Published: Aug. 26, 2019 By

Rachel Bowyer, a second-year PhD student in Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences (APS), has taken on a task that may seem insurmountable. She’s not only updating the entire 200-page Introduction to Astronomy lab manual; she’s making the assignments accessible to students with visual impairments.

Seth Hornstein and Rachel Bowyer demonstrate the equipment used in the spectroscopy lab.As the current Graduate Teacher Program Lead for APS, this endeavor is Rachel’s “legacy project,” a way to leave something lasting in the department. “It’s an interesting challenge,” observed Seth Hornstein, who teaches the Introductory Astronomy lecture and is the department’s TA coordinator. “We’re in a unique situation in that we’re trying to teach astronomy, which is a very visual field. At the same time we're teaching it in a classroom, so we do a lot of hands-on and data-based things, and we want to provide the same experience and the same learning outcomes for students with disabilities.”

In May 2019, Rachel attended a workshop on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), presented by ASSETT Teaching and Learning Consultant Joy Adams. UDL centers on three principles: 1) providing multiple means of representation, 2) offering flexible options for action and expression, and 3) incorporating strategies for promoting student engagement and motivation. Considering the principles holistically supports students with diverse abilities, skills, and interests, while helping to maximize their learning.

Rachel immediately saw the potential benefits of UDL to her project. She scheduled a one-on-one consultation with Joy to work on updates to the spectroscopy lab, which seemed particularly challenging. “The subtitle of the lab is ‘Light and Color,’” she explained. “If we can do this with a lab that is highly visual and has a lot of moving parts, it will make it seem more achievable to re-develop other labs.” Because this lab activity covers “some really cool concepts,” Rachel also saw an opportunity to expose students to more of the science underlying those concepts, in hopes of boosting their engagement with the course.

“The most surprising thing about the consultation was how figures and phrases could be reviewed intentionally to determine what exactly is being asked,” said Rachel. “We ended up with clearer, better questions in the end, even though that wasn’t the major issue with the lab.”

Joy also helped the instructors proactively plan for formal accommodations. Rachel is preparing supplemental instructions that provide strategies for students to support peers with visual impairments by working collaboratively within their lab groups. Additionally, she is updating figures within the lab manual to include numeric values so that students are not required to rely on color perception to participate in the activities.

“Joy helped us see that the answer is to evaluate the students not on ‘What color do you see?’ but their ability to reason through the situation to determine what color should be there,” Rachel observed. “If you design the lab in a way that they should be able to logically figure out what’s going on scientifically, they don’t need to know what the color is. It’s not only a good practice for accessibility but also for different types of learners.”

Rachel was pleasantly surprised that the consultation focused more on adding options than taking them away. “I was initially concerned that we’d be told that we shouldn’t use visuals at all,” she explained, “but the consultation was more about how we can keep these things for the people who can use them as well as make them accessible to meet the needs of others.”

Seth added, “Joy gave us suggestions at low, medium, and high-effort levels. The medium and high levels can be addressed lab-by-lab, but just doing the low-hanging fruit now gets us significant improvement. It’s a low amount of time to invest to get a lot of impact, and that took a lot of the stress out of making the lab accessible.”

Rachel summarized her experience with the consultation, saying: “Overall, the real benefit was to make the curriculum more intentional, to get to the learning goals more directly, with fewer obstacles for students. Having someone who knows about UDL review the assignment makes me feel confident that the curriculum is doing its job rather than being busy work or an obstacle.”

To schedule your own individual consultation, small-group presentation, or workshop on UDL, contact Joy Adams, ASSETT Teaching & Learning Consultant (