January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Why Students with Special Needs Need Science in Your Classroom

Posted: Friday, August 19th, 2016

by Scott Campbell

I am a resource-level special education teacher. Like you, I teach students. As in most classrooms, my students’ skill levels run the gamut from very low to approaching grade level. Unlike you, I do not specifically teach science. Students in my resource program do not qualify for services in science. They qualify for services in the specific areas of reading, writing, math, listening, and speaking. They are pulled out of the regular education classroom for those services. I do my best to schedule these services so there is minimal disruption to you, but the number of students to be seen and the number of minutes available to me limits me. I want us to be partners in the education of our students and I need you to know that my students need to have science in your classroom.

For years Special Education Resource services focused upon filling gaps in skills: decoding, computation, speaking, and writing in complete sentences. For the 12 years I have been teaching the main curriculum has been direct instruction programs which are highly scripted and effective in certain areas, like decoding and grammar, but very boring and not related to the general education classroom. I have had a large number of students that I call word callers. They can read the words but do not really comprehend what they read.

Research shows that the learning gap is not being closed but in reality it is being shifted. The state of California has now set a target goal that students receiving special education resource support should be in their general education classrooms 80% or more of the time. This means our shared students will be in your rooms more. How can you help these students?

Student work. Photo by Scott Campbell

Student work. Photo by Scott Campbell

The answer, in my opinion, is through the use of science. Research shows that science has one of the richest academic vocabularies and when taught from a constructivist approach is highly engaging. Unfortunately, my students often miss science when they are pulled out for support service. Additionally, the new science framework (now in the second draft) calls for science to available to all students.

Although I don’t specifically teach science to my students, I have used science concepts as my vehicle to deliver academic instruction in reading comprehension, and writing. Physical science is very engaging for my students. In order to give my students a common experience they could write about I used an engineering challenge based upon what I had learned from the Engineering is Elementary program developed by the Museum of Science, Boston (http://www.eie.org). I started out with my 5th graders as their science standards involved understanding forces such as the pulling force of gravity.

Specifically my students had to build a structure that would support the mass of a toy car. Their building materials were limited to index cards and painters’ tape. This challenge was my hook and it worked. All my students were eventually successful.

Next, using a strategy from Project GLAD “the cooperative paragraph” we wrote about the challenge. We edited, revised and revised again making the paragraph better. The students worked in groups, pairs, and eventually alone. The students illustrated the final version and they had to read it aloud to others.

I have also been able to support reading and writing skills on what has happened in the regular classroom. Although I used an engineering design challenge directly with my students for a specific writing lesson, I generally do not have time to have the students do science. However, I can work with students to read content text and write about what they have learned in their regular classroom.

Student work sample Photo by Scott Campbell

Student work sample Photo by Scott Campbell
Click to view a larger image.

Here is a sketch done by a 5th grade special education student at my school. This student’s regular education teacher worked to ensure that their special education students were present for science, especially for the hands-on inquiry lessons. In this activity, students were trying to determine if air took up space. Based on the conversation with the student and his sketch, the student demonstrated an understanding of the concept. With that understanding based on his experience, he was better able to access the content text. He also was less reluctant to read. That was a major step for him.

I have found that science is a very effective hook to motivate students. It can help them feel a part of their classroom. When they are included in the hands-on activities, they acquire experiences that assist them in accessing content in text and writing. It can help demonstrate to themselves and others that they are learning. And isn’t that what we want for all of our students?

Scott Campbell is a resource level special education teacher in the Central Valley.

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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Written by California Science Teachers Association

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CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.