In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Issues at the Technology/Policy Interface
July 1, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 2

Leveraging Technology in the Coteaching Model for STEM Education

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Author: Kelly J. Grillo, Jane C. Bowser, and Tanya Moorehead Cooley

Effective teaching is essential to guide student learning toward improved outcomes and ensure US innovation and economic development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM fields).

The increasing assimilation of students of diverse abilities in a single, “inclusive” classroom, together with enhanced accountability requirements in education (since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, for example), support the use of coteaching, an approach that pairs regular and special education teachers in the classroom to accommodate students’ different learning abilities. And developments in technology make it an essential tool for engaging students with learning and other disabilities.

This article draws on national data and recent research to illustrate the advantages of coteaching and other methods to successfully teach students of varying abilities in the inclusive classroom. Specific technical resources are briefly reviewed.


According to an assessment by the Department of Education, learning outcomes for students in mathematics and science education in the United States are not improving (Aud et al. 2012). The scores of only about 30 percent of all US students are “proficient” or better on tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). For the remaining 70 percent of students, radical changes to STEM education in the inclusive classroom are needed.

The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation of Science and Mathematics Standards have increased rigor and significantly expanded demands on students to develop and use listening, reasoning, and writing skills. Students identified with learning disabilities (LD) require particular support in inclusive classes that focus on inputs (reading and listening) and outputs (writing and speaking) (figure 1) and on content mastery rather than on individual students’ learning deficits.

Figure 1

To meet these requirements, teachers are exploring possibilities associated with the use of technology to preteach the basic skills needed, model laboratory procedures, and remediate skills as necessary. But technology alone is not enough if teaching professionals do not have the tools available to equalize the deficits of students with learning disabilities who may otherwise have an aptitude for and interest in STEM-related education and careers.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the manifesting characteristics of disabilities have been used to eliminate students from advanced STEM programs—for example, by using cutoff scores, reading levels, and other nominal measures that do not similarly limit other students in STEM education (Street et al. 2010). When provided the appropriate support tools for listening, reading, writing, and speaking, students identified with LD not only are competitive in STEM classrooms but may rank among the top performers.

This article describes tools and strategies that can be used in the classroom to help students identified with LD succeed in STEM courses, thereby encouraging them to pursue further education and careers in these fields. Educators can support all students in the general education setting with technology-embedded teaching practices, capitalizing on the combined strengths of two professional teachers who guide the learning process to improve outcomes in STEM.

Why Coteaching?

Greater diversity and accountability in education justify the use of coteaching in secondary education. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) set the stage for incorporating larger numbers of students with special needs in the general education setting. With all children required to make learning gains under NCLB and new pressures associated with the Common Core standards in science and mathematics, there is more focus on the development of listening, reasoning, and writing skills.

Collaborative initiatives such as the coteaching model offer a way to complement content education with skills development for students who need extra support. Because the general education teacher is trained to deliver content and may have limited background or professional development in special education, coteaching with a special education teacher can address diverse learning needs in an inclusive classroom. The two educators have distinct, unique, and complementary roles to enhance achievement for all students (Dieker 2001).

In addition, use of the variety of widely available technology resources on the Web can make the co-teaching model even more meaningful and useful than the traditional one-lead one-support model (Scruggs et al. 2007). For example, a coteacher trained in both learning disabilities and technological resources can complement the regular teacher’s lessons with demonstrations, either during or after class, of technical tools that facilitate comprehension. (Some of these tools are described below.)

STEM for Students with Learning Disabilities
The Case for Students Identified with LD in STEM

It is important to support students identified with LD in STEM subjects because their experiences in K–12 can shape the way they view their education and career goals. They may be inspired to achieve greater goals academically and professionally—or so discouraged that they avoid further education and risk missing out on careers in which they could have been successful.

According to a report to President Obama (PCAST 2012, p. 1), “the US graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually. Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.” The report also states that “Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the US will produce at the current rate over the next decade.”

Students identified with LD are already rising to fill this gap. In 2011 the Access STEM Longitudinal Transition Study (ALTS) found that the number of undergraduates with disclosed disabilities1 who receive a STEM degree had risen 67 percent since 2002 (compared to a 17 percent increase in non-LD STEM grads) (Burgstahler et al. 2011). At the graduate level these disparities are even more marked, with a 160 percent increase in STEM degree recipients with disclosed disabilities, while the number of those without such disabilities actually declined (−6 percent).

Bias Barriers in the Classroom and Workplace

Yet even as more students identified with LD choose STEM majors, they face barriers that other students may not encounter (Madaus 2006). A 2011 study reported that students identified with LD are perceived as “lazy, attempting to cheat or using learning disabilities to avoid schoolwork” (Lee 2011, p. 74). And a 2003 study of 245 faculty members at a land-grant university found that those in the college of engineering showed significantly less willingness to provide accommodation for students identified with LD than faculty in other colleges (cited in Lee 2011).

Students identified with LDs are often dismissed as not able to learn in the most challenging curriculums, without regard for their abilities and strengths. The latter include real-world problem solving, which can be challenging for a teacher to skillfully model but is routine for students identified with LD who calculate reasonable solutions to everyday obstacles in order to meet even nominal daily demands. In the STEM classroom all students need to master problem-solving skills. There is thus an educational opportunity to invite students with disabilities to model the solutions to challenges they face, instead of using their challenges to divide them from their peers or exclude them from STEM programs.

Finally, parents of students identified with LD believe that employers in science and engineering fields may be even less willing to hire individuals with learning disabilities than those with physical disabilities. This may be because for many employers the term disability refers to a physical or sensory disability, not an “invisible” challenge such as a learning disability. Accommodations for those with learning disabilities are exceedingly rare in the workplace and not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (Lee 2011).

Coteaching with Technology: Rationale and Specific Tools

American classrooms that assimilate students of varying abilities must capitalize on the tools that students favor (Dieker et al. 2011). Innovatively adapting the coteaching model and using technology that students are familiar with at a greater rate with a focus on learning outcomes may increase the participation of students identified with LD (and other disabilities) in STEM-focused classrooms. Table 1 offers steps to help teachers move toward using technology in a coteaching model.

Table 1

The ability to provide students with assistance however, wherever, and whenever they need it makes technology an ideal “coteacher.” It can be used by students both in the classroom and at home, enabling them to experience the same interactions with content as their peers.

The technology tools shown in table 2 and briefly described below are easy to use and do not require much training or technical expertise for either the student or teacher. We include tools for learning as well as other disabilities (e.g., vision and hearing impairment) that affect students’ ability to access and grasp classroom content.

Table 2

Specific Tools

Inputs: Reading, Listening

Reading supports are now readily accessible to Windows and Mac users. VoiceOver supports visual impairments by reading all text and commands to the student, with adjustments and enhancements such as Speak Hints, Speaking Rate, Phonetics, Pitch Change, and Compact Voice. In addition, output can be provided to a Braille device. Other vision supports make it possible to zoom, enlarge text, and increase contrast.

A Windows-compatible option is the NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader, which can be downloaded to a USB drive and used with any Windows computer, making it convenient for students who do not have an iPad or laptop that can be taken with them to school.

The affordability of the iPad and the many apps designed to assist learners of all types make it a go-to device for listening supports. For the hearing-impaired, mono audio hearing supports can be activated for either the left or right ear.

The Notes Plus app enables students to take notes using handwriting or typing, but one of its main benefits is the microphone, which can be used to record notes, class lectures, and other information that the student can play back any time to review content as needed. In addition, the app’s easy-to-navigate design helps students with organizing their ideas for class.

A convenient and easy tool for teachers is Voice Thread, which allows them to upload and record content that can be conveyed to students via email or posted on a webpage or blog. Being able to listen to content as needed not only reinforces the material but also enables students who have difficulty focusing in class to hear the spoken content in an alternative environment. Voice Thread also has a mobile app that runs on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch.

Outputs: Writing, Speaking

Cast Science Writer is a free Web-based instructional tool developed to support middle and high school students in writing science reports. It is a feature-rich program that is based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It includes built-in report structures that provide assistance in the writing process, checklists for editing and revising science reports, and a journal for taking notes, organizing thoughts, and posing questions for later review. Animated assistance supports student learning with helpful hints, grammar considerations, and examples. A Speechstream toolbar, designed by Texthelp with a dictionary and translator, enables students to have text read back to them at any time. This feature helps students with proofreading and finalizing their reports.

For students who need help with writing and/or typing, the Voice Dictation feature of the 3rd generation iPad is available as a keyboard button. Spoken words and punctuation are transcribed as text with appropriate punctuation; for example, if a student says “the car was moving 20 miles per hour period,” Dictation writes “The car was moving 20 miles per hour.”

Two sources for speaking supports are Voki and Go Animate. With Voki Classroom, teachers can manage student accounts in a secure environment and recording time is extended from 60 to 90 seconds. Students can personalize the Voki site by creating an avatar and choosing the background as well as various enhancements that invite them to use their creativity to personalize this resource. The avatar can then be linked to or embedded in blogs, wikis, and even SMART Notebook files (with Notebook 11). Input for the avatar to speak can be entered by keyboard, microphone, or telephone. With Voki’s speaking tool students can explain their understanding or demonstrate their learning in a fun and creative way.

GoAnimate can provide student support in both content understanding and communication. With a free individual GoAnimate account or an inexpensive GoAnimate4Schools account, stories involving two avatars can be developed, enabling dialogue to enhance learning and communication. Lengthy and customizable videos can be created, but in most cases short clips made with point-and-click features are sufficient. Like Voki, input can be provided by typing text or recording from a microphone. GoAnimate movies can be linked to or embedded in various websites and blog utilities including Google Sites and Blogger.


The programs and apps described above are just a sampling of those available among the technological options for coteachers and students. They can provide individualized support, tailored to each student’s abilities, in inclusive STEM education and are easy to learn and use, cost-effective, and generally intuitive.

Technology can increase students’ proficiency with 21st century tools, but it is up to teachers to shape learning opportunities that improve STEM learning outcomes. The modern STEM classroom should arguably be a place where students communicate and collaborate, there is positive student-teacher discourse, students pose questions and test them via research on plausible hypotheses using technology-assisted tools, and newly developed knowledge is communicated through technology-enabled outlets (e.g., blogs and electronic publishing methods).

It is important not to use the label of “disability” to further marginalize students or limit their educational opportunities. Rather, teachers should use available and ability-appropriate tools to help students learn.

To ensure that all students have the opportunity to pursue STEM majors and occupations, classrooms can support the achievement of learning targets through the coteaching model, in which two professional coteachers use technology to allow and encourage students to explore learning in a more personal, effective, and engaging way.


Aud S, Hussar W, Johnson F, Kena G, Roth E, Manning E, Wang X, Zhang J. 2012. The Condition of Education 2012. NCES 2012-045. Washington: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Burgstahler S, Moore E, Crawford L. 2011. Report of the AccessSTEM/AccessComputing DO-IT Longitudinal Transition Study (ALTS). Available at

Dieker LA. 2001. What are the characteristics of “effective” middle and high school co-taught teams for students with disabilities? Preventing School Failure 46(1):14–23.

Dieker LA, Grillo KJ, Ramlakhan N. 2011. New technologies and virtual learning: The impact of a summer camp on gifted students interested in STEM careers. Gifted Education International 28(1):96–106.

Lee A. 2011. A comparison of postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enrollment for students with and without disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals 34(2):72–82.

Madaus JW. 2006. Employment outcomes of university graduates with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly 29(1):19–32.

PCAST [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology]. 2012. Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Report to the President. Washington: Executive Office of the President.

Scruggs TE, Mastropieri MA, McDuffie KA. 2007. Co-teaching in inclusive classrooms: A metasynthesis of qualitative research. Exceptional Children 73(4):392–416.

Street CD, Koff R, Fields H, Kuehne L, Handlin L, Getty M, Parker D. 2012. Expanding access to STEM for at-risk learners: A new application of Universal Design for Instruction. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 25(4):363–375.


1 A disclosed disability is an individual’s diagnosed condition, governed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, reported with legal documentation to education service providers in order to receive accommodations or supports protected under the law to increase access to the curriculum.

About the Author:Kelly J. Grillo is adjunct professor of special education and technology, Lynn University, Ross College of Education. Jane C. Bowser is Technology Coordinator, High Point University, School of Education. Tanya Moorehead Cooley is assistant professor of special education, Eastern Connecticut State University.