Empowering Minds: Integrating STEM into Individualized Education Programs for Special Education Students

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In this case study, we highlight the importance of incorporating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) into special education classrooms and explore successful implementation strategies.  


Making STEM a reality for all learners

All students deserve access to high-quality STEM education. That’s the message of Dr. Leena Bakshi McLean, 2022 EALA New Champion runner-up and executive director of STEM4Real. The organization focuses on providing access and equity for students with limited STEM exposure, including special education students.

To make STEM in special education classrooms and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) a reality for all students, Dr. Bakshi and her team needed first to see what kind of conversations were happening in classrooms around STEM. Through these conversations, they discovered several areas of need and identified specific strategies to fill these gaps. Thus, the Special Education Toolkit was born.

What is the Special Education Toolkit?

The Special Education Toolkit is a multifaceted resource to support teachers in meeting diverse student needs. It includes labs and lessons with various accommodations, such as shortened lab directions with pictures, bite-sized information, and lessons segmented into shorter tasks. These accommodations allow students to spend less time trying to decode the readings and more time understanding the science and creating meaningful learning experiences.

The toolkit also includes language suggestions for IEPs related to STEM. “[We have found in our research that] A lot of students in Special Education classrooms did not have access to STEM,” Dr. Bakshi explains. “What if we could talk to parents and teachers about adding STEM language into IEPs?”

STEM4Real in action

STEM4Real has established a fruitful collaboration with the classrooms at Golden Gate Community School facilitated through the Contra Costa County Office of Education. With a dedicated focus on enhancing STEM education, STEM4Real has played a pivotal role in implementing STEMScopes, a comprehensive curriculum designed to foster inquiry-based learning.

The organization has gone above and beyond by providing tailored support to teachers, ensuring that the content aligns seamlessly with the unique cultural backgrounds of the students at Golden Gate Community School. Through workshops and ongoing assistance, STEM4Real has empowered educators to create content that is not only academically rigorous but also culturally responsive, fostering a learning environment that resonates with the students’ diverse experiences. This collaborative effort reflects a commitment to making STEM education inclusive and relevant, ultimately enriching the educational experience for Golden Gate Community School students.

The STEM4Real framework

The STEM4Real framework represents a holistic and effective pedagogical methodology grounded in the principles of Connect, Create, and Cultivate. This framework empowers teachers to establish meaningful connections with students, understand their individual needs and learning styles, and foster a deeper engagement with STEM education.

Connect – Building connections:

The Connect phase is at the heart of the framework. Teachers initiate a personalized connection with students by understanding their interests, backgrounds, and learning preferences. This understanding is the foundation for tailoring lessons to resonate deeply with each student.

Create – Immersive learning:

The Create component encourages the development of 3-dimensional and 5E lessons, leveraging phenomenon-based learning to engage students in a hands-on and immersive educational experience. This dynamic teaching strategy enhances conceptual understanding and promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Cultivate – Inclusivity and anti biases:

The Cultivate phase emphasizes an ongoing commitment to fostering an inclusive and antibias culture within the learning environment. Lessons are crafted to address diversity, equity, and inclusion by incorporating content reflecting students’ cultural backgrounds and providing opportunities for collaborative, inclusive learning experiences. This phase extends throughout the academic year, emphasizing the continuous effort to create an environment that supports all students, including those with disabilities, from community schools.

Engagement through real-world context:

Lessons within the STEM4Real framework are designed to actively engage students by connecting theoretical concepts to real-world experiences. For instance, students learning about food deserts might conduct research and gather data on the geographical and socio-economic factors that contribute to food deserts in their community and analyze their impact on residents.

To connect this to photosynthesis, the lesson might delve into understanding the role of plants in addressing food deserts, emphasizing how photosynthesis is a crucial process for plant growth and food production. Hands-on activities, such as growing plants or designing solutions to address food deserts, would further engage students in applying scientific principles to real-world challenges.

Integrating STEMScopes and culturally responsive teaching

STEM4Real’s emphasis on connecting with students and cultivating an anti bias culture  enhances student engagement and promotes culturally responsive teaching. Combining STEM4Real’s pedagogical framework and existing curricula, such as STEMScopes, ensures that the curriculum content is presented in a way that is inclusive and respectful of all students.

Incorporating STEM language into IEPs

Teachers using STEM4Real’s Connect phase report a deeper understanding of their students’ backgrounds, interests, and learning styles. This enhanced connection fosters a more personalized approach to teaching, allowing educators to tailor instruction to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Reflecting on her experience with STEM4Real, one educator highlighted the effectiveness of engaging “hooks” and exploring the “implications to society” in lesson planning. These tactics give teachers more ways to engage students and make learning science fun. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of addressing equity within STEM education,“What does it mean, and how do we implement it so that there are examples for other educators and schools to follow?”.

Accessing resources and partnership opportunities

Educators can access the Special Education Toolkit and resources for free at Stem4Real.org/lesson-planning-tools/. If you decide to use the Special Education Toolkit in your classroom, let us know your favorite way to incorporate it into your lessons by tagging us in a post on X, Instagram, or Facebook with the hashtags #EALA #STEM4RealInMyClassroom.

Currently, STEM4Real has partnered with the following districts: Contra Costa County Office of Education – Golden Gate Community Schools, Fontana Unified School District, Rialto Unified School District, Ravenswood City School District, Hayward Unified School District, Solano County Office of Education, San Mateo County Office of Education, and Halau Ku Mana Public Charter School. If you are interested in learning about how you can bring STEM4Real into your school or district contact: www.stem4real.org/partner info@stem4real.org


Big Takeaway

Every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, should be able to see themselves in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Though the STEM workforce has grown 20% between the years 2011 and 2021, only 3% of folks in the STEM workforce are reported to have disabilities (Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities, 2023). With the high rate of growth of STEM in the workforce, it is more important than ever to ensure we are providing all learners with the right circumstances to access these opportunities.

What I would tell other eduxators/leaders

Educators and leaders must do the internal work to dismantle our biases and ensure that the learning environment is inclusive and respectful of all students. Applying the appropriate accommodations and modifications is crucial to every subject within students’ IEPs; this further advances Bakshi’s idea to add STEM language to students’ IEPs. 

Continue to advocate for your students’ needs within the STEM realm. IEPs should not stop at Math and Language Arts.

What we are still figuring out

There’s still a lot of work to ensure that all students have access to STEM education. How can we make the STEM curriculum universally accessible to all students? What can educators do to ensure they are creating a classroom that is both inclusive and rigorous? You can start by utilizing STEM4Real’s accessible curriculum within your classroom to make STEM more accessible for all learners.


In this STEM4Real toolkit, you will find resources, instructional strategies, and tools to optimally serve your students with special needs

About The Author


Leena Bakshi McLean, ED.D. — STEM4Real provides socially just and culturally relevant STEM teaching and standards-based teaching strategies through collaborative professional learning, culturally responsive instructional materials and diverse children’s literature. They focus on shifting teacher pedagogy by grounding their work with a justice centered lens that makes equity paramount in their vision.