Building Capacity in and Access to Informal STEM Learning Settings for Participants with Disabilities

High school students with disabilities learn about the natural world at the UW Botany Greenhouse.

July 22nd, 2022

Scott Bellman, University of Washington DO-IT Center
Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington Accessible Technology Services
Meena Selvakumar, University of Washington Museology Graduate Program

A graduate student at the University of Washington (UW) Museology Graduate Program grew up surrounded by individuals with significant disabilities, sharing: “They were my classmates, my friends, and my mother’s coworkers, representing a huge, vibrant part of my community. I was schooled throughout my life to recognize when access is not equal and to recognize when those ‘best efforts for inclusion’ have gone horribly wrong.”

In part, that’s why this talented student joined the Access to Informal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Learning (AccessISL) project intern team, which has helped drive activities that support the project’s goal of increasing knowledge, skills, and actions to make informal STEM learning (ISL) programs, facilities, courses, and resources more welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities. The project is a collaboration between the UW Museology Graduate Program and the UW Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center, and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under grant #DRL-1906147.

The student’s comments drive home a particular need. To fill increasing numbers of positions in STEM, the United States needs to draw from a talent pool that includes all demographic groups. Efforts to increase participation by people with disabilities in STEM support the NSF’s mandate to apply “the best ideas from the most capable researchers and educators.” ISL can play an important role in increasing the STEM interest and knowledge of people with disabilities, but only if it’s accessible to them. Despite this need for accessibility, museology postsecondary coursework does not routinely include content about accessibility, disability, or universal design. Although resources for promoting accessible ISL training and programming exist, AccessISL project leaders believe this work can be promoted more broadly and that more research, best practices, and resources are needed.

Engaging an intern team of museology graduate students and STEM students with disabilities is central to the design of the AccessISL project. As one intern shared, “We need to have individuals with a wide variety of abilities engaged in a project like this. I’m an autistic self-advocate who has been involved in museums and informal education both as a participant and a facilitator. I’m really interested in the project because of my own experiences of inaccessibility and how my firsthand lived experience can benefit others.”

(Photo: High school students with disabilities learn about the natural world at the UW Botany Greenhouse.)

From January to March 2020, AccessISL internship activities took place on-site at the UW campus, the Living Computer Museum, the Pacific Science Center, the Burke Museum of Natural History, and the Seattle Aquarium. Thereafter, nearly all activities took place online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This unexpected development for a project that was designed to conduct in-person activities at many locations required the creativity, flexibility, and persistence of AccessISL staff and interns as they worked to convert project activities from on-site environments to virtual environments, take advantage of opportunities presented, and work with ISL programs that faced similar challenges. For example, the project’s Seattle-area Capacity Building Institute on Access to Informal STEM Learning, originally designed for 20 individuals on the UW campus, was shifted to an online national event attended by more than 60 people from a wide variety of museums, science centers, and youth STEM camps.

To date, 15 interns have developed problem-solving and communication skills as they enhanced their knowledge about equitable ISL, promoted the inclusion of disability-related and universal design topics within courses, and engaged in activities to make online and on-site ISL offerings more welcoming and inclusive for everyone. A replication package describing how internships contributed to the project was developed for individuals who wish to conduct similar activities. 


The following resources were created, co-developed, or enhanced by AccessISL interns over a three-year period:

  • Intern Collaborations with Informal STEM Learning Programs: Interns collaborated with Seattle-area ISL programs, including the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center, the Burke Museum of Natural History, and the Living Computer Museum.
video screen shot
  • Video: Interns created a three-minute video called “Increasing Access to Informal STEM Learning” that was featured in the 2021 NSF STEM for All Video Showcase.  
  • Publication: Interns contributed to the development of a brochure called “Equal Access: Universal Design of Informal STEM Learning,” that provides a starting point for making ISL programs and facilities universally accessible.
  • Contributions to Accessibility of Museology Courses: Interns provided accessibility and curriculum recommendations for Museology, Learning in Museums, Collaborative Exhibits, and Careers and Social Capital courses in the UW Museology Graduate Program.
  • Conference Presentation: Interns and project staff co-presented a “What we learned during the pandemic: Accessible informal learning” session at the 2021 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Expo.
  • AccessISL Knowledge Base: The AccessISL Knowledge Base contains case studies, promising practices, and Q&As relevant to accessible ISL. Interns contributed to the Knowledge Base by creating new articles, suggesting topics, and helping edit articles. New titles include:

    • Visitor Voices: Sharing perspectives of museum visitors with disabilities
    • Intrepid Museum: A promising practice in providing accessibility information
    • ALT-text as Poetry: A promising practice in reimagining ALT text
    • California Academy of Sciences: A promising practice in planning for visitors who are neurodiverse
    • How do I include deaf students in informal learning conversations?
    • Riverside Art Museum: A promising practice in improving access for natural science education
    • Where can I find accessible downloadable museum exhibits?

The evaluation questions that guide AccessISL project work include

  1. To what extent are AccessISL project impacts achieved? 
  2. What aspects of AccessISL do or do not contribute to the achievement of project impacts?  
  3. How, if at all, should the AccessISL approach be changed to help the project achieve its goals for both ISL practitioners and students? 

The project evaluators gathered quantitative data through surveys, accessibility assessment tools, systemic change indicators, and tracking procedures. Observations, interviews, and focus groups were used to gather qualitative information.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the 15 interns and ISL collaborators who engaged in project activities, each bringing a unique perspective to the work. AccessISL is funded by the NSF (#DRL-1906147). Any findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.