Four Steps to More STEM Learning

10/05/2012  |  Sapna Prasad

Research in STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) indicates that a key factor in creating an effective STEM curriculum is to provide accessible opportunities to engage students in group problem solving. Such an approach allows for on-the-spot reasoning and discussion, and allows students to test their own understanding (Wieman & Perkins, 2005) through practical hands-on engagement.

A recent workshop held at Landmark College was designed to engage students with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders and autism spectrum disorders in activities that stimulate interest in the computing fields. The Landmark College Institute for Research and Training invited computer scientists and graduate students from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC) to demonstrate frequently used design methods in the computing fields, in particular the User Centered and Participatory Design approaches. Participatory Design is a method which involves users in the design process to ensure products meet user requirements. Landmark College students were given examples of Participatory Design and then had the opportunity to evaluate and design accessible mobile Apps or games using this method.

The Format

The students were first briefed on a variety of human-centered computing (HCC) concepts, the principles of Participatory Design and given examples of how to be an effective participatory design team member. Students then participated in small groups to evaluate, reevaluate and redesign accessible Apps and games. The workshop concluded with students presenting the designs they created based on the feedback they received.


Students were relatively quiet and hesitant to give their input during the first session. This shyness, however, quickly changed to excitement when they broke into small groups (the "participatory design teams") led by the UMBC graduate students. Within these teams, four students directly interacted with one or two computer scientists and eagerly applied newly learned concepts and methods to evaluate and design the Apps and games. Students were enthusiastic about being a team member, a critical thinker and giving their feedback to the professionals on how to make the Apps more accessible for any user. Interestingly, the students became personally invested in the development of the Apps. They contributed ideas, asked STEM-related questions and learned not only from the professionals but also from their peers.

We hypothesize that the students’ personal investment resulted from several factors including:

  • Their increased awareness of the type of methods employed by scientists.
  • Their recognition of the practical applications of Participatory Design.
  • The appreciation of the impact computer science, through its software applications and design, has on the daily lives of diverse user populations.

Student Perspectives

Subsequent workshop evaluations and discussions with the students revealed that they had engaging inquiry driven conversations with the scientists and the graduate students. According to all of the students, the "small group" exercises were the most successful portion of the workshop and for some, this experience either increased or confirmed their consideration of STEM fields for their future studies.

Scientists' Perspectives

When asked about the lessons learned from the workshop, scientists from UMBC said

  • “The participatory design method really worked, and the students were able to contribute a lot when they were working in small groups…and they were able to work well in these small groups, even though they didn't know us, and said that they didn't typically work in groups.”
  • “Students were so engaged [because] most of the concepts and software related to some aspect of their life, so they were able to contribute thoughtful and meaningful feedback.”
  • “I was impressed with the range of ideas suggested by the students.”

Lessons Learned

More and more educators are realizing the crucial value of developing a toolbox of approaches large enough to stimulate the interest of many students, yet flexible enough to meet the needs of a wide variety of young adults.

How can you implement this Participatory Design approach to teach STEM concepts in your classroom? Below are some recommendations to add to your toolbox:

  • Incorporate accessibility, novelty and student decision-making into the lessons.
    We invited STEM professionals to expose students to real life STEM projects, and then taught them the Participatory Design approach by involving the students in participatory design teams.
  • Structure and facilitate the lesson to allow students to come up with their own questions, data, and conclusions—much like scientists and mathematicians.
    The most successful component of our workshop was the applied evaluation and development session during which students were able to think critically and apply the concepts.
  • Employ hands-on tasks and small group activities.
    We observed that our students were more willing to contribute their ideas during the small group session compared to the large group session. They were also more open to peer-instruction within the small groups.
  • Relate science to students’ daily lives.
    We used Apps and games to pique the interest of our students, and since many of the students frequently used Apps and video games they were able to contribute meaningful feedback.

Want to add more resources to your teaching toolbox?

Read more about the NEW Graduate Certificate Program in Universal Design and Assistive Technology.

Read more about why LCIRT is a recognized global leader in designing and delivering applied teaching and universal design methods.


Wieman, C. & Perkins, K. (2005). Transforming physics education. Physics Today, 58(11),36.

Sapna Prasad, Ph.D. is a Research and Education Specialist at Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT). Dr. Prasad earned her doctorate in Cognitive Psychology from Rutgers University. She is currently Principal Investigator of grants funded by the AT&T Foundation and the NSF Alliance for Access to Computing Careers aimed at increasing the participation of students with disabilities in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Sapna also trains educators on topics including the neuroscience of learning and Universal Design for Instruction. Prior to joining LCIRT, Sapna conducted research investigating the visual perceptions of self-other actions and the impact of autism, inner-ear infections and parental interactions on cognitive development.
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