How are educators increasing accessibility for their students?

Ilyssa Alagon
April 16, 2024

Access to education is essential for students to have equal opportunities and succeed in their academic and professional lives. Creating an inclusive and accessible environment within higher education ensures that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, abilities or disabilities, have equal access to learning.

The LearnSci Teaching Innovation Awards highlight innovative ways STEM educators have improved accessibility and inclusivity in higher education, promoting fairness institutionally. In this article we will discuss some of their innovations, which have provided students with improved access to labs, learning resources and science careers as a result.

Equal opportunity in career discovery

Wellcome Connecting Science addresses the challenge of inaccessible bioscience work experience after secondary education. Traditionally, ideal work experiences occur during the summer after students turn 16, providing practical exposure to various industries and fostering transferable skills like teamwork and time management. However, these experiences may not directly relate to bioscience, limiting their relevance to career goals. Additionally, relevant positions for bioscience work experience can be scarce, leading to high levels of competition between students, and not all students have access to such opportunities.

Genomics, Science and Data Careers

To bridge this gap, Wellcome Connecting Science introduced a virtual work experience platform, in partnership with Springpod, which utilised LearnSci LabSims to launch ‘Genomics, Science and Data Careers’. It is a course that provides Virtual Work Experience for young people to experience a range of career options and activities. Several LabSims were used to give students an interactive experience, increase their lab skills and confidence and contextualise their learning within a cell biology lab, allowing them to see and hear about the techniques and equipment used. This innovative approach reached over 1,400 students between the ages of 14-18, where 31% of participants indicated that they are the first in their family planning to go to university. Students felt more educated about STEM careers, had a better understanding of career possibilities and discovered new opportunities.

“There is a fundamental need for high-quality and accessible bioscience work experience opportunities for young people exploring post-16 options. Virtual work experience (VWEX) enables this opportunity to be available to more young people than traditional in-person opportunities, by removing geographical barriers and providing increased flexibility for those with summer jobs or caring responsibilities.”
Francesca Gale - Head of Science Engagement, Wellcome Connecting Science

Enhanced access to lab practicals

The University of East Anglia (UEA) has proactively addressed the transition to university for all students, with a particular focus on those under-represented in higher education. To enhance access to the labs, educators at UEA and student interns co-created the module ‘Preparing for your Biology Studies’, a non-credit bearing module developed for foundation and first-year Biological Sciences students. Starting two weeks before new students arrive, the module provides digital resources to support the transition into a university learning environment, incorporating resources students will use in their studies and addressing common concerns such as teaching lab expectations. Introductions from key staff members and virtual meetups encourage a sense of belonging, and importantly, the content makes no assumptions about students’ prior knowledge or backgrounds. By prioritising inclusivity and collaboration, UEA aims to create a smoother transition for all students, especially those who may face additional challenges.

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Providing accessible resources for students

At the School of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, educators have taken significant steps to enhance the transition into teaching labs. Recognizing the importance of accessibility and inclusivity, they have created bespoke e-resources specifically designed to support students during their transition into chemistry labs. The primary goal is to reduce cognitive load and manage expectations related to sensory and social aspects when working in the lab. These innovative resources utilise a combination of first-person videos, 360° images and videos, and interactive quizzes to recreate the lab environment. 

Reducing cognitive load

By providing stimulating and tailored pre-lab support, especially for first-year classes, students can remotely explore teaching spaces, familiarise themselves with equipment and chemicals, and gain awareness of hazards associated with each experiment. Additionally, the deconstruction of the laboratory experience helps them anticipate potential sensory triggers (such as lights, sounds, odours and movements) in advance. This proactive approach ensures that all students can engage effectively in their scientific learning journey.

The LearnSci Teaching Innovation Awards showcase the innovative ways educators have enhanced access to labs and learning resources in higher education, promoting inclusivity and accessibility. The initiatives ensure equal access to career exploration and scientific learning, empowering the next generation of scientists.

Curious about how digital tools can support accessibility in your department? Get in touch with our specialist team.