Building Bridges Between Science and Special Education:
Inclusion in the Science Classroom


Deborah H. Haskell
Clemson University

Often, when a school or district embraces a philosophical position and develops curriculum policies, the process involves only a few individuals such as administrators and curriculum coordinators. Teachers, who often do not have the opportunity to collaborate in the decision making process, feel as if changes are mandated or imposed upon them. As a result, they are less willing to implement the changes (Idol, 1997). This has been the case with the inclusion of students with learning disabilities in the science classroom. Most of the discussion about inclusion practices is found in the special education and administrative literature. As a result, the practices being implemented in the general classroom usually originate from special educators and administrators. A key player to the inclusion process, the science teacher, does not contribute to the planning process and as a result is expected to implement someone else's plan (Greer, & Greer, 1995). To make inclusion work, science teachers need to assume an active role in the planning process and advocate instructional practices which can be implemented in the large group setting of the science classroom as well as meet the diverse needs of individual students. A collaborative relationship between the science teacher and the special education teacher can link what was formerly two separate educational domains. Unlike plans which originate from administrators and special educators, the four step plan discussed in this article requires the science teacher to initiate a collaborative process with the special education teacher and develop instructional strategies which will work in the science classroom before legally binding decisions are made in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. The gap between the two educational domains is not as wide as it first appears and through collaborative efforts the span can be bridged.

Special Education Background

The National Science Education Standards (NCR, 1996, p. 20 ) lists as the first principle upon which the standards are based, "Science is for all students." This is also the educational philosophy of our nation. This philosophy includes not only students differing in age, gender, and ethnicity, but also students who have disabilities. Approximately 10-12% of the school age population in the U.S. has disabilities that require special education services. For the 1996-97 school year, 5,235,952 children with disabilities were served under Part B (state grants) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Of those served, 51.1% of these students were identified as having specific learning disabilities (Voyles, 1999). In addition to those students identified with disabilities, an additional 30-40% of the general student population may also be at risk for school failure, experiencing problems similar to students with mild to moderate disabilities (Walther-Thomas, & Carter, 1993).

The passage of P.L. 94 - 142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (in 1990 renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - IDEA), legislated the right of all children to receive a free appropriate public education. This education should take place in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The IDEA Amendments of 1997 changed the perspective of LRE. Instead of placing the student in the resource room or self-contained classroom, and going to the general education classroom when it was determined the student was "ready", the student now starts in the general education classroom. The student goes to the more restrictive environment of the resource room or self-contained classroom only if the specified goals are not attained in the general education classroom. The appropriate least restrictive environment for each student is stated in the student's IEP and is determined by the degree of disability and the degree of services available (Elliot, & McKenney, 1998). The Council for Exceptional Children views inclusion as a part of a continuum of options (Johnston, 1994). Using this continuum of options, most of the students placed in the science classrooms will have mild and moderate difficulties, with those students requiring more specialized programs being served in other more appropriate environments (Greer, & Greer, 1995). As a result, more students with learning disabilities are now included in science education classrooms. But placement in the science classroom does not always result in appropriate educational practices. Dependency on the textbook/ lecture instructional model without accommodations or alternative strategies "handicaps" the student with learning disabilities. Traditionally, most of the classroom instruction practiced by science teachers is organized around the textbook (Hurd, Bybee, Kahle, & Yager, 1980; Tyson, & Woodward, 1989; Weiss, 1987; Yager, & Penick, 1983). Science teachers must be cognizant of the ineffectiveness of this instructional model for students with learning disabilities (and the 30-40% of the student population with similar characteristics) and work with the special education teacher to implement more effective instructional practices.

Four Step Plan

Step 1: Collaboration Between the Science and Special Education Teachers

There are several teaching models which have been effectively used in inclusive classrooms. These include team teaching, aide services, limited pullout services, and consultation/collaboration (Elliot, & McKenney, 1998). Of these, team teaching is thought to be the most desirable. Team teaching involves both the science education and special education teachers working together in the classroom and instructing the entire class. Because the team approach lowers the student to teacher ratio, the students get more individualized attention. The teachers benefit as working side by side with a colleague removes the sense of isolation many teachers experience. The science education teacher presents the science content component of the lesson and the special education teacher contributes learning strategies and other meta-cognitive skills. Unfortunately, very few schools have the financial and personnel resources to implement this model. In the U.S. many special education students are taught by teachers without the proper training and certification. According to the Fifteenth Annual Report to Congress given in 1993, 8,168 teachers (or 8.5% of all learning disabilities teachers) were needed in 1990-1991 to fill vacancies and replace less than fully certified teachers. That's nearly one teacher in every twelve (Sindelar, 1995). Those who are in the schools are expected to travel between several schools or between several classrooms within a single building (Ferguson & Ralph 1996). This is not a situation which makes co-teaching feasible for most schools.

Aide services would bring a paraeducator into the science classroom to work under the science teacher. Rather than working as equals, as in the co-teaching model, the aide would receive instruction from the classroom teacher as to how to serve the students during each lesson. Once again, many schools do not have the financial resources to provide an aide for every classroom teacher. Limited pullout service returns to the more traditional form of special education practiced in schools. The student or a group of students leave the general classroom environment and go to the resource room. In the resource room, the student works on specific skills in an individualized or small group setting. The lessons learned in the resource room are often not transferred to the content area classroom. Additionally, the student experiences the social stigma associated with the resource room (Elliot & McKenney, 1998; Johnston, 1994). These are the very problems inclusion is striving to correct.

The consultation/collaboration model uses the special educator as a support specialist. Serving as a consultant to the general education teacher, the special educator provides no direct services to students in the classroom, except for assessment, observation, and planning meetings (Elliot & McKenney, 1998). This collaborative relationship between the science teacher and the special education teacher can bring about positive changes for the students. Each teacher has strengths to bring to the relationship. The science teacher is the content area specialist. She has the experience and training to help students learn science, knows the content and curriculum, and knows methods which keep a large group of students interested and on task (Cole & McLesky, 1997; Dyck, Sundbye & Pemberton, 1997; Ferguson & Ralph, 1996; Greer, & Greer, 1995; Hines, 1994). The special education teacher knows how to plan for individualized learner goals, learning strategies, adapting instruction, and alternative assessment.( Cole & McLesky, 1997; Dyck, Sundbye, & Pemberton, 1997; Ferguson & Ralph 1996; Greer & Greer, 1995; Hines, 1994). By recognizing one another's strengths and shortcomings, the different approaches brought into the collaborative model become complimentary rather than adversarial.

If the co-teaching or aide service models are not in place, the science teacher preparing for an inclusive classroom must propose a collaborative relationship to the special education teacher. Once both parties agree to use the collaborative model, the collaborative team then proposes their request to the principal. Scheduling time to meet and plan is a major obstacle in collaborative efforts. If the collaborative model is to work, the principal must provide the time for the team to share, reflect, and grow in this inclusion process (Cole & McLesky, 1997; Hines, 1994; Idol, 1997; Johnston, 1994). In addition to scheduling joint planning time, professional development opportunities must be made available, not only in pedagogy, but also in skills related to collaboration (Johnston, 1994). Once the collaborative team is established and has received administrative support, specific instructional strategies can be addressed.

Step 2: The Development of Effective Instructional Practices

The science classroom can be set up as a successful environment for the student with learning disabilities. The second principle listed in NSES "Learning science is an active process." (NCR, 1996, p. 20). Yet many teachers still use a textbook-oriented teaching approach. Mastropieri and Scruggs (1994, 1995) found that science textbooks contain enormous amounts of vocabulary and often the readability surpasses the skills of students with learning disabilities. By using activity oriented methods, the students use less vocabulary, are asked to do far less independent reading and paper and pencil work and spend more time interacting with actual examples of the concepts being studied. Effective activity oriented teaching strategies use constructivist models which allow the student to build the lesson from what she already knows. Students with learning disabilities taught with inquiry-oriented, hands-on science curriculum learn and comprehend more information than students taught from textbooks (Scruggs, Mastropieri, Bakken & Brigham, 1993). Many strategies have been found to be effective for both general education students and students with learning disabilities. Among these are cooperative learning, integrated units, concept maps, Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT), and learning strategies. Authentic assessment, rather than just paper and pencil tests, gives a more accurate measure of academic outcomes.

After the passage of P.L. 94-142, cooperative learning activities were designed, in part, to break down the barriers between students with special needs and general education students (Bender, 1998). The benefits of cooperative learning are multiple. In addition to the opportunity to improve social skills, the learners are actively engaged, participate in discussions which increase their cognitive levels of thinking, and are given new perspectives to problems.

Integrated units make the content relevant and applicable to real world situations. The lessons learned in science class can be more easily transferred to other applications. Textbooks compartmentalize content, making it difficult to use in ways other then how it is presented. This makes it difficult to transfer this knowledge to real life problems. This is true not only of students with learning disabilities, but all students who try to learn content by rote in an effort to get by in the American school system. This limits the development of the problem solving skills needed for success in the post secondary world.

Graphic organizers such as charts and concept maps are effective for both students with learning disabilities and for general education students. Concept maps help students generalize concepts and their relationships to facts (Lovitt & Horton, 1994). By designing their own concept maps, students have to reflect on the content and organize it in a way that is meaningful to them (Novak, 1991). Concept maps enhance the student's ability to categorize, organize, and integrate new information from varied, but unfamiliar facts and their related concepts. They discourage the learning of unrelated facts by rote and promote learning the interrelatedness of concepts and principles which facilitates retention and retrieval of information (Harniss, Hollenbeck, Crawford, & Carnine, 1994).

A very promising strategy for the inclusive classroom is Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT). The Juniper Gardens Children's Project in Kansas City which was developed by Charles Greenwood has done longitudinal studies which followed students from kindergarten through grade 12. Not only have students performed better on standardized tests, but by 7th grade fewer students required special education services, and by 12th grade, fewer of the students instructed with CWPT had dropped out of high school (Greenwood, 1999). Additional studies have found variations of CWPT to be effective. Peer tutoring provides social and academic skills for students and is practical for the general education teacher to implement. It is simple to use with a large class, does not require the teacher to allocate large amounts of time to 1 or 2 students needing extra help, and the students prefer it to adult-mediated interventions (Lloyd, Crowley, Kohler, & Strain, 1988; Maheady, Harper, & Sacca, 1988; Waldron, & Allen, 1999). Students learn most effectively when they have many opportunities to respond and receive immediate feedback regarding their performance. Peer tutoring increases the students' learning opportunities and provides immediate feedback. Peer tutoring should be used only after information has been introduced, discussed, and reviewed by the classroom teacher. Depending on the objective,the tutoring teams should be designed with either random pairings or with the more able students assisting students who need extra help. All students need to have the opportunity to be both tutor and tutee.

An example of a middle school peer tutoring activity follows: This activity is designed for students who understand how to record experimental data and convert that data into a graph to tutor students who are still developing that skill. Using the activity of measuring worm pulse rates at different temperatures, the data recording and graphing skills are broken into smaller, observable steps (Table 1).

Table 1

Tutor Record Sheet

Tutor _________________________________

Tutee _________________________________

Date ______________ Activity: Worm Pulse Rates

Skills: Completing a data table and transferring the information to a graph.

Steps of the Skills Needed no help Could do with a little help Needs more help

1. Identify the independent variable.      
2. Label the independent variableon the data table.      
3. Identify the dependent variable.      
4. Label the dependent variable on the data table.      
5. Identify the two parts of the data table needed for the dependent variable in this activity.      
6. Enter the data into the table.      
7. Calculate the averages and enter into the data table.      
8. Label the graph with a title.      
9. Label the independent variable (with units) on the graph.      
10. Label the dependent variable(with units) on the graph.      
11. Plot the data points on the graph.      
12. Draw a line graph.      

The tutor is responsible not only for assisting the tutee, but also for recording the tutee's progress at each step. The skills checklist provides feedback not only to the student, but also to the teacher. The Greenwood model uses only a tutor performance checklist (Table 2), but the author believes both students should be held accountable for their performance during the activity and also includes a tutee performance checklist (Table 3).

Table 2

Tutor Checklist

Tutor ____________________________________

Tutee _______________________________

Date ________________ Activity: _________________________________________


_____ Collect materials

_____ Go to the activity station

_____ Sit side by side with your partner

_____ Show enthusiasm

_____ Use a positive manner

_____ Speak in a quiet voice

_____ Be sociable, but keep the small talk to a minimum; keep discussion on track

_____ Describe the lesson to your partner

_____ Praise correct responses

_____ Provide corrective feedback

_____ Share your learning "tricks" with your partner

_____ Complete the tutor checklist and the tutor record sheet

_____ Turn in a completed activity report for the group


Table 3

Tutee Checklist

Tutor ____________________________________

Tutee _______________________________

Date ________________ Activity:_____________________________________


_____ Go to your activity station

_____ Sit side by side with your partner

_____ Show enthusiasm

_____ Use a positive manner

_____ Speak in a quiet voice

_____ Be sociable, but keep the small talk to a minimum; keep discussion on track

_____ Accept corrective feedback

_____ Complete the activity report

_____ Complete the tutee checklist

_____ Replace the materials at the end of the activity


All students, but especially those with learning disabilities, need to be taught strategies which can enhance the learning process. Among these are the use of mnemonics, study guides which cue the student to relevant information yet allow the development of note-taking skills, and reading strategies which describe how textbooks are organized and how to extract the relevant information (Harniss, Hollenbeck, Crawford, & Carnine, 1994).

Authentic assessments such as portfolios and performance-based assessment give a more accurate measure of the academic level of the student than paper and pencil tests. Many students with learning disabilities perform poorly on reading, writing and/or language tasks (Bender, 1998). Using only paper and pencil assessment tools measures the level of the student's language arts abilities, not the level of understanding for the science concept or skill in question.

Since many of these strategies have been used in the special education classrooms and not by science teachers, the collaborative team needs to discuss the strategies most appropriate for particular lessons and the students within a particular class. Communication will allow the exchange of ideas which generates not only effective lesson plans but also an agreement of the commitments which will be included in each student's IEP.

Step 3: Implement the lessons with the provisions agreed to by both teachers.

Once the instructional strategies have been decided upon by the collaborative team, the science teacher implements them in the lesson or unit.

Step 4: Review the lessons and make necessary revisions.

After the lesson has been conducted, using the alternative strategies agreed to, the science and special education teachers meet to discuss the effectiveness of the lesson. What were the academic and social outcomes for both the students with special needs and the general education students? Does the strategy appropriately address the objectives stated in the students' IEPs? The science teacher can modify instruction to enhance the understanding of the science concepts. The special education teacher can look at additional learning strategies which may help the students. Successful lessons can serve as models for future teaching.


The inclusion of students with special needs in the science classroom is not an optional educational practice. It is mandated by federal legislation. Science teachers should not have to implement this educational practice without additional training and support. Collaboration with the special education teacher results in the opportunity to design lessons using alternative instructional strategies. Strategies which are effective for both the students with learning disabilities and the general education student are cooperative learning, integrated units, concept maps and Classwide Peer Tutoring. A proactive collaborative relationship with the special education teacher can result in a teaching situation which is not only more agreeable to the science teacher, but also more beneficial to all of the students in the classroom.


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About the author...

Deborah Haskell is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction at Clemson University, where she has focused on instructional strategies for the inclusive science classroom. Mrs. Haskell received her Bachelor of Science degree in Medical Technology from the University of Massachusetts and her Masters in Science Education from the University of Maine. She taught seventh grade science in rural Maine and clinical courses for medical assistants at Husson College in Bangor, Maine.

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