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Making STEM Accessible and Engaging on Digital Platforms: 9 Strategies

As STEM classrooms move online, we need new ways to make content accessible—and even fun! Learn nine approaches to digital STEM accessibility here.

May 23, 2024 by Amy Foxwell
Making STEM accessible: person in red long sleeve shirt holding white pen

Is it time to rethink the way you present STEM content to today’s learners? We’d argue the answer is YES, and here’s why:

  • More than half of U.S. college students took an online class in fall 2022, and more than a quarter only attended class online.
  • In the 2020-21 school year, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects made up at least 40% of the bachelors’ degrees conferred to U.S. learners.

Add these facts together, and the sum is this: The number of STEM students who are consuming course content online is increasing. That means STEM educators need ways to create accessible, inclusive, and engaging content through e-learning platforms.

That’s not an easy task. Accessible content has to work with assistive devices, and these tools—especially screen readers—are usually built for standard text. They struggle to interpret mathematical equations and scientific symbols. Even the English used in STEM is highly specialized and precise, which can flummox some assistive technologies.

Besides, it’s not enough for your STEM content to be accessible. To really improve learning outcomes, it must also be engaging—even fun! After all, studies show that student disengagement, as evidenced by off-task behavior, is linked to worse learning outcomes.

So what can teachers in the STEM education field do to make content more accessible and engaging for online learners?

We’d like to offer nine practical suggestions for STEM teachers and online course creators, regardless of the learning management system (LMS) or e-learning environment you use. Jump to any section using the links below, or read through them all.

  1. Incorporate “active learning strategies” into STEM courses.
  2. Organize peer instruction groups.
  3. Make frequent use of online quizzes.
  4. Plan for accessibility before you start designing your course.
  5. Partner with accessibility experts and people with disabilities.
  6. Make sure your STEM content conforms to WCAG 2.2 success criteria.
  7. Provide accessibility tools that support STEM education content.
  8. Present STEM concepts in accordance with UDL principles.
  9. Make all accessibility tools available within your e-learning and assessment platforms.

Why Making STEM Accessible Is Essential

It’s not an option to leave people with disabilities out of the STEM fields. Besides, accessible digital content benefits all kinds of learners, so it’s important for just about everyone, including:

  • Language learners
  • People with low literacy
  • Neurodiverse populations
  • Students with vision impairments
  • Multitaskers
  • Mobile-device users
  • Anyone who learns best through one modality over another, like listening rather than reading.

More accessible content on your STEM learning platform tends to increase student engagement. That, in turn, can lead to better learning outcomes and more students meeting grade level. Accessible design can boost participation, equity, and enjoyment. Plus, accessible learning content is an ethical (and often legal) imperative.

That just leaves one question: How do you create more accessible STEM content? Keep reading for the answer!

9 Ways to Make Online STEM Education More Inclusive and Engaging

9 ways to make online STEM education more inclusive and engaging

1. Incorporate “active learning strategies” into STEM courses.

Education researchers Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent codified the notion of “active learning” in an influential 2009 paper. According to them:

“Active learning is anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes.

Why bring up the concept here? Because active learning has been shown to improve learning outcomes in STEM courses.

A meta-analysis of 225 education studies found that test scores improved by 6% and students were 1.5 times more likely to succeed in STEM subjects specifically when teachers used active learning strategies.

Clearly, engaging students leads to better results. So how do you bring active learning to the online classroom?

Add math games or other STEM activities to your course. Require students to respond to questions, creating two-way communication with course content. And give students more power over how they interact with your material—starting with the option to listen via text to speech (TTS) or change fonts, text colors, and print sizes.

Making STEM accessible: Still from the Prime Fighter math-based video game.
Prime Fighter math game, www.collegemathgames.com

2. Organize peer instruction groups.

Students stay more engaged in STEM subjects when they learn from—and teach—each other.

Catherine Crouch, of the Harvard University Department of Physics, collected data on a peer instruction program she ran for her physics students across 10 years. The findings of this massive dataset?

“Our results indicate increased student mastery of both conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving upon implementing [peer instruction],” Crouch wrote.

Online classroom platforms typically provide break-out room functionality, which you can use to organize small peer-instruction groups between STEM lessons.

If you teach multiple grades, try inviting higher-level students to instruct junior peers. Odds are your students will stay more engaged, have a better time, and end up with better grades, too.

Making STEM accessible: Organize peer instruction groups
Photo by fauxels

3. Make frequent use of online quizzes.

Ask most higher education students how they feel about pop quizzes, and you wouldn’t think they’d be a helpful engagement tool. But the research suggests otherwise.

Surprisingly, multiple studies have found that online quizzes are “particularly effective” for teaching STEM.

A 2007 paper finds that the “formative assessment and feedback” format of an online quiz helps students assume mastery over their own learning, effectively becoming better “self-regulated learners.”

Making STEM accessible: Make frequent use of online quizzes
Figure by Fellin and Medicus, http://dx.doi.org/10.3991/ijep.v5i3.4376

A later case study showed how civil engineering students found online multiple choice tests to be a “valuable tool for preparing for the exam.”

Most LMS platforms provide assessment tools that allow you to easily create short multiple choice quizzes. Start peppering them into your courses to keep students engaged all the way through the final test.

It’s essential that you make these quizzes as accessible as possible for all students, of course. That’s true for any STEM assessment; otherwise, you’re not testing the student’s STEM learning, you’re testing their ability to read the quiz in the first place.

ReadSpeaker’s TTS learning tools provide multiple means of engagement, including lifelike voices that read STEM content out loud, to make online assessments more inclusive. They support common math representation tools, from MATHML to MathType to MathJax and LaTeX, so you can use them in any online platform. They even provide TTS and reading tools through Respondus LockDown Browser.

Learn more about digital accessibility in assessments in our webinar, Accessibility and Assessments – Using ReadSpeaker to Accommodate Student-Instructor Needs.

4. Plan for accessibility before you start designing your course.

Accessible digital design isn’t something you can retrofit—at least, it’s difficult to do it well and efficiently. It’s very hard to go back and make existing STEM content more accessible. No accessibility overlay can do it, so you’re generally left reworking all your content from scratch.

That’s why the best practice is to design for accessibility from the very beginning of your content development process.

Start by thinking about how you can present your content to different learners in different ways—text on the screen, spoken language, interactive elements, graphs and visualizations, and so on.

After all, multiple means of presentation is a cornerstone of both Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. These are perhaps the two most helpful resources for designing accessibility STEM content in online spaces, and we’ll dive deeper into each in items 6 and 8 on this list.

Learn more in our webinar, Delivering a Compelling & Accessible STEM Experience with Resources from Learnosity and ReadSpeaker, featuring Dr. Kathleen Hake, STEM Product Manager at Learnosity.

“Learnosity was founded on the idea that by helping other edtech companies build better assessments, we could help more learners achieve better outcomes,” Hake says in the webinar. “Accessibility is a key part of that, because the more that our customers’ products become accessible, the more learners we can reach.”

5. Partner with accessibility experts and people with disabilities.

The disability rights movement has a slogan: “Nothing about us without us.” In other words, we shouldn’t build accessibility features without talking to the people who use them.

Every STEM learner is different. To help students access content effectively, we need to consult with representatives of many populations, both with and without disabilities.

Luckily, there’s some industry infrastructure for bringing people with disabilities into your design conversations. You can hire accessibility experts, or simply reach out to advocates, to learn more about what your learners might need from the digital STEM classroom.

It’s also helpful to hire accessibility testers who can point out flaws in your education content. At ReadSpeaker, for example, we subject our products to accessibility testing from accessibility group ONCE’s auditing service, ILUNION

Read ReadSpeaker’s ILUNION Accessibility Certification Report.

We recommend a similar practice for all your online STEM programs, too.

Making STEM accessible: ILUNION WCAG 2.1 AA conformance seal

6. Make sure your STEM content conforms to WCAG 2.2 success criteria.

Not sure how to create digital course content that works for the widest variety of students? Luckily, detailed guidance is available.

Find this guidance in WCAG 2.2, the latest version of the World Wide Web Consortium’s globally recognized standards for digital accessibility.

Conformance with WCAG is a deep subject; after all, the guidelines list more than 80 success criteria, each a distinct pass/fail question about your content! But all these criteria strive for the same fourfold goal: Making STEM content (and everything else online) perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Here’s what WCAG means by each of these accessibility principles:

  1. Perceivable content doesn’t depend on a single sense to be consumed. In other words, text alone isn’t enough, because users without sight (for example) can’t perceive text.
  2. Operable content refers mostly to user interfaces, and requires your learning platform to offer multiple methods of interaction. For example, some learners use computers with the keyboard alone, so your learning platform (and its tools) should support keyboard navigation.
  3. Understandable content means users should be able to understand how your learning platform works. That requires proper labeling and instructions for all interactive elements.
  4. Robust content works for as many “user agents” as possible. In this case, a “user agent” might be assistive technology, like a screen reader.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make STEM content robust. While most assistive technology is set up for common web systems, like HTML, few understand the tools you use for digital STEM content—especially MATHML. That brings us to our next suggestion.

7. Provide accessibility tools that support STEM education content.

Digital accessibility tools empower learners to change the way they interact with course materials. For example, you can make STEM content more accessible by providing:

  • Content resizing tools, which allow students to enlarge numbers, formulas, and text for greater visibility
  • Page masks, which isolate a single line of content at a time, improving focus
  • LMS-integrated calculators, for quick access to a core math tool
  • Pop-up dictionaries, so students can get definitions of key science topics within the LMS
  • TTS tools, which read content to students out loud

But not all digital accessibility tools are designed to support STEM content. Make sure your TTS tools understand math markup languages and display tools like:

But what about the complex jargon of a science class? Look for a TTS tool that offers a customizable pronunciation dictionary for specialized vocabulary, too.

ReadSpeaker’s LMS integrations provide both capabilities. They’re also streamlined for STEM language, so students can easily understand mathematical formulas and other STEM content. Here’s an example of what we mean:

Formula: (A+B)*(X+Y)

Many TTS tools would mistake the parentheses and asterisk for punctuation, failing to mention them to the student. Even worse, some TTS systems might interpret the letters as sounds, reading the A as “ah,” for instance, and the B as “buh.”

This pronunciation would fall short of WCAG’s principle of understandability.

Because ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools are designed to support STEM content, they interpret such a formula correctly. The learner might hear something like:

“Open parenthesis, A plus B, close parenthesis, times, open parenthesis, X plus Y, close parenthesis.”

That’s what learners who don’t read visually need to hear to fully understand the formula.

When tools like TTS work well with STEM conventions, they give each learner the opportunity to change the way they interact with learning content. That’s exactly what UDL calls for, and UDL provides a great framework for approaching inclusivity in STEM education.

Text to Speech at the STEM Olympiades

The Flemish STEM Olympiades are friendly academic competitions designed to “help young people discover their technological talent, adjust the social image of technology, and encourage secondary education students to pursue higher education in technology,” said Rik Hostyn of the STEM Olympiades.

In the 2023-2024 academic year, the Olympiades’ organizers launched an educational initiative to improve inclusivity and reduce barriers to participation for students with disabilities, especially dyslexia.

These competitions play out through e-assessments, including digital multiple choice questions. That makes text to speech (TTS) a crucial accessibility tool for the STEM Olympiades.

“Our motivation to integrate text to speech was grounded in the aspiration to offer visually impaired students, and those with learning disabilities, an equal opportunity to participate in the STEM Olympiade, thereby championing equity in educational opportunities.”

Rik Hostyn – Organizer Flemish STEM Olympiades

To provide this TTS, the STEM Olympiades turned to ReadSpeaker. The Olympiades’ Moodle partner, Eummena, easily integrated the ReadSpeaker TTS tool into the assessment platform. Teachers and students found the tool easy to use—so much so that the Olympiades didn’t have to provide any additional training!

“Collaborating with the ReadSpeaker team consistently ensures a swift process and delivers an effective learning experience!”

Jad Najjar – Co-Founder Eummena

After the competition, more than 96.7% of the teachers involved reported satisfaction with the role of ReadSpeaker’s TTS. The organizers of the Olympiades found that “costs were minimal compared to the substantial benefits of offering speech technology.”

Ultimately, they decided that “the success of text to speech in promoting inclusivity means that we will continue its integration in future STEM assessments,” said Hostyn.

Read the full success story, Empowering STEM Talent by Making the STEM Olympiades Inclusive and Accessible.

8. Present STEM concepts in accordance with UDL principles.

Universal Design for Learning is an education framework built to meet the diverse needs of individual learners. It starts from the premise that everyone learns differently. One way to serve every student, UDL says, is to customize the learning experience for everyone.

This isn’t just good for inclusion; researchers suggest that UDL improves student engagement, too.

Essentially, UDL requires multiple means of presentation for your STEM content. Maybe you offer a choice of quizzes or hands-on activities. Maybe you introduce problem-solving simulations or real-world experiments.

At a more basic level, however, UDL suggests the use of both audio and visual media for your basic course content. That’s where tools like TTS can help.

But it’s not enough simply to provide these tools to students. You also need to make sure students can access them easily—and that means building them into your e-learning platform.

9. Make all accessibility tools available within your e-learning and assessment platforms.

Many learners with disabilities already have the assistive technology they need to take your online course. However, these tools may be difficult to access within your LMS.

Opening a new tab is a barrier. Loading a second application is, too. Even if students are using TTS by way of preference and not as an essential accommodation, they’ll face a worse user experience if they’re constantly hunting for the “play” button.

That’s why the most inclusive approach is to provide a complete suite of accessibility tools right within the LMS interface.

ReadSpeaker’s TTS education tools integrate with every major LMS. They provide many reading and writing tools—page masks, text-customization, etc.—in a single, WCAG 2.2-conforming interface.

Making STEM accessible with ReadSpeaker’s TTS education tools

 

And as a leader in the field of synthetic speech, ReadSpeaker offers some of the most lifelike AI voices available. A pleasant voice makes for a better learning experience, which can help to improve student engagement.

It’s true that making STEM accessible isn’t easy in the online classroom. But with tools like ReadSpeaker, you can break down barriers for all your students—whether they require accommodations or simply learn better through listening than reading.

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