Making Chemistry Accessible for Students With and Without Disabilities

Making Chemistry Accessible for Students with and without Disabilities - preview image with red, white and black squares

 Co-Authored by Aria Hadley-Hulet* and Kamryn Watts**

*Desert Hills High School & Utah State University, **Desert Hills High School

Positionality Statement - Before the article is read readers must know that I, Aria Hadley-Hulet in addition to being a secondary education chemistry teacher, was diagnosed as being dyslexic at a young age and identify as a person with a learning disability. Being a person with a learning disability has greatly impacted my experience in education as both a student and teacher. At no point in my educational journey, including as a doctoral student, has my learning disability not affected and influenced how I have worked through academia. In order to be completely transparent as I reflect, I know that my lived experiences influence my position in this paper and readers should be cognizant of this as they dive into this piece of work. If you are in need of any other clarifying information or have other questions, please contact me at

Over the years, a major aim of STEM education has been increasing the number of women and minorities pursuing STEM degrees and careers (National Research Council, 2011). This goal of diversification is commendable and should be applauded. Among the many potential benefits that diversification brings is the capacity for broader perspectives. With new perspectives come new insights, discoveries, and growth as a whole. As authors, we posit that those with disabilities should also be considered as part of this diversification goal. The unique experiences of women and minorities bring strength to STEM fields and the same is true for those with disabilities. 

In the United States, students with disabilities (SWD) comprise approximately 15% of the public student population (NCES, 2023). Thus, SWD make up a significant portion of the student population. This does not account for the portion of the population with learning disabilities that go undiagnosed. For many of these students, their first academic experience with chemistry occurs in a high school chemistry classroom. Although science teachers are often provided with equipment and materials adapted for SWD, rarely are they provided with opportunities to learn how to adapt and create accessible materials (Koomen-Hollingsworth et al., 2022). The materials created and adapted by chemistry teachers to serve their specific SWD can also benefit their students without disabilities. When engaged in an inclusive classroom that openly scaffolds for disabled and non-disabled students alike, Cole et al. ( 2004) found all students benefit. Thus, we invite you to consider with us how to make chemistry more accessible for students with and without disabilities. 


Universal Design for Learning 

When buildings are designed with accessibility in mind, they often contain ramps and automatic doors which are utilized by those with and without disabilities. The UDL describes how this is also true for learners (CAST, 2018). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was developed to help teachers create a classroom that facilitates the learning and growth of all students (CAST, 2018). When teachers provide supports and scaffolds for those with disabilities, the added scaffolds are often used by students without disabilities in a way that benefits their learning. 

Figure 1: UDL Infographic (CAST, 2018)


UDL breaks learning down into three main sections: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression (see Figure 1). The engagement section guides how teachers can utilize individual student interests to promote student engagement. Representation reminds educators about the importance of utilizing different formats for learning materials and activities. Finally, the action and expression section encourages educators to provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge through multiple avenues. While creating or altering lessons, activities, and even assessments, educators should incorporate aspects of each of these areas. The following are examples of how chemistry lessons can be expanded to incorporate multiple aspects of the UDL. 


Balancing Chemical Equations LEGO Activity 

Chemistry education contains an expansive number of models. Visual, conceptual, and mathematical models are often present in chemistry lessons to make the microscopic world of chemistry more accessible to chemistry students. We can expand this accessibility by making these models multi-sensory. Often, chemistry educators use mathematical models to help students understand balanced chemical equations and conservation of mass. In this activity, balanced chemical equations are expanded through the implementation of LEGO building blocks. This allows the models to become both visual and kinesthetic in addition to mathematical. Please note that there are many iterations of this activity. Because of this, the original score could not be determined. In fact one version titled “Balancing with Legos” was published on ChemEd X in April of 2020 (ACCT Project). Students are first shown an unbalanced chemical reaction such as:  __F2 + __NaBr  → __NaF + __Br2


image of legos at student Station 4

Figure 2: Blocks and unbalanced chemical equation

Pairs of students are then given a bag with different blocks and a paper key that states the atom or polyatomic ion that each block represents (see Figure 2). Students use the blocks to build as many reactants as possible as seen in figure 3 (left). Students then record the number of reactants in the unbalanced balanced chemical equation.       

2 F2 +  4 NaBr  → __NaF + __Br2



left: blocks put together to represent reactants, right: blocks put together to represent products

Figure 3: Blocks put together representing reactants (left) and products (right)


The teacher then instructs the students to break the bonds of the reactants by breaking apart the blocks and creating the bonds in the products by using the blocks to build as many products as possible as seen in figure 3 (right). Meanwhile, the teacher has an opportunity to show students how energy is transformed during chemical reactions. Students need to add energy to break bonds as represented by the difficulty of breaking apart LEGO building blocks. Energy is released when bonds form, as represented by the noise of the blocks clicking together. In addition, teachers can introduce Kinetic Molecular Theory to show how reactant particles must collide with enough energy and proper orientation to break old bonds and form new bonds. Once students have made as many products as they can, students then record the number of products in the chemical equation.

 2 F2 +  4 NaBr  -->  4 NaF +  2 Br2

The activity concludes with the teacher showing students how coefficients can be reduced to the lowest whole number ratio. 

1 F2 +  2 NaBr  -->  2 NaF +  1 Br2


Figure 4: UDL Infographic Engagement section

with highlighted areas (CAST, 2018)

At this time teachers can use the blocks to show how the lowest whole number ratios of  coefficients still break apart and combine to produce complete products. 

Within the engagement section (see figure 4) of the UDL, this balancing chemical equation activity “var[ies] demands and resources to optimize challenge” by having multiple equations for students to balance at different levels of difficulty. In addition, teachers “foster collaboration” amongst their students by having them work in pairs. Once students gain confidence in the activity, teachers can instruct their students to have two partnerships join together and to teach the others how to balance the equation that they completed with their partner. Time permitting, teachers can “optimize individual choice and autonomy” by allowing students to choose the equations that they will balance. Choice and autonomy can also be optimized by allowing students to choose a chemical reaction to balance outside the ones provided on the cards. This can also "vary demands and resources to optimize challenge." 


UDL infographic representation section with highlighted areas

Figure 5: UDL infographic representation section with highlighted areas (CAST, 2018)


As for the representation section (see figure 5), this activity “support[s] decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols” by using the number of blocks and combinations of blocks to represent coefficients and subscripts in balanced chemical equations. Students can better conceptualize what the arrow in chemical equations means as they break reactants apart and build products from those same reactant blocks. Through doing so, students are able to better “highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships” of chemical equations. The tangibility and manipulation of the blocks “guide[s] information processing and visualization” of chemical reactions.


Figure 7: UDL infographic action and expression section with highlighted areas (CAST, 2018)

Figure 6: UDL infographic action and expression

section with highlighted areas (CAST, 2018)

Actions and expression (see Figure 6) can be seen through the “variation of methods for response” in which students respond by using the blocks to build different aspects of a chemical equation and writing the proper coefficients of the balanced chemical equations. The “use [of] multiple tools for construction and composition” through building blocks provides a visual and physical representation of reactants and products during the breaking and forming of bonds. Of the whole activity, this is the most powerful aspect that makes the activity far more accessible than the traditional method of balancing chemical equations. 


Mastery Oriented Self-Assessments

In addition to lessons and activities, the UDL guides teachers in how to make demonstrations of knowledge during assessments accessible to all students. Of particular note, students engaging in self-assessment have shown increased motivation and understanding of the content knowledge (McMillan & Hearn, 2008; Sharma et al., 2016). One way this is done is by breaking assessments into clear sections with learning goals that are communicated in student-friendly language. The cover page of the exam seen in the image below (figure 7) shows how tests can be broken up and communicated to students in this manner. 

Figure 7: Cover page of exam showing sections and learning goals as well as areas for students to self-assess


In addition, with guidance from the teacher, students can develop self-assessment skills by grading their own exams. Students begin the remediation process by reflecting on their own work while grading their exams. One critical aspect of this assessment method being done successfully is allowing students opportunities after the exam to correct mistakes. This can be done through test corrections or retakes. By having exams broken up into sections and learning goals, students can be given the opportunity to retake portions of exams instead of retaking the exam as a whole. Using proficiency scales to grade each section of the exam can be extremely beneficial to students as they reflect on whether they are proficient or still developing their knowledge in a given area. 

Figure 8: UDL Infographic with highlighted areas (CAST, 2018)


Engagement is greatly impacted when learning goals are communicated early and often throughout a unit. By doing so, teachers can make learning more salient to all their students as they go into each activity with a learning goal in mind. Patterns and big ideas become more apparent to students as they come across these learning goals through the lessons given in class. By being more aware of these patterns and big ideas, students can better manage their resources as they prepare to demonstrate knowledge (see figure 8). Students can often engage in self-assessment by actively reflecting on where they are at in their journey of achieving a learning goal. Self-reflection should occur throughout the unit as learning goals are shared and activities are completed. 


Using Artificial Intelligence to Support Greater Differentiation

With the introduction of Chat GPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) programs, educators should take advantage of how this technology can be used to increase differentiation. Through the use of AI, the great diversity of reading levels seen across students in the same class is a less daunting obstacle.  Teachers can easily adjust class material to multiple different reading levels by adding the material to Chat GPT and providing a prompt to adjust the material to a specific reading level. Chat GPT is able to quickly develop a reading passage about a specific chemistry topic to supply needed background knowledge and promote critical reading literacy at multiple reading levels. This is possible by supplying Chat GPT with a prompt such as “400 words about the different types of intermolecular forces at a ____ reading level.” In addition to adjusting reading levels, Chat GPT can also be used to translate the same material into multiple languages. 

Another area of potential gain for teachers using AI is a greater capacity to address specific student interests or connections. Chat GPT can be used by teachers or students to create a diverse list of scientists with and without disabilities. Future research should be conducted that examines the potential impact on science identity and science self-efficacy of SWD when they are viewing and interacting with scientists who have disabilities. In addition, AI can find connections between a specific scientific concept and different student interests. Educators should not fear the use of AI, but instead should eagerly be engaging with this type of technology to find ways to promote individual student growth. 

Overall, no activity is meant to address every bulleted aspect of each section of the UDL. Instead, the UDL should be used by educators to first recognize the areas in which currently built activities, lessons, and assessments have greater accessibility, and then to see ways in which these items can be expanded to become more accessible. In addition to the refinement of educational material, the UDL should also be used as a guide by curriculum specialists and teachers during the creation of new materials. When used properly, the UDL guides educators in the creation of educational material that provides scaffolds that promote educational success for all students and improve accessibility for students with disabilities. With the use of the UDL and other resources such as AI, chemistry teachers can easily and effectively make adjustments and provide scaffolds that allow chemistry to be accessible to all and for all students to find academic success. 



Although neither author is associated with CAST or UDL we are grateful to have learned about this framework for learning and to have been given the opportunity to use it as a point of reference many times throughout this article. The Universal Design for Learning is an amazing guideline in which teacher can design their classroom to meet the needs of all students. In this article, we take a look at how the UDL can be utilized specifically by chemistry teachers. For a more compressive view of UDL please go to



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