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Teaching Science Concepts through Problem-Based Learning in the Special Education Classroom

As teachers, it is important to stay up-to-date on the newest research and trends in effective instruction.  One current trend is problem-based learning, also known as PBL.  Problem-based learning is a teaching method in which students identify problems in their local community or the world and create a solution to address that problem (Scogin, Kruger, Jekkals, & Steinfeldt, 2017).  The learning experience is enhanced when the problem specifically impacts the students (Glynn & Winter, 2004) and PBL can be used to in a variety of subject areas or to integrate learning between subjects.  In addition to increasing academic knowledge, the use of PBL may enhance collaboration skills among students with disabilities (Bargerhuff, 2013), as well as their social confidence and motivation for learning (Belland, Glazewski, & Ertmer, 2009).  This article provides specific examples of problem-based learning activities reported in the research; each of these activities would lend itself well to use with Special Education students.
One idea for using problem-based learning is the use of a school garden to grow vegetables that are later sold at a local farmer’s market; this (Selmer, Rye, Malone, Fernandez, & Trebino, 2014).  For younger students or for students with significant disabilities, this activity is a functional and practical way to teach both Science and Math skills with a practical, real-world application.  The money earned from the sale of the vegetables can then be used to purchase more gardening supplies and other classroom materials.
A second idea is for students to identify a need for improving a park or other public space.  Students research how to address that need, including costs and the length of time needed to make the changes.  Then, students present their findings to the City Council through either written letters or presentations at a meeting (Duke, Halvorson, & Strachan, 2016).  This community improvement project integrates concepts from Social Studies, Writing, Oral Communication, and Math.  This particular PBL could be used with any group of students, but would be especially beneficial in a middles school or high school inclusion or pull-out setting.
Problem-based learning has proven to be an effective way to meet the diverse learning needs of students and is a valuable teaching practice for both General Education and Special Education students, particularly for Science concepts.  While the ideas presented in this article are only a small snapshot of the ways in which PBL can be effectively used in the classroom, they do provide a solid overview of its use in the Science curriculum for students with disabilities.
Bargerhuff, M.E. (2013). Meeting the needs of students with disabilities in a STEM school. American Secondary Education, 41(3), 3-20.

Belland, B.R., Glazewski, K.D., & Ertmer, P.A. (2009). Inclusion and problem-based learning: Roles of students in a mixed-ability group. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 32(9), 1-19.

Duke, N.K., Halvorson, A., & Strachan, S.L. (2016). Project-based learning not just for STEM anymore: The research is clear that social studies and literacy are fertile ground for robust project-based learning units. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(1), 14-19.

Glynn, S.M., & Winter, L.K. (2004). Contextual teaching and learning of Science in elementary schools. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 16(2), 51-63.

Scogin, S.C., Kruger, C.J., Jekkals, R.E., & Steinfeldt, C. (2017). Learning by experience in a standardized testing culture: Investigation of a middle school experiential learning program. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(1), 39-57.

Selmer, S.J., Rye, J.A., Malone, E., Fernandez, D., & Trebino, K. (2014). What should we grow in our school garden to sell at the Farmer’s Market?: Initiating statistical literacy through Science and Mathematics integration. Science Activities, 51(1), 17-32.

Dr. Marla J. Lohmann is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Colorado Christian University, where she prepares future Special Education teachers and conducts research in the areas of early childhood behavior management and the use of UDL in online teacher preparation.  She can be contacted at