Three University of Central Florida professors are teaming up to improve classroom learning for students who struggle with attention deficit disorder, autism and learning disabilities.

The National Science Foundation awarded $300,000 to fund Project Adapting College Classrooms to Equally Support Science Students (ACCESSS), led by UCF professors Jacquelyn Chini, Cherie Yestrebsky, and Eleazar Vasquez.

Class discussion and active problem solving activities have been shown to benefit the majority of students. However, the effectiveness of these strategies for students with executive function deficit (a cognitive difference common in  conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder) has not been extensively examined.

The team of investigators will observe active learning courses and interview students with disabilities about their experiences in these courses. These observations will identify existing support systems in place and barriers and will lead to recommendations for instructors.

“The project will take an important step towards increasing the impact of instruction in active learning courses, particularly for students with executive function disorders,” said Chini, an assistant physics professor and principal investigator for the project.

The project will help instructors develop strategies based on a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. UDL, a set of principles for curriculum development, gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn, according to the National Center on Universal Design.

“These strategies will lead to improved learning for students with disabilities, as well as students overall,” said co-investigator Vasquez. He is an associate professor in the Department of Child, Family, and Community Sciences.

In the second and third years, ACCESSS Learning Communities will be developed to implement recommendations. These communities will consist of UCF faculty and graduate teaching assistants in the physics and chemistry departments.

“The goals of Project ACCESSS are to stimulate improved instruction for students with disabilities,” said Yestrebsky, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “The project will also generate knowledge about effective teaching strategies and effective instructor training models for postsecondary STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] instructors.”

Yestrebsky hopes to apply the techniques used to implement Project ACCESSS to other groups of students.

“We will examine student learning outcomes for students with disabilities as well as for students in other specific sub-groups, such as women, underrepresented minorities, veterans, and first-generation college students,” she said.

ACCESSS kicks off this fall and is expected to conclude in Summer 2019.