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Kinetic City Empower Project Publishes STEM Accessibility Research

Last week the journal K-12 STEM Education published a special report on The Kinetic City Empower Project, a AAAS initiative designed to encourage more accessible STEM learning after-school activities with a focus on “disabled labeled” students.

According to Bob Hirshon, principal investigator of The KC Empower Project and host of the Science Update radio show, the project was inspired by his Kinetic City After School project, 15 years earlier. The more than 80 activities designed for that effort included tips and adaptations to make the program inclusive for children with disabilities. New research and technologies inspired Hirshon and co-principal investigator Laureen Summers to re-visit the activities, using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This approach seeks to create an inclusive learning environment through activities designed for any learner.

“With Universal Design, the whole idea is to provide as many of those [accessibilities] as you can, without the need for adaptations. For example, we found that a lot of our activities say, ‘read this thing and then draw this picture.’ A more inclusive version would let them read, listen to or otherwise learn this material and then draw, mold, build—there could be ten ways in which you could respond to that material,” Hirshon said.

Bob Hirshon and Laureen Summers


Bob Hirshon, KC Empower Project's principal investigator, and Laureen Summers, co-principal investigator | Juan David Romero

To do this, The KC Empower Project first selected sample activities from The KC After School project, tested them with kids with varied special needs, received feedback from both the kids and adults involved, and huddled with an advisory board of researchers who specialize in accessibility. They then made changes to the activities based on the recommendations, and tested the improved activities to see if the changes had enhanced accessibility.

The five after school learning activities that were selected included a computer game or simulation (called Mind Game), a traditional hands-on science activity (Fab Lab), a physical education style activity (Move Crew), an art activity (Smart Art), and a creative writing activity (Write Away).

A lot of people making activities think that if they make them accessible they will be less fun and less effective for everybody else, said Hirshon. However, research conducted by the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) as part of his project generally dispelled such preconceived notions. CCT found that redesigning the activities not only made them more appealing and inclusive for children in special needs environments, but also made them more effective in general, and more responsive to different learning styles.

Laureen Summers, co-principal investigator and project director of the Entry Point! Program for college students with disabilities studying science-related fields, said one of the primary challenges is helping disabled-enabled kids break the stereotype that they can’t participate.

“We went and said — yes they can” Summers said.

One of the more ambitious redesigns the team undertook was the Write Away activity, Your Creature’s Features. The activity originally showed line drawings of six strange beasts and asked students to observe the creatures’ unusual features, think about where the creatures might live, and make up a story about how their features helped them survive there.

To make the activity more accessible, The KC Empower Project contracted Touch Graphics to recreate the artwork as a book of high-relief images, with colors and textures. Descriptions of the creature’s body parts were provided in both letters and braille, and students were provided with talking pens that would read the descriptions out loud. While the changes explicitly help children who are blind, the textures and colors engage a wide range of learners, and the talking pen helps children learning to read as well as those who speak English as a second language.

KC Empower Write Away activity, Your Creature’s Features


KC Empower Project's Write Away activity, Your Creature's Features | KC Empower Project

According to Babette Moeller, distinguished scholar at CCT, one of the most challenging aspects of the research was finding programs where there was time available and access to the student population, which ultimately came from a Washington-area private and public school.

John Stiles, editor-in-chief of K-12 STEM Education, said that unfortunately, it is rare to find scholarly works about projects that are undertaken to promote universal accessibility in STEM activities, and that is what makes the KC Empower project unique.

“It is also difficult to find such articles about informal education activities, although I think that these activities are also suited for formal education in school classrooms,” Stiles said.

Ultimately, Hirshon and Summers hope that researchers and educators will continue to push creativity and technology to help STEM education reach kids worldwide.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation’s AISL (Advancing Informal STEM Learning) Pathways program.

For more information about the research visit: