Opening Pathways to Technician Careers: A Conference for Biology Teachers of Deaf Students

The goal of this case study is to describe how Universal Design for Learning was used to support a bilingual (English and American Sign Language), accessible, and inclusive professional development conference. This case study will educate the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) community in best practices for creating professional development opportunities that work better for everyone.

Overview of Opening the Pathway Conference

Opening the Pathway to Technician Careers: A Conference for Biology Teachers of Deaf Students, funded by the National Science Foundation ATE program, was held Oct. 13-15, 2019, at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, N.Y. It offered a focused, immersive professional development experience for 40 participants, including high school teachers from schools for the deaf, community college faculty, interpreters, and administrators.

The focus of the conference was on case study pedagogy, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, and the challenges and opportunities of teaching with a visual language — American Sign Language (ASL) — to enhance student success in biology.  The conference also included information about technical careers in the life sciences. We interviewed some of the conference leaders to learn more about the preparation and execution of this unique conference.


Best Practices for Professional Development Conference

Conference Attendees and Leaders

Opening the Pathway was a bilingual conference, with American Sign Language and English as the primary languages for the conference. Specific efforts were made to ensure the conference was an inclusive environment in which all participants were able to communicate with one another. Conference attendees and leaders indicated their communication preferences prior to the conference. The following charts display the breakdown of communication preferences for attendees (left) and leaders (right).


Communication preferences of conference attendees. English: 43%, ASL: 24%, No Preference: 33%.

Communication preferences of conference staff. English: 60%, ASL: 33%, No Preference: 7%.







Conference attendees represented a variety of educational settings as displayed in the following chart:

Teaching setting for attendees. Community College: 40%, High School: 30%, 4 Year College: 3%, Interpreters: 27%









The success of the conference hinged on careful attention to logistics. The following best practices were adhered to:

  • Early and frequent collaboration between NTID's interpreting services and conference organizers. 
    • Institutions and hosting sites will rarely have their own in-house interpreting services. They may have existing contracts with interpreting agencies.  It is important to communicate with both the local Deaf community and hosting institution to ensure that complete, quality interpreting services can be provided.  
    • Includes sharing as much information as possible with interpreting services providers ahead of time (schedule, programming, presentation materials). 
  • Provide interpreters for all programming, meals, and networking sessions. 
    • Two to four teams of interpreters were present for the entire conference duration. 
    • Interpreters attending as participants were not acting as interpreters at the conference. 
  • Ensure sufficient interpreters are scheduled to allow for organic group development. 
    • Do not automatically create working groups by language preference.

Supporting communication in this way was key to the success of this meeting and required planning, collaboration, and appropriate allocation of resources.  It was also incredibly rewarding for everyone involved, and made this event successful in terms of developing community, promoting exchange of information, and providing an opportunity for meaningful exploration of pedagogical practices.  

Conference Components

Hands-on learning with Deaf and hearing educators

Prior to the professional development conference, BioQUEST worked with five educators to develop a case study on genetically modified foods, and collaborated on planning the case presentation. At the conference, the case study was presented to the full group and then case presenters led small groups of conference participants in exploring UDL-aligned supplemental activities they had developed. The programming focused on modeling case-based learning and applied UDL to encourage participants to consider how they would bring case-based learning and UDL into their own teaching and/or interpreting for K-12 or postsecondary biology courses. Small groups of participants formed to develop their own case studies or supplemental resources that adhered to case-based learning and UDL.  The activity culminated in a presentation of the final project by each small group to larger conference participants.

Informational sessions on various topics with diversity of presenters

The topics of the conference were carefully aligned and taught in an integrated manner. For example, the case-based learning lead and the UDL lead worked together ahead of the conference to infuse UDL into the case study on genetically modified foods, and the information session on UDL addressed using UDL practices in case-based learning and with a focus on bilingual education settings. As the ultimate long-term goal for this conference was to increase access to biotech career pathways for Deaf students, both the education and employment settings were addressed through multiple presenters and sessions were conducted in both ASL and English with interpreting for each session. 

Sessions included:   

  • Universal Design for Learning
  • Case-based Learning
  • Identity as a Deaf Scientist and Recommendations for Education
  • STEM Signs in Biology Education 
  • Welcoming Deaf Students into STEM 
  • Biotech education and careers panel discussion with Deaf and hard-of-hearing educators and students and employees in biotech
  • Poster sessions from Deaf students at NTID

Opportunities for relationship building

The conference provided a substantial amount of time for participants to be together face-to-face in a dedicated and welcoming environment. Participants and teaching staff engaged in formal learning together but also in informal learning – conversations, meals, walks to and from the hotel, and even entertainment. Interpreters were available for all of these activities. This type of environment was helpful for breaking down communication barriers as well as misperceptions across languages and cultures. Professional development, especially when diverse participants come together, always involves this dedicated, warm, and fun space where learners can share with one another. This informal learning is critical, given that much of our knowledge and the sharing of it is tacit rather than explicit, and tacit knowledge sharing requires relationships and trust – it is what you show people rather than what you tell them (The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi). 

Informal learning included:

  • Shared meals and events
  • Sunshine 2.0 Performance 
  • Comfortable space with places for small-group and large-group learning

Universally Designed Materials

Participants learned about case study teaching and UDL by experiencing a case on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) with a case study facilitator, and then engaging in small-group work on how they might teach this case or another in their own contexts back home. UDL practices were embedded throughout the conference. 

The following case study video was included in the case materials. In it, friends discuss the safety and environmental impact of GMOs. It was designed to be in ASL, with voiceover and captions.  

Conference activities allowed for multiple means of action and expression:

  • All participants were able to do an experiment extracting the DNA from a strawberry.
  • Small-group learning allowed for English and ASL interpretation.
  • Presenter groups at the end could be in English or ASL, and participants were allowed to choose different roles. 
  • Presentations were checked for accessibility and practices were shared with participants (e.g., images included text equivalents, slide titles, appropriate color contrast, and captioned videos.

Participants complete “Plans for Change” surveys

At the conclusion of the conference, participants were asked to complete a "Plan for Change" survey form directing them to describe one or two things they would do to improve access to learning for their deaf/hard-of-hearing students. A little over one year later, conference participants were asked to complete a “Plan for Change Follow-up Survey.” They received an email reminding them of their individual Plan for Change intentions written down at the conference, and they were asked to share the impact of the conference on their teaching (for educators) and interpreting (for interpreters) practices. 

The survey focused on four things: 

  1. Each participant’s Plan for Change accomplishments.
  2. How well the conference provided support for individual teaching and interpreting.
  3. The utility of conference resources and the extent to which they used them.
  4. Professional development they would like to see in the future.  

Of the 42 conference participants, 24 responded to the survey, for an overall response rate of 57%. Respondents were asked how they knew the things they did worked — in other words, what was the evidence? They were asked to review multiple choices and select all that applied. The top four responses are as follows:

  • 79% of respondents indicated they observed increased student engagement
  • 61% indicated they have changed some of their teaching/interpreting behaviors
  • 50% indicated student attitudes improved
  • 43% indicated student achievements improved

Participants also provided open-ended responses to changes they made to their teaching or interpreting role as a result of participating in the conference:

A community college faculty member described making the following changes:

“ 1. For the textbook, I carefully selected a publisher that offered ebook and online resources that followed Universal Design.  2. The videos and all short clips that I used were all close captioned and accurate. 3. I connected with the 2 ASL interpreters who were assigned for each class, and shared my powerpoint slides with them prior to each class lecture.   4. I also spent time with my student, going over the notes that the assigned "note-taker" had taken during the lecture. And speaking with my student with the help of ASL interpreters after each class, to basically "sync" up. This was by far the MOST important way in which I changed my approach for my hard-of-hearing students, i.e., reviewing notes and making sure there were no gaps in understanding.”

Another participant suggested changes made to support bilingual learners:

“The Universal Design for Learning concept taught at the convention expanded my understanding of students' potential. My implementation on equity has improved.  I was able to create more resources for ASL-dependent students to have more access to English-based science literacy. For example, students made presentation slides to include ASL video of themselves summarizing their concept AND to embed caption. This activity allowed students to analyze their ASL and English articulation, and for me to assess students' content understanding and support their English skills.”

Other participants integrated more case studies into their courses, which is in and of itself part of the UDL engagement guideline of recruiting interest through optimizing relevance, value and authenticity of the learning.

“I set a goal to implement some type of case studies into my classes. I loved this! It was great to see the students excited, intrigued, and motivated to learn answers to questions they had.” 

“I use one resource based in Buffalo, N.Y., that specializes in case studies.”

Other educators were more attentive to best practices for including Deaf students in various  courses.

“I have been proactive in developing grant activities that target the deaf population at our college and to create partnerships with the California School for the Deaf here in Riverside.”

“I had to remember not to talk while writing on the board, and to remain within view instead of walking around the room as I spoke. I also had to remember to look up as I called the student's name while taking the role. Additionally, I had a conference with the director of our Center for Accessibility, and related the vital information I learned at the conference.”  


If you have a bilingual conference focused on broadening participation for a specific population, hold as much of the conference as you can in that population’s first language, and interpret into their second language for those who are not fluent in the first language. This is part of culturally responsive teaching.


Additional Resources

DeafTEC: Technical Education Center for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students is a NSF Advanced Technological Education National Center of Excellence

"Top Ten Things D/HH Students Would Like Teachers To Do" (DeafTEC Resource)

Disclaimer: AccessATE is funded by the National Science Foundation under DUE#1836721. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.