Using Curriculum Design to Improve Accessibility in STEM and Computer Science

Movements like CSforAll are seeking to address issues of equity and inclusion within the field of Computer Science. CSTA Voice recently published an article highlighting how students with disabilities can be successful in computer science classes, when they are considered and supported.

“When students are given appropriate support and accessible tools/curricula, they can succeed. Yet, inclusion of students with disabilities is often hampered by low expectations, as well as pedagogical and accessibility barriers which keep them from being fully included.” 

- Andrew Bennett, Maya Israel, Ph.D., & Johnny Delgado, Improving Accessibility in the Classroom With the UDL4CS Interactive Table

The article goes on to describe CSTA’s new UDL4CS Interactive Table resource, and how it can be used to support accessibility in computer science classrooms. Much of the focus is on shaping curriculum and teaching to give options for students to learn, present, and access knowledge in multiple ways. They outline “five steps for successful implementation” as a guide for how to make the most of classroom experiences to support all learners.

  1. Establish Clear Goals
  2. Anticipate learner needs and barriers
  3. Measurable outcomes and assessment plan
  4. Instructional Experience
  5. Reflect

The design of STEM Labs across the continuum aligns well with these steps and the accessibility considerations recommended for supporting diverse learners. This table shows some of the ways that STEM Labs support this implementation process.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Step Engage-Play-Share STEM Labs
Learn-Practice-Compete STEM Labs
VEX IQ (2nd gen) & VEX EXP
VEX CTE Workcell
1. Establish Clear Goals

Each activity within the Play section of a STEM Lab begins with an animation and explanation that helps teachers and students to establish clear goals about the activity.

The images, animations, and words give options to access the goal and communicate about it to be sure that all students know what is expected of them.

IQ 2nd generation and EXP STEM Labs begin with goal setting with the class. After viewing an animation of the end game for the Lab and discussing it, students and teachers work together to establish and document clear learning goals.

The videos, animations, discussions and engineering notebook documentation offer options for students to access and communicate about their goals.

The introduction to each Unit in VEX CTE Workcell Courses starts with students co-creating learning targets with their teachers, and recording those targets in their engineering notebooks. These learning targets guide students in attaining their goals throughout the unit, and are used in student-centered assessment during the Debrief Conversation at the end of each Unit.

2. Anticipate learner needs and barriers

The Engage section of a STEM Lab offers a way to access students’ prior knowledge and bridge any knowledge gaps in a low stakes way, in preparation for the Lab’s activities.

The Background Information in each Unit allows teachers to anticipate knowledge gaps that they and their students may have, with descriptive information they can share with students to eliminate barriers.

The Learn section of IQ and EXP STEM Labs include student-facing captioned, teaching videos designed to help students access prior knowledge about a certain topic, and bridge any knowledge gaps in a low stakes way.

Each video has an accompanying handout to offer additional options for accessing the material, as well as formative assessment questions. Students can review and revisit this content at any time to take the time they need for successful learning.

Student engagement questions are provided in each Unit. They give students an opportunity to assess their own understanding of the concepts in the Lesson as well as their progress towards their learning targets, and to communicate any needs or barriers to their teachers so that instruction can be adapted responsively.

The Teacher Facilitation Guide that accompanies each Unit provides suggestions for both reteaching and extending the unit to meet learner needs.

3. Measurable outcomes and assessment plan

The Goals, Standards and Summary sections of the STEM Labs offer information about how standards are reached through the Lab’s activities. In addition, Objectives are offered with the corresponding Lab activity and assessment to be sure that students are reaching the learning objective during the Lab.

Students share their learning in different ways, from discussion to project sharing, offering options for expression to support diverse learners.

The Compete section of each Lesson offers students a hands-on, collaborative way to show their learning through playing the Lesson’s mini-game. Students know what they are trying to accomplish, and teachers can easily see if they have met the Lesson goals by seeing how their robot behaves in the game.

The engineering notebook serves as documentation of learning, and gives students multimedia options for how to represent their learning process in a way that is comfortable to them.

The Learning Targets students create and record in the Engineering Notebook provide measurable outcomes. Students then demonstrate understanding of those objectives during The Putting It All Together Activity at the end of the Unit. 

Finally, during the Debrief Conversation, students and their teacher reflect together on the learning targets, measuring the progress students have made towards each one.

4. Instructional Experience

The Play sections of a STEM Lab offer step by step instructions for how to model an activity for students, as well as prompts to support differentiation and facilitate group work.

Students work in groups to complete Lab activities, allowing them to work at their own pace, and teachers are given information for how to support learners with extra practice, challenges, and more.

Additionally, the Pacing Guide in the Unit Overview gives specific ways to adapt and extend a Unit to best meet all students’ learning needs.

The Practice and Compete cycles of each Lesson and the culminating game allow students to work in groups and tailor their competition strategy to the component of the game or learning goal that they choose. This voice and choice in how to represent their learning through game play offers many options for student engagement, from documenting in the engineering notebook to iterating on the robot build or code to scouting and guiding team collaboration and more.

The emphasis on collaboration and teamwork throughout the Lab promotes inclusion of all students, and tactical strategies to support inclusive conversations are given in Lab instructions as well.

The Lessons in CTE Workcell Courses are highly scaffolded and provide students with clear, step-by-step, student-facing directions they can follow at their own pace. 

The student engagement questions give students agency in their instructional experience as they express how they are feeling about their learning and what they need in order to continue to learn throughout the Course.

The Putting it All Together Activities in each Unit  provide students with voice and choice in the way that they choose to solve coding problems. This culminates with the Capstone, where students use the engineering design process to complete an open-ended challenge.

5. Reflect

The Mid-Play Break and Share sections of the Lab are designed to give students reflection opportunities to check in and express their learning and questions in a variety of ways.

Discussion prompts align with demonstrations and project sharing offering students options for how to express their learning in the way that best meets their needs.

The Debrief Conversation at the end of the Unit offers students an opportunity to share their learning with the teacher in response to the learning goals and discussion prompts.

Students can engage in this meeting in a way that meets their needs – from multimedia presentations to written responses to showing and telling about their engineering notebook.

The Debrief Conversation at the end of each Unit offers students an opportunity to reflect on and share their learning, using the documentation in their Engineering Notebooks. 

Once students complete the Capstone, students review the documentation from their Engineering Notebooks over the entire course, and use this information to create a reflection artifact of their choice to share their learning.

Inclusivity in Computer Science and STEM is an important issue and one that we can work towards incrementally with each lesson we teach. At VEX, we are working to help make that incremental improvement possible and attainable for all teachers, as well as all students. Want to learn more about the CSTA resources mentioned here? Visit CSTA and become a member.


Bennett, Andrew, et al. “Improving Accessibility in the Classroom with the UDL4CS Interactive Table.” Computer Science Teachers Association, CSTA Voice, 13 Jan. 2023,

For more information, help, and tips, check out the many resources at VEX Professional Development Plus

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