cooperation with participating school districts, is developing an infrastructure that will help to facilitate the appropriate integration of instructional strategies and technologies in the science and mathematics curricula of elementary/middle schools involving special education populations. The training program, for teams of special education and regular classroom teachers, is designed as a teacher-centered, diagnostic, prescriptive program and is geared to the teachers' concerns and needs to best facilitate change. A computer-based instructional laboratory was created at NJIT to provide teachers with the necessary environment for exploring and testing new approaches and strategies.

The establishment of a long-term structure for the continued improvement of science and math teaching and learning within the special education population is an important goal of this project. This restructuring must be systemic and comprehensive and include improvement of the physical learning environment, delivery of instruction, and the integration of educational technologies. This project aims to develop a cross-disciplinary elementary and middle school special education science and math curriculum that introduces the basic scientific and critical thinking skills, and uses conceptual themes to develop and reinforce these skills in all students. The curriculum is based on the recommendations of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics standards (NCTM, 1989), the National Research Council (NRC, 1996), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, 1993).

Training workshops are designed to provide an environment in which teachers feel comfortable in asking and having their specific questions answered so that they will feel at ease with both science and mathematics teaching and learning. A continuing two-way communication is being developed between university faculty and staff, teachers, counselors and parents in support of classroom activities. The training program includes three one-day workshops and a three-week summer component each year for special education teachers teamed with general education teachers. The emphasis of the summer program involves the teachers in a process of teaching science and math that effectively engages the students in learning. The program provides exposure to alternative teaching strategies in the different disciplines of science and mathematics, and introduces approaches to the integration of the subjects. The variety of instructional methods, including the use of technology, demonstrate and model the means by which good math/science teaching can be achieved by addressing the needs of the learners. The teachers are given the opportunity to use alternative classroom techniques in the summer programs provided for students on the NJIT campus.

The science and mathematics lessons were implemented in a practicum situation where teams of teachers were assigned to individual Project student participants. Daily lesson plans and assessment of practicum activities document the practicums. The two-on-one scenario provided maximum benefit to the students and allowed the educators the opportunity to work collaboratively and practice new teaching skills to be used in their classrooms. The teachers were exposed to and experimented with techniques and materials they had not previously considered using in their own classrooms such as manipulatives for introducing math concepts and for enhancing student comprehension. The morning practicums were followed by afternoon sessions that allowed discussion, reflection, and assessment of the morning practicums as well as team planning for the next day's activities. These sessions provided a forum for teachers to share experiences, successes, and problems. This became a most valuable learning experience for project staff as well as for participating teachers.


The technology training component was designed to provide exposure to computers and computer technology. Hands-on training is critical to teachers' willingness to implement new instructional practices into the classroom. "Theory-only training" typically results in few skills and negligible transfer to classroom practice thus limiting successful learning (Showers, 1990). Our training is based on the premise that appropriate use of educational technology requires that teachers have been provided with solid foundations in the general applications of technology in education. This must lead to a level of comfort in using hardware and software systems, that enables the teachers to utilize the technology integrated within the scope of the curriculum and subject matter they are teaching, and to be able to make decisions for varying situations. Ultimately, as technology continues to evolve and other needs arise, teachers will be faced with decision making situations and they must be equipped to make those decisions. This requires additional skills including the ability to evaluate and select hardware and software that are effective and efficient for specific applications.

In our program, we started with a survey of participating teachers to learn about their background, experiences, and current utilization of technology in their classrooms. In the first group, only 3 of 22 teachers had any extensive inservice training, and 14 indicated no training.

Accordingly participants were first introduced to basic information and terminology and an overview of the computer. Internet training was provided so that teachers will be able to communicate electronically, navigate the Internet, and do file transfer and sharing. Initial training sessions introduced participants to the hardware components, and the operating system and its commands. A full day presentation by the Center for Enabling Technology introduced teachers to various hardware and software items that enable students with physical or learning disabilities to access the computer. Keyboard adaptations, screen enlargement, screen reading and other adaptations and solutions were explored. In subsequent sessions, hands-on training allowed the participants to try popular software and hardware such as Intellikeys, Intellitalk, Sammy's Science House and Gizmo's and Gadgets (science software and physics software). Participants were introduced, through hands-on activities, to different applications, such as a database management system, called Tabletop, which has plotting and data visualization capabilities. The applications were related to the teaching of science and mathematics. Teachers were first given an overview of the software and its functionality and then asked to solve problems, as they would ask their students to do. An application of Tabletop to science used the data in the Periodic Table to illustrate trends in physical properties and chemical properties within and across families of elements. An integrated math/science lesson involving the distribution of colors in a package of M&Ms demonstrated the different ways that data can be analyzed, interpreted, and manipulated in Tabletop. In mathematics, the functionalities provided opportunities to build formulae by combining mathematical elements, such as variables, operators, and functions. As a final group exercise, the participants were asked to consider a current project or experiment relevant to a subject matter of their class and adapt it to Tabletop. The goal was to get the teachers to create their own database using data and then report on how it may be possible to use Tabletop to organize, manipulate, and retrieve this information, and to share with their colleagues.

Science and mathematics have a long tradition of being text based subjects, and other than some very basic math are virtually inaccessible to students with certain disabilities. A shift to more hands-on and visual imagery, as provided in this program, recognizes students, especially those with special needs, as learners who tend to enjoy and benefit from this learning approach.

Within the practicum experience described above, the last half hour of the morning is spent on a software demonstration and discussion of utilization and appropriateness for specific disabilities, and an exploration of how software can complement a specific hands-on activity to enhance comprehension and supplement learning. During later practicums, the teachers then have the opportunity to "field test" the software and appropriate strategies and techniques before using them in their own classrooms. Afternoon discussions, reflections, and assessments included the experiences with the software and the technology as well as hands-on science and mathematics activities.

The establishment of the computer-based instructional laboratory gave us the opportunity to attend to the individual needs of the teachers, as well as the group training sessions. During the school year, the laboratory is open late afternoons for teachers to come in for more specific training, as well as hardware and software evaluation, gaining familiarity with assistive technology (alternative keyboards, switches, etc.), and evaluating their use with specific learning and physically disabled students. This is a learning environment not normally available for teachers and provides the teachers with further opportunities to gain better understanding and ability to assess the needs and selection process for a given instructional environment.

The state-of-the-art Multimedia Personal Computer Laboratory includes networked PC's and Apple Powerbooks. The Laboratory was used to introduce teachers to the multi-media and application software available. The Powerbooks are used primarily with the students and in the practicums. NJIT will continue to act as a resource center for those teachers who participated in the first year of the project and the districts interested in establishing their own computer laboratories. A library of software is being researched and developed so that teachers can experiment with applications before they purchase them for their schools. MECC has designated NJIT as one of three New Jersey sites for field- testing and evaluation of their software for participating teachers.


Participant evaluation of the summer workshop was high. Positive gains in the area of instructional methodology included an appreciation and understanding of the value of a hands-on approach to science and math rather than a textbook approach. The hands-on approach was preferred as the teachers were able to see the value of learning through experimentation. In addition, the teachers found that the students achieved the greatest comprehension with a hands-on approach, and the teachers were better able to maintain attention and engage the students more effectively through a hands-on approach. The teachers were also able to build an awareness of the needs of the special learner. The opportunity to share perspectives, strategies and ideas between regular and special education teachers proved invaluable. There was a great appreciation for collaborative teaching and the adaptability and flexibility required. The teachers left the workshop with an appreciation for teaching science and math in concert rather than as independent subjects.

This project is supported in part by the National Science Foundation, Award # HRD - 9450074.


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