Access to Informal STEM Learning Capacity Building Institute (2022)

Informal STEM Learning (ISL) refers to learning about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outside of the traditional classroom, in settings such as museums, science centers, and summer camps. The Access to Informal STEM Learning (AccessISL) project collaborated with the NSF INCLUDES Alliance: The Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking, and Transition Opportunities in STEM (TAPDINTO-STEM) to host the Access to Informal STEM Learning Capacity Building Institute (CBI) on March 2 and 3, 2022. At the online event, attendees shared challenges and solutions regarding equitable access to ISL. They identified specific ways stakeholders can work together to increase universal design, accessibility, and systemic change as it relates to informal STEM learning.

The content of these proceedings may be useful for people who:

  • participated in the workshop
  • are STEM educators
  • are interested in equitable and accessible informal STEM learning
  • are motivated to engage in an electronic community to discuss these issues
  • have promising practices to share with others

“The vision is that museums can make the world a better place, and the power of museums lies in the role of the playing, learning, well-being, community-building, and social justice. Museum professionals are connectors and that means that inclusion is central to our work—inclusion for all.” – AccessISL co-PI Meena Selvakumar on the Museology Master of Arts Program’s core beliefs.

About the Event Leaders

About AccessISL

The AccessISL project supports efforts to develop a capacity building model for making Informal STEM Learning (ISL) opportunities more welcoming and accessible to individuals with disabilities. Project staff collaborate with practitioners to develop and test model interventions, fully develop replication steps, and gain insights from both people with disabilities and those in the field.

About the University of Washington (UW) Museology Graduate Program

Grounded in research-based best practices, the UW Museology Graduate Program values innovation, critical thinking, and leadership. It is a two-year interdisciplinary course of study designed to cultivate the tools and knowledge for students to advance the work of museums, informal learning environments, and other valuable cultural institutions. The program incorporates accessibility and inclusion through specific training within classes and deeper dives through internships.


TAPDINTO-STEM is a nationwide collaborative effort involving 28 colleges and universities in 16 states, Washington D.C., and the Mariana Islands. The NSF INCLUDES Alliance: The Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking, and Transition Opportunities in STEM (TAPDINTO-STEM), employs a collective impact approach with dozens of partnering organizations to increase the number of students with disabilities who complete associate, baccalaureate and graduate STEM degrees and enter the STEM workforce. 

About the UW Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center

DO-IT at the University of Washington promotes the success of people with disabilities using technology as an empowering tool to increase independence, productivity, and participation in education and employment. DO-IT secures grant funding for statewide, national, and international projects and programs. Its largest contributors are the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education.

AccessISL Agenda

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

9:00 - 9:30am Welcome and Introductions

  • Overtoun Jenda, Professor of Math and Assistant Provost, Auburn University
  • Sheryl Burgstahler, Accessible Technology Services, University of Washington
  • Meena Selvakumar, Museology Graduate Program, University of Washington
  • Scott Bellman, DO-IT Center & College of Engineering, University of Washington

9:30 - 10:20am Round Table: Access to ISL Programs and Museums for Everyone

Leaders from across the United States will participate in a round table discussion on making access and equity a priority in terms of securing funding and support, identifying best practices, facilitating community involvement, and developing policies and guidelines.

  • Katy Menne (moderator), North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport
  • Ryan Saglio, Attleboro Enterprises
  • Meredith Peruzzi, National Deaf Life Museum, Gallaudet University
  • Christine Reich, Museum of Science, Boston

10:20am Accessible Information Technology and Digital Engagement

We will explore accessible digital design, documents, and information technology with thought leaders who are excited to share their experiences. Challenges unique to ISL programs, such as best practices for digitizing collections and archiving materials, will also be discussed.

  • Accessible Websites and Online Content: Terrill Thompson, University of Washington
  • Tips for Accessible Online Learning: Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington
  • Accessibility for Cultural Content: Susan Chun, Independent Consultant, Museums and the Web

11:05am Pre-Engagement, Neurodiversity, and Social Narrative

This session will feature 10-minute presentations from programs that have developed best practices for social narrative development, staff training, communicating options for access and accommodation, engaging neurodiverse individuals, and more.

  • Serving Neurodiverse Learners: Strategies from a STEM Summer Camp: Eric Chudler, Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners, University of Washington & Tami Tidwell, Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners, University of Washington
  • Everyone is Welcome: Social Narratives for all Ages at the Minneapolis Institute of Art: Amanda McMahon, Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • When STEM Learning Opportunities Match with How Neurodiverse Students Learn: Perspectives from the Field: Ronda Jenson, Northern Arizona University

11:35am Small Group Discussions and Report Out

What factors promote or inhibit museums and ISL programs’ efforts for making access and equity a high priority? What can be done to address these factors?

12:00pm   Adjourn and optional continued discussion

Thursday, March 3, 2022

9:00 - 9:10am   Welcome and Overview

  • Overtoun Jenda, Professor of Math and Assistant Provost, Auburn University
  • Sheryl Burgstahler, Accessible Technology Services, University of Washington
  • Meena Selvakumar, Museology Graduate Program, University of Washington
  • Scott Bellman, DO-IT Center & College of Engineering, University of Washington

9:10am   Informal STEM Learning Access Stories

Through ten-minute flash talks, presenters will share specific activities at their institution that have improved access for everyone.

  • Expanding Access at the Riverside Art Museum: Caryn Marsella, Riverside Art Museum & Clara Dawson, University of Washington Museology Program
  • Making PacSci’s Tide Pool Exhibit Accessible to Everyone: Diana Johns, Pacific Science Center
  • Accessibility Features at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum: Margaret Gambaro; Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum & Ellen Pieser; Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum
  • Blinded by Science: STEM Programs for Blind and Visually Impaired Students: Isaac Beavers, Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

10:00 - 10:40am   Small Group Discussions & Report Out

What new (undeveloped) or existing resources might help ISL programs who are interested in increasing accessibility features of on-site programming? What can be done to further develop and promote these resources?

10:40am   Direct Engagement of the Disability Community

We’ll explore specific activities undertaken by ISL programs that center the voices of individuals with disabilities and allow for more robust engagement with the disability community.

  • Presuming Competence to Build a Community of Supports: Tany Holzworth, Content Designer for Inclusive Classroom Tools at Microsoft
  • Engaging Interns to Promote Accessible Informal STEM Learning: Scott Bellman, University of Washington; Anisa Proda, Student at University of Washington; Dawn Dailey, Burke Museum
  • Building Relationships with Disability Communities: Elizabeth Ralston, Accessibility Consultant and Founder, Seattle Cultural Accessibility Consortium
  • A Lived Experience of Problem Solving: Anil Lewis, National Federation of the Blind
  • Transcending Boundaries and Supporting STEM Futures for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Students: Bedarius Bell Jr., Director of Special Programs Alabama Dept. of Rehabilitation Services

11:30am   Small Group Discussions & Report Out

What are other ways that disability communities are engaged in ensuring access to informal science education? What do museums, science centers, summer camps, and other informal STEM learning programs need to do and what resources would be helpful?

11:50am   Highlighted Resources

We’ll further explore helpful resources recommended by CBI participants.

11:55am   Evaluation and Final Thoughts

12:00pm   Adjourn and optional informal discussion

Roundtable Panel Summary

Leaders from across the United States participated in a round table discussion on making access and equity a priority in terms of securing funding and support, identifying best practices, facilitating community involvement, and developing policies and guidelines.


  • Katy Menne (moderator), North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport
  • Ryan Saglio, Attleboro Enterprises
  • Meredith Peruzzi, National Deaf Life Museum, Gallaudet University
  • Christine Reich, Museum of Science, Boston

What got you started with inclusion and accessibility in museology?

  • Katy: "Working in formal classrooms to get my master's degree, I worked with students who needed extra assistance, and in working with them one-on-one, I realized that we weren’t approaching teaching the best way. When I got into museum work, I wanted to look at different ways we could offer educational experiences, which helped bring about the Certified Autism Center certification. From there, we launched options for tours using American Sign Language (ASL) and tactile maps for visually-impaired patrons."
  • Ryan: "I originally wanted to be an English teacher, but I stumbled into a job in human services working with students with disabilities who come from a diverse background. In graduate school, I realized from a community integration standpoint that there was such a need for community spaces to learn more about being accessible, inclusive, and equitable—grad school was an opportunity for me to kind of hone that."
  • Meredith: "I was more focused on history, but so many people wanted me to teach about making museums accessible to the Deaf community. I realized so many of the resources were written by able-bodied people and not by the Deaf--so I started studying accessibility in museums so that I could help provide some of that perspective."
  • Christine: "My first job in a museum field was as an intern for a woman who used a wheelchair, and she was a strong advocate for inclusion for all; she taught me the importance of museums as places that can send a message of belonging; Belonging not just to the organization, but to the community as a whole. At this time, I was also leading our party program, and I was asked to throw a party for a deaf student, and I worked hard creating an experience that was accessible for all party participants, including staff and volunteers that gave directions in ASL–including some that were Deaf themselves–with translations to English and graphic signs and instructions created for activities. I learned this event was one of the first times the student had interacted with deaf adults. I quickly realized from these experiences the difference we can make when we do things right and make sure things are inclusive."

What are some barriers that have come up during the pandemic, and how have you overcome them?

  • Christine: "We had audio labels that were delivered through a phone device on the exhibit. When the pandemic hit, we realized that the system was problematic, and would need to be sterilized after each use. We commissioned a service, Aira, which provides audio description for people when they're walking through any public space. Simultaneous to that, we're working on a new app that will be using specific location-based awareness through Bluetooth triangulation, provide an auditory description of each individual exhibit component that you're standing in front of and also provide navigational aids. We did maintain our tactile models by showcasing they were not a primary carrier for COVID, and we implemented more cleaning protocols."
  • Ryan: "There is often thought to be a right or wrong way to experience something. I often push back on this idea, and I think the pandemic has really opened up people to this idea that there are a lot of different ways people take in information. I do also think people have gone too far during the pandemic as well–I recently went to a museum where they had removed all of the benches and places to sit in the name of safety. For anyone who needs to take frequent breaks, this took away their opportunity to enjoy the whole museum, since they would have to leave as soon as they needed to sit down."
  • Meredith: "We quickly had to learn how to pivot our museum to be online. This was severely difficult for our Deaf-Blind community. It was completely inaccessible to deaf-blind people; they lost the entire tactile experience. We had to figure out how to provide an alternative experience. So our museum focused on health and safety, but we also highly prioritized how to make our museum as accessible as possible and inclusive by creating an equitable experience for those who are deaf-blind and rely on a tactile learning experience."
  • Katy: "We became the first certified Autism Center a week before we got sent to work from home due to the pandemic. While this was hard, this also gave us the time to evaluate how to make sure everything was accessible for all."

Is there any movement to get more deaf artists included in mainstream exhibits?

  • Meredith: "I have seen some deaf artists who have done solo shows, and I have seen some deaf artistry in museums. I’ve also seen a lot of mainstream examples, including a show of deaf artists in 'hearing' museums. I think there is still a lot of space to grow in this area though–there are some grassroots movements to grow this space."

How do you move from personal passion to institutional priority? How do you build that into every aspect of your strategic plan and departments?

  • Christine: "I’ve done some studies looking at museums that have continued accessible practices–what is it that helps them to integrate accessibility into all that they do? When universal design is framed as being better for everyone (instead of just for people with disabilities), it often sticks better. Also, the more often people with disabilities are actually included in the work, especially hiring people with disabilities, it helps everyone see how the work impacts more than just a theoretical community–it is already helping their friends and colleagues.  It is also important to recognize that the work is never done. It is not just a one-time initiative that you get a grant for and you’re done. It has to be something that you keep at the forefront in every single project that you do."
  • Ryan: "There is a real strength in actually knowing and defining the words you’re striving for. There is a big difference in just getting people in the building–just following basic ADA protocols–compared to getting people actually engaged in the exhibits. I am a firm believer in the idea that you can start small and give yourself the permission to not get everything right the first time or even the second or third time. People’s needs are always changing, so focusing on the community and continuing to ask for feedback provides an ongoing opportunity to grow and be more inclusive."
  • Meredith: Just a reminder for disability rights: “Nothing about us without us.” 

How does your work intersect in other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work or efforts?

  • Ryan: "I don’t see any distinction between other DEI work and the work I’m doing. We talk about all of these intersectionalities while we plan, write grants, and create spaces. We are always trying to create a united front for inclusion for all." 
  • Christine: "As we are trying to do more DEI work, so many of the lessons we’ve learned from disability do cover other groups, but some of the lessons don’t. It’s good to recognize that disability brings with it its own culture, its own backgrounds. I will say that from a universal design standpoint, many of the strategies we use for inclusion of one group ends up working for many other groups as well."
  • Meredith: "A lot of my research is based on disability learning theory, and my research focus isn’t on other demographics. However, it is important to remember this work is always intersectional, and it is important to think about intersectionality as we do any DEI work. There will always be people of color with disabilities–people from a variety of backgrounds and demographics with disabilities."

What is a final piece of advice you have for those here?

  • Christine: "I’m at a point in my career where I’m recognizing where we generally need less research and more doing. I spent 15 years as a researcher, and I’m realizing there is so much we already know about making museums welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities. A bulk of the work of what we don't know can come from involving people with disabilities in our work. I think the time for action is now (well, really, it was years ago)—we have what we need to make our environments more inclusive, we just need to get working."
  • Meredith: "My big message is always that we need to include people with disabilities throughout the entire process, from the very beginning."
  • Ryan: "There becomes a point where we can’t just keep talking about it, we have to be brave enough to do it. It is worth asking the questions and just jumping in and trying, because it’s better to be trying to make a difference and learn from that."

Presentation Summaries

Accessible Websites and Online Content

Presented by Terrill Thompson, University of Washington

We have a typical idea for how we picture the typical user—often someone sitting at a computer using a keyboard and mouse. This is a very old-school model, where today technology users are very different, using a variety of mobile devices, getting content audibly instead of visually, interacting with their technology through voice commands, accessing content through touch through their screen or through braille, and using other options and tools. Everyone experiences digital information in different ways.

When talking about access, we are actually talking about people falling on a continuum of ability. Everyone has a different level of ability to hear, walk, read, write, communicate, tune out distraction, and more. And the real message here is that we, as content creators, want to make sure all people have access to all the features, applications, and resources within our content.

Using accessibility features within technology allows for the widest range of users to access our websites, documents, and applications. Following technology accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 creates a guide for more accessible technology. For websites and documents, headings should be labeled, lists should be labeled as lists, tables should be coded properly, images need alt text, colors should have good contrast, and all interactive components should be able to be accessed by keyboard alone. Videos need captions and visual description, and the video player should be accessible. When buying new software, vendors should have documentation of their level of conformance to accessibility standards.

Tips for Accessible Online Learning

Presented by Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington

Using accessible practices and inclusive design is very important not only in the technology you use, but in the ways you teach your students. This presentation shares a checklist for making your online course accessible.

I offer nine tips for creating accessible course materials. Consult UW Accessible Technology for details on the design, selection, and use of accessible IT as well as accessibility checkers that help you identify accessibility problems in materials you use or create.

  1. Use clear, consistent layouts, navigation, and organization schemes to present content. Keep paragraphs short and avoid flashing content.
  2. Use descriptive wording for hyperlink text (e.g., “DO-IT website” rather than “click here”).
  3. Use a text-based format and structure headings, lists, and tables using style and formatting features within your Learning Management System (LMS) and content creation software, such as Microsoft Word, and PowerPoint and Adobe InDesign and Acrobat; use built-in page layouts where applicable.
  4. Avoid creating PDF documents. Post most instructor-created content within LMS content pages (i.e., in HTML) and, if a PDF is desired, link to it only as a secondary source.
  5. Provide concise text descriptions of content presented within images (text descriptions web resource).
  6. Use large, bold, sans serif fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds.
  7. Use color combinations that are high contrast and can be distinguished by those who are colorblind (color contrast web resource). Do not use color alone to convey meaning.
  8. Caption videos and transcribe audio content.
  9. Don’t overburden students with learning to operate a large number of technology products unless they are related to the topic of the course; use asynchronous tools; make sure IT used requires the use of the keyboard alone and otherwise employs accessible design practices.

I offer eleven tips for inclusive pedagogy; many are particularly beneficial for students who are neurodiverse (e.g., those on the autism spectrum or who have learning disabilities). Consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction for more guidance.

  1. Recommend videos and written materials to students where they can gain technical skills needed for course participation.
  2. Provide multiple ways for students to learn (e.g., use a combination of text, video, audio, and/or image; speak aloud all content presented on slides in synchronous presentations and then record them for later viewing).
  3. Provide multiple ways to communicate and collaborate that are accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities.
  4. Provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned (e.g., different types of test items, portfolios, presentations, single-topic discussions).
  5. Address a wide range of language skills as you write content (e.g., use plain English, spell out acronyms, define terms, avoid or define jargon).
  6. Make instructions and expectations clear for activities, projects, discussions and readings.
  7. Make examples and assignments relevant to learners with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds.
  8. Offer outlines and other scaffolding tools and share tips that might help students learn.
  9. Provide adequate opportunities to practice.
  10. Allow adequate time for activities, projects, and tests (e.g., give details of all project assignments at the beginning of the course).
  11. Provide feedback on project parts and offer corrective opportunities.

These tips apply to both synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Additional tips for synchronous presentations (e.g., speak all content presented visually, turn on the caption feature of your conferencing software, do not require students to have their cameras on) can be found in Equal Access: Universal Design of Your Presentation.

Accessibility for Cultural Content

Presented by Susan Chun, Independent Consultant, Museums and the Web

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, I worked as a publisher and chief content officer and assembled a team to relaunch their website. We made cutting-edge design one of the unwavering poles of our work–this site design was really controversial. The other unwavering pole of our work was radically welcoming universal design. As we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we thought it would be considerably easier to focus on accessibility from the very start, as well as making it more usable for a wider audience. I also wanted to fight this commonly held myth that just because something is accessible means it can’t be pretty or creative. It is also thought that things that are too complicated can be hard to be made accessible–which isn’t necessarily true.

The MCA website is screen reader-friendly, keyboard friendly, captioned, and audio described. We spent a lot of time creating descriptions of images, and we also needed a tool to identify descriptions and manage them. This led to the birth of the open-source tool Coyote. It integrates with a number of different website softwares and can have multiple users who can be assigned tasks, as well as showcases stats for an organization or for the individual who has made the descriptions. These descriptions allowed multiple people–beyond just those with disabilities–to learn more about each art piece, feel more included, and to get above and beyond the information they gained previously about contemporary art.

Unfortunately, the MCA has now removed a lot of this functionality, finding it too hard to maintain, even though we left a large infrastructure.

Serving Neurodiverse Learners: Strategies from a STEM Summer Camp

Presented by Eric Chudler and Tami Tidwell, Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners, University of Washington

Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners is an NSF-funded Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project that provides hands-on experiences and networking opportunities to motivate students from neurodiverse backgrounds to pursue academic pursuits in STEM. Our program includes a STEM summer camp, as well as networking and learning opportunities throughout the year.

During our program, we communicate a lot before the sessions to let each student know what is expected of them. We ask students what types of information and structure would be helpful to them as they participate in camp activities, and use that information for planning. We also let them know whether assignments will be coming, and allow time for students to introduce themselves and opportunities to use audio or chat. We provide the order students will be presenting so they have time to prepare, and if we are going around asking questions, students can elect to skip and come back later. We also make sure that presentations are very visually focused and include a lot of interaction through chat, questions, and polls, which allows students to engage in multiple ways.

We use a software called Padlet, where students can upload their work. We included a project where students had to make neurons from household materials and a project where students shared a musical instrument they had made at home. We also invite students to take ownership of their learning by asking “what do you want to learn about the human brain?”

Before each session, we set up duties and responsibilities related to videoconferencing (Zoom), and we have a communication channel (Slack) running to allow for behind the scenes conversations among staff. We share our agendas, prompts, and discussions through a learning Management System (Canvas) with all participants. For many students, this is their first time experiencing these types of college-based tools. Throughout each day, we also talk one-on-one to many students over chat, Zoom, and the phone, which can include talking through something, making sure someone is somewhere on time, or even just helping someone talk through their anxiety.

We also offer near-peer support, which allows participants to see more people like them who have succeeded in STEM programs and in college. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to another student compared to talking to an adult.

Everyone is Welcome: Social Narratives for all Ages at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Presented by Amanda McMahon, Minneapolis Institute of Art

What does a social narrative mean for an art museum like the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA)? We met with local experts that know this work in and out, including the Autism Society of Minnesota and the museum’s internal design and editorial team. This helped lead to us creating three publications that provide different social narratives that can be used as resources before the visit as well as during the visit.

The first is our Guided School Visit. This offers a unique arrival location and process with a more structured experience and predictable steps. The second is our Independent Visit for Teens and Adults Who are Neurodiverse, which showcases the various options for arrivals and paths through the galleries as well as different lengths of visit, frequency of visits, and needs upon visit. Our third social narrative element showcases Independent Visits for Families with Children Who are Neurodiverse.

We also offer a lot of sensory-friendly spaces, including those with low light or less sound. The guides describe what is offered in these areas compared to those areas with more sensory input, in case students or visitors want to know more about these areas or plan ahead what to allot time or energy for. The guides also offer steps for different users, including how to arrive, how to use coat check, where to find and how to use the service desk, and more information on the family center. The guides are shared on our accessibility pages, across our website, and with our front-of-house staff.

When STEM Learning Opportunities Match with How Neurodiverse Students Learn: Perspectives from the Field

Presented by Ronda Jenson, Northern Arizona University

Discover Your Neurodiverse Advantage in STEM (DYNA STEM), funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to bring the important aspects of neurodiversity to the forefront of STEM, such as creativity, critical thinking, and differences in world view.

Informal STEM learning enhances formal STEM instruction by expanding opportunities for STEM exploration and the formation of STEM identities. ISL helps foster inclusive STEM learning values and can embrace a broad array of abilities, preferences, and perspectives. Having access does not necessarily imply inclusion. Based on their perception of inclusion, STEM learners can experience feelings of accomplishment, success, and joy, as well as feelings of discouragement and exclusion.

We want to think about comfort, environment, and activities built on interests and what is familiar; control, providing options for flexibility, self-guided learning, exploration, and creativity; and building student confidence. We should seek to provide opportunities for students to take risks safely and share their work and their ideas. Neurodiverse students tell us they want clear instructions, flexibility, choice in activities, visuals and graphics, clear and logical applications to real-world work, sensory stimuli focused on specific tasks, physical space options for sitting or standing, and clear social expectations.

By hosting inclusive programs designed for all, students have the opportunity to experience the engineering design process accommodated by their own learning styles, individual interests, and cognitive processes. They can set goals and strive to achieve them through problem-solving, critical thinking, and advocating for assistance. It’s important for students to learn to view failure and frustration neutrally or positively, as failing is an expected step in the engineering design process. Furthermore, all students should get the opportunity to practice with specialized software, develop positive student relations, and explore STEM engineering careers.

Expanding Access at the Riverside Art Museum

Presented by Caryn Marsella, Riverside Art Museum & Clara Dawson, University of Washington Museology Program

The museum was awarded a grant to create accessible programming for visitors that have low or no vision for an exhibition titled Golden Hour: California Photography from the LA County Museum of Art. We thought about the outputs, both outward- and inward-facing, which includes our program, our community partnerships, our organizational knowledge, and new resources and procedures. As an intern, I wanted to make sure I documented every step so that when I left, all the knowledge of how we made this programming remained with the museum.

We started the project by inviting people with disabilities and engaging the community. We held listening sessions with community members with low or no vision to discover and explore their barriers, their desires for art experiences, and their past positive experiences. From this, as well as a literature review, we created tactile images and a tour script that could go along with a guided tour. The power of this project for the community comes from the marriage of both tactical and auditory experiences. This work is ultimately an act of translation and interpretation.

Making PacSci’s Tide Pool Exhibit Accessible to Everyone

Presented by Diana Johns, Pacific Science Center

Something that has been especially hard for us to make accessible has been our Tide Pool Exhibit. This exhibit is not easy to access as it is up two steps and features a narrow walkway, with a bit of a deeper window to make it more comfortable for the creatures inside and for the plumbing to work correctly. The beauty of this experience is it is so tactile and experiential, which is what we wanted all students to be able to access.

We decided we needed to create another touch tank that was wheelchair accessible. We wanted chairs to fit under it and users to reach the creatures, and we wanted to ensure safety for both the students and the animals. We tested a variety of options and invited a variety of people with disabilities to come test different options and provide input. And then the pandemic hit—this put a halt on a lot of our work. We are now planning our next steps, which include optimal animal selection and finalizing processes for maintaining plumbing and water control. We are continuing to work on where we can go next as access opens up to more people throughout the pandemic.

Accessibility Features at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum

Presented by Margaret Gambaro; Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum & Ellen Pieser; Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum

The majority of our museum is located on the former aircraft the USS Intrepid, but we also have a cold war era submarine, the space shuttle orbiter Enterprise, and 27 other aircrafts.

Our website accessibility resources page offers a plethora of resources for visitors with disabilities, and we have a variety of programs for people with disabilities, including programs for people with dementia, ASL interpretation, touch and verbal description tours for people who are blind and low vision. We also have a variety of self-guided supports, family and group programs, and our All Access Maker Camp for students with developmental disabilities.

We have early morning openings and sensory-friendly evenings, which allow participants to have a quieter experience at the museum with softer lights and different options to explore the spaces and different options for support. Our Access Family Programs for Children is a tour-based experience with hands-on guided activities, and we also now offer this program virtually.

Our All AccessMaker Camp, which is hosted twice a year, during Spring Break and during the end of August, is for children ages 8-14 with developmental disabilities. Campers are invited to have a positive camp experience where they can work on social-emotional goals through design challenges and learn more about STEM, communication, problem-solving, and flexibility. We want this program to also be an opportunity for students and parents to have a break from each other—opportunities for parents to work or take time apart from their children, and for children to learn independence skills or how to work with others within the community. Some examples of projects include using the 3-D printer and Little Bits, creating the most durable foil boat to see how many pennies they can make float and making an egg drop that keeps an egg from breaking from a specific height.

Our camp has been such a great experience that many campers want to return, so we have created a Maker Camp 2.0 experience, where returning students can come back the week after our August camp and learn different skills. For example, in the past, students have worked in the aircraft restoration hangar and done one-on-one work with different specialists.

Blinded by Science: STEM Programs for Blind and Visually Impaired Students

Presented by Isaac Beavers, Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

We have high unemployment in our community, particularly for people with disabilities in STEM. We wanted to create programs that helped and encouraged this population towards filling this gap—we wanted our programs to be based on Alabama standards and respect students’ interests and intelligence. We also sought to build programs that connect students to mentors with disabilities, in environments that are accessible and adaptable, entertaining, active and teamwork-oriented

We have partnered with a variety of organizations to develop different programs. We have created Transition Day Events, which connect STEM to pop culture, including STEM Wars: Career Force Awakens, Guardians of the Cyber Galaxy, STEM-Finity Wars, and Transformers 2020. We also have GenCyber, a week-long cybersecurity camp hosted by the University of Alabama Huntsville; Cyber Charged, another cybersecurity camp; and Auburn University (AU) STEM Day, where AU hosts a whole day of STEM activities for our students that attend a college preparation program for blind or low vision students.

We have hosted activities in robotics, DNA sequencing, cryptography, computer hardware, 3-D printing, computer programing, cybersecurity, password protection, social engineering, geotagging scavenger hunts, electrical circuits, manufacturing, smartphone applications, and drones. For all of our programs, we are adaptive and flexible, using larger print, audio cues, high contrast materials, braille, low tech tactile tools, printed manipulatives, smartphone applications, instructional resource centers, premade solutions, screen reading software, screen enlargement software, and mentors with disabilities. People are welcome to contact us to learn more about these inclusive programs.

Presuming Competence to Build a Community of Supports

Presented by Tany Holzworth, Content Designer for Inclusive Classroom Tools at Microsoft

My goal was to implement an Institute of Museum and Library Science grant at the Woodland Park Zoo and make the volunteer program more accessible to people with disabilities. The volunteer program can impact the safety and health of the people and animals at the Zoo and is taken very seriously. It has high expectations and some high barriers in relation. This was limiting participation by certain groups, as many volunteers are older, and many potential volunteers are people who have disabilities. With the support of an Inclusion Advisory Council, we went through and revised the application and interview process to clarify expectations and make the volunteer program more accessible.

There are sometimes issues with “presumed competence.” Presumed competence is the idea that each person should be approached with an assumption that they are competent and capable of doing the job, provided they receive proper support. There was a staff member who was worried a volunteer who had down syndrome wasn’t able to follow the proper steps needed; however, staff weren’t talking to the person about the issues and instead would just work around them. This led to increased discussions about presumed competence and mentorship that allows for feedback for volunteers and staff with disabilities. We are continuing to create a community of support around this topic to reduce stigma around disabilities.

Engaging Interns to Promote Accessible Informal STEM Learning

Presented by Scott Bellman, University of Washington; Anisa Proda, Access Consultant and Advocate; Dawn Dailey, Burke Museum

Our project is called Access to Informal STEM Learning, or AccessISL. Fifteen UW students participated in AccessISL paid internship activities. Many interns identified as having a variety of disabilities, including those related to learning, autism, attention, mobility, speech, blindness, mental health, and chronic fatigue. Roughly half were interns from the UW Museology program and spent around 1300 hours of learning and discovery in the space of accessible informal STEM learning.

The pandemic impacted our interns by taking our activities from in-person to online. Before the pandemic, interns completed accessibility reviews of the Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Aquarium, the Burke Museum of Natural History, and the Living Computer Museum.

AccessISL interns created a checklist called Equal Access: Universal Design of Informal Learning, a collection of knowledge base articles about accessibility in informal STEM learning, a video called Increasing Access to Informal STEM Learning, a presentation at the American Association of Museums Expo on “what we learned during the pandemic: Accessible informal learning,” and a whole collection of projects with museums and science centers. Many of these resources are shared in the resources section of these proceedings and at the AccessISL website.

Building Relationships with Disability Communities

Presented by Elizabeth Ralston, Accessibility Consultant and Founder, Seattle Cultural Accessibility Consortium

People who are engaged in their community are healthier, less depressed, and feel a sense of belonging—people with disabilities should be included in this as well and allowed to engage in all aspects of society.

Within every disability category, there is a wide variety of diversity. One person with a disability does not represent all others with similar disabilities, and intersectionality also plays a large role as well. If you want to engage with people with disabilities, you need to consider them as individuals and focus on removing barriers as broadly as possible, including captioning, ramps, good sensory experiences, and more. This includes getting buy-in from leadership to provide appropriate time and education for staff and inclusion of costs in budget and facility planning.

Marketing the accessibility of your program helps build trust with the disability community. Engaging online and offering appropriate inclusive and accessible services to people with disabilities will encourage more people to come from wider groups. Make sure your language is inclusive and your staff are trained on best practices. Build relationships with people with disabilities—have them as advisors, staff, volunteers, and board members—and create connections with disability organizations to continue these connections.

A Lived Experience of Problem Solving

Presented by Anil Lewis, National Federation of the Blind

The National Federation of the Blind is an organization that knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines a person or their future. We raise expectations for blind people because we realize that expectations are low and obstacles are still constantly created for us.

I would like to focus on how we actively engage and recognize blind individuals’ expertise and the work they do in all kinds of services and experiences. As STEM was emerging in careers for more and more people, we realized that blind students weren’t being taught the fundamental skills in order to be successful in these careers. So we took it upon ourselves to do some really dynamic programming.

For example, we created a program partnering with a university where we brought over 200 blind kids from across the country to learn accessible STEM, including dissecting sharks, building and launching rockets, programming robots, doing nanoscience, and building bridges. Many of these students gained the skills and self-esteem to go on and pursue programs and careers in these areas.

Our current project is focused on teaching blind students to develop architectural skills. Most people think drafting is a sighted pursuit, but we're doing a lot of modification of existing curriculum to make sure that it's accessible. Part of this was creating a three-dimensional, tactile version of the Mental Cutting Test (MCT), which allows blind students to showcase that they have spatial visualization skills.

Including people with disabilities is always going to be integral. You can never simulate the experiences of the real person living with that disability every day and the ways they think and problem solve. When you're making accessible environments, you often don’t realize all the people who will benefit from the enhanced environment. So don’t think of accessibility as an additional cost. It's not an additional cost: It's the cost that's going to make that experience best in class.

Transcending Boundaries and Supporting STEM Futures for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Students

Presented by Bedarius Bell Jr., Director of Special Programs Alabama Dept. of Rehabilitation Services

Alabama has had summer camps for Deaf and hard of hearing students for over 20 years. In 2016, I had a conference in Seattle with the Department of Rehabilitation Services, and I was thinking about how I’d love to have a specific STEM-focused camp for deaf students. I then learned about the Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing led by Richard Ladner, AccessComputing PI, who had been doing that work for years.

The average gap between deaf students and non deaf students graduating from high school is about 6.5%. This gap gets even bigger when looking at Bachelor’s completion, with a 14.7% gap, and even bigger when looking at the employment gap of 23%. To get students engaged in STEM, we need to get them engaged in high school and in college, and we need to find ways to overcome bias in industries as we address accessibility problems and barriers.

In 2013, I met with Auburn University to design a week-long American College Testing (ACT) Academy. We focused on helping students do better on the ACT test through specific tutors and classes and engage and learn that they could be successful in college. Many of our staff were also deaf and could mentor students. I also wanted the opportunity to connect students and faculty together on campus, as well as engage in the audiology program on campus, so the audiology students could learn from Deaf students as well.

At the University of Alabama, we have a variety of other camps for high school students, including a Career Exploration camp that focuses on independence skills and other work experiences. We’ve hosted the STEM Transition Day events mentioned earlier, and we’ve done so many other projects. We are constantly trying to create programs to help people with disabilities stay in school and find meaningful careers.


Group Discussion Summary

The following questions were answered in small groups. Answers were recorded and are shared below. Responses are individual opinions and may not necessarily reflect those of the entire community or other attendees.

What factors promote or inhibit museums and ISL programs’ efforts for making access and equity a high priority? What can be done to address these factors?

  • Some museums and programs can be extra stimulating or overwhelming; offer quiet rooms and safe spaces for students to rest or reset for the experience.
  • As we come out of the pandemic, we should spend time rebuilding our programs back with accessibility and equity in mind–we should set realistic goals and invite people with disabilities and accessibility experts to weigh in.
  • Teachers and professionals often need support, but don’t know where to turn. Organizations should consider creating a portal or online network to build community and share resources.
  • Regarding access, staff may have no idea where to even start or how to make change. We need to find ways to encourage knowledge, understanding, and compassion.
  • Host intentional conversations on these topics, including bringing together diverse groups of people to discuss and explore how to address needs.
  • Apply for grants to develop new collaborations that will expand knowledge and build upon each others’ work.
  • One barrier to creating access is the lack of disabled and other underrepresented representation in leadership. Also, people from one group or one disability are often thought to speak for their entire community, forgetting that each person with a disability has unique experiences, perceptions, and preferences.
  • Funders don’t always require project leaders to record and report disability data, which hinders tracking how different options help or erect barriers to people with disabilities. funders often do not require that efforts to ensure access and equity be built into budgets and deliverables.
  • Programs can sometimes forget to look at intersectionality to include all people, including those with a variety of backgrounds and abilities.
  • There has been research done on disability and learning—we should utilize the knowledge we have and bring it together instead of try to reinvent the wheel.
  • Budgeting and funding can sometimes be messy when it comes to accommodations or accessibility, and many programs or centers don’t allocate any funds for this purpose. Programs that do have accommodation budgets can still often be limited in resources.
  • It’s often assumed that change needs to be made incrementally over time, which leaves out people with disabilities in the present time.
  • Development offices may not have the networks or knowledge for access related grants. There needs to be education around organizational and institutional buy-in and commitment. We need to include these efforts in the fabric of what we do, rather than address these issues piecemeal..
  • Accessibility and inclusion aren’t an individual task. Promoting champions of accessibility at all levels can help bring about change faster. Informal leaders at the top, middle, and bottom can help stop the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality.

What new (undeveloped) or existing resources might help ISL programs that are interested in increasing accessibility features of on-site programming? What can be done to further develop and promote these resources?

  • Potential new online technology in the future may change or improve navigation and also extend the wayfinding experience. Some examples may include phone usage near field communication tags or QR codes with audible/verbal descriptions. A question to consider: How can we network and share what cutting edge organizations are doing in this field?
  • Only some people with vision loss use braille; therefore, additional modes are needed such as audio interfaces or electronic versions of print materials.
  • How do we find and vet interpreters to ensure that their interpreting is correct and accurate, especially when they are new to the field and not already having existing and trusted vendors? Resources in this area would be helpful for programs that are just getting started.
  • The community should encourage the National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE) to help develop and share tools that can make programs more inclusive and accessible.
  • Organizations should consider building community through disability consumer groups, such as the National Association of the Deaf, American Council of the Blind, and the deaf-blind community, to help develop accessibility resources.
  • From a technology and STEM perspective, it would be interesting to be able to share a broader understanding with youth about how many different types of pathways and career opportunities exist in the tech field, not just limited to coding. There are many undiscovered opportunities for students who don’t believe code is for them.
  • We can train researchers to interact and engage with the public. The NSF Portal to the Public training could be more accessible. The content, activities, and how they’re disseminated is predicated on ability. The content is excellent but it needs improvement by addressing  accessibility and other disability issues.
  • In volunteer programs, there is a lack of awareness of accessibility; an improved training experience that embeds access issues would help.
  • Encourage more peer mentoring between participants from different sized institutions because there is much that participants from different size institutions can offer each other.
  • It would be desirable to develop some sort of clearinghouse of resources and financial resources for organizations that want to improve accessibility.
  • Further develop language expectations around disability to help organizations create guides and use preferred terms—disability is not a bad word.
  • Programs should explore the use of haptic technology to create more engaging STEM experiences for blind individuals.
  • Programs may benefit from the development and dissemination of templates for accessible websites.
  • Planetariums should explore the use of 3D printing technology and tactile models.
  • It is important to teach both “hard science” and “soft science,” which includes socio-emotional learning, team building, personal connections, and self-advocacy.
  • Establish more frameworks for collaborating with peers, such as the AccessISL Community of Practice, and additional workshops and conferences dedicated to increasing access.
  • Further identify and promote tools that help specific populations, such as options for visual schedules, digital social narratives, etc.
  • Create space and allowing for community voices to “be in the room” as we develop ISL, as well as creating a framework for how to create community advisory committees that can share strategies and lessons learned.
  • Programs can create sensory kits to pass out to guests—with fidgets, headphones, and other options as needed.

What are other ways that disability communities are engaged in ensuring access to informal science education? What do museums, science centers, summer camps, and other informal STEM learning programs need to do and what resources would be helpful?

  • Informal STEM learning programs need to offer multiple program options in diverse settings. These programs should also serve a wide variety of needs. A lot of STEM learning programs only cater to a few communities and don’t consider that different people need different accommodations to truly experience a program’s full potential.
  • Develop the ability to seamlessly transition from virtual programming back to in-person. However, accessible online programs should still be kept open and operable. These online programs could be used as a complementary or primary method of engagement for different individuals.
  • Include targeted marketing to specific communities. Certain communities may never know an opportunity to access certain informal science education exists because marketing did not include their community.
  • Add more assistive technology vendors that offer a wide variety of products and services.
  • Further enhance opportunities to connect to disabled mentors and other individuals who have a similar disability. This fosters a sense of inclusion and confidence. Meet with respective colleagues in different fields and learn what others are doing. Observe different programs and opportunities to network.
  • Implement interactive models that provide people with a way to engage in order toy promote learning and excitement. Some examples would be sensory tables, 3D printed objects, hands-on materials, etc. A key aspect would be customizable programming or features to attract people with disabilities, adapt to their requests, etc. The key is being flexible.
  • Remember to include black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in intended marketing and program implementation.
  • Find ways to infuse disability justice into their work. This would shed a light on the injustices that occur in the disabled communities and help raise a lot of awareness about the people working on helping solve these problems.
  • Set aside some days and events for specific disability-related organizations and schools, as this would help ensure that the disabled communities have equal access and promotions. The addition of autism awareness days would be a great start.
  • Presume competence and integrate that presumption into a part of your culture.
  • Promote consistent engagement with disability communities. Many people with disabilities are not involved for a long time due to many organizations not reaching out. This begins by starting a two-way relationship where the disable community shows up for an organization’s event. Likewise, organizations put an effort to market and create an event that caters to the respective communities. The ability to secure funding. This would be conducted by having relationships ahead of time, building into every grant, and piloting things through demonstration.
  • A good resource is the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which is underutilized in helping get access to folks who can advise.
  • When developing programs, keep in mind how disabled people view themselves. Stress the importance of being proactive rather than being reactive. Answer the question of how we develop our programming to take into consideration all our different users and their respective needs: POC, type of disability, type of interactions. The key is to ensure that the disability community knows you thought of them in the planning and design process of program development.

AccessISL Participants

The following individuals participated in the Access to Informal STEM Learning Capacity Building Institute (CBI).

Anquida Adams
A.L.A. Consulting Firm

Isaac Beavers
Regional Director
Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

Cynthia Beckmann
Northern Arizona University

Bedarius Bell Jr.
Director of Special Programs
Alabama Dept of Rehabilitation Services

Scott Bellman
DO-IT Manager
University of Washington

Sarah Bleiler-Baxter
Associate Professor
Middle Tennessee State University

Kayla Brown
Program Coordinator, DO-IT
University of Washington

Andrew Buck
Learning and Development Consultant
The Ohio State University

Sheryl Burgstahler
Accessible Technology Services Director
University of Washington

Eric Chudler
Research Associate Professor
University of Washington

Susan Chun
Principal Consultant
Museum Operations

Herve Collin
Physics Professor / STEM Director
Kapiolani Community College

Lyla Crawford
Program Operations Specialist / Evaluator, DO-IT
University of Washington

Dawn Dailey
Cultural Outreach Assistant
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Clara Dawson
Community Engagement Intern
Riverside Art Museum

Holly Duskin
Digital Learning Manager
Pacific Science Center

Samantha Frigerio
Outreach Specialist
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Margaret Gambaro
Manager of Access Initiative
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Sara Sanders Gardner
Director, Neurodiversity Navigators
Bellevue College

Marisa Hackett
Director, Disability Resource Center / Faculty
Bellevue College

Nils Hakansson
Wichita State University

Marie Hayashi  
Education Specialist
Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

Keri Hesson
Academic Programs Administrator
Auburn University

Tany Holzworth
Lead learning facilitator for inclusion
Woodland Park Zoo

Carmen Hurtado
Sr. Manager of Product Development
Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention

Overtoun Jenda
Assistant Provost and Professor of Mathematics
Auburn University

Ronda Jenson
Associate Professor/IHD Research Director
Northern Arizona University

Diana Johns
VP Exhibits, Education & Outreach
Pacific Science Center

Lydia Jones
Virtual Education Specialist
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Cheri Leach
CEO and Director of Programming
Raven Hill Discovery Center

Michele Lee
Research Associate
Northern Arizona University

Anil Lewis
Executive Director of Blindness Initiatives
National Federation of the Blind

Teresa MacDonald
Associate Director, Informal Science Education
University of Kansas Natural History Museum

Emily Mahon
Education Director
Discovery Center of Idaho

Andrea Mano
Access Technology Specialist
University of Washington

Jadre Marks
Science Communication Manager
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Caryn Marsella
Director of Art Education and Community Engagement
Riverside Art Museum

Charlotte Martin
Director of Access Initiatives
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Tamara Massey
Project Manager
Auburn University

Amanda McMahon
Student and Teacher Learning Coordinator
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Caitlin McQuinn
Guest Services Coordinator
Pacific Science Center

Katy Menne
Curator of Education,
NC Maritime Museum at Southport

Christine Michael
Co-Curator of Learning
The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature

Cecilia Nguyen
Senior Exhibit Developer
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Deb Novak
Director of Education
New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science

Hunter Oliver
Operations Manager
Cade Museum

Jadre Marks
Science Communication Manager
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Thaddeus Papke
Director of Education
The Clay Center

Ellen Peiser
Museum Educator for Access Programs
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Meredith Peruzzi
Director, National Deaf Life Museum
Gallaudet University

Alexis Petri
Sr. Director of Faculty Support and Associate Research Professor
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Jennifer Pritchard
Science and Math Institute Program Manager
Bellevue College

Elizabeth Ralston
Elizabeth Ralston Consulting

Christine A Reich
Chief Learning Officer
Museum of Science

Kelly Roberts
Executive Director
Northern Arizona University
Institute for Human Development

Ryan Saglio
Supported Employment Program Manager
Attleboro Enterprises

Meghan Schiedel
Education Manager
The Discovery

Meena Selvakumar
Assistant Teaching Professor
UW Museology Graduate Program

Jessica Socorro
Education Associate
Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention

Zeta Strickland
Director of Prek-12 Engagement
Pacific Science Center

Ris Swank
Program Assistant
Bellevue College

Terrill Thompson
Information Technology Accessibility Team
University of Washington

Tamitha Tidwell
Program Coordinator
University of Washington

Jeff Traiger
Senior Research Associate
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Eric W Trekell
Program Operations Specialist, DO-IT
University of Washington

Katie Weber
Lead Educator
Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Jasmine Williams
Community Partner Program Coordinator
Seattle Aquarium

Jessica Williams
Outreach Coordinator
Discovery Center Museum

Elizabeth Woolner
Media and Publications, DO-IT
University of Washington


AccessISL Knowledge Base

The AccessISL Knowledge Base contains Case Studies, Promising Practices, and Q&As regarding accessible informal STEM Learning. Examples of articles include the following.

  • How can informal STEM learning programs support individuals with vision impairments?
  • How can informal STEM learning programs support individuals with mobility impairments?
  • Autism Ontario: Making museums accessible to individuals on the autism spectrum
  • Visitor Voices: Sharing perspectives of museum visitors with disabilities
  • Intrepid Museum: A promising practice in providing accessibility information
  • Where can I learn more about accessibility and UD of informal STEM learning programs?
  • 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
  • Zenith Mentorship Program: A promising practice in making informal science accessible
  • 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 Access to Informal STEM Learning Capacity Building Institute was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant #DRL-1906147 and #2119902). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the CBI presenters, attendees, and publication authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the University of Washington.

NSF INCLUDES Alliance: The Alliance of Students with Disabilities for Inclusion, Networking, and Transition Opportunities in STEM (TAPDINTO-STEM)
University of Auburn 

University of Washington

© 2022 University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy this publication for educational, noncommercial purposes, provided the source is acknowledged.