UDL Case Study: Cultivating a UDL Mindset

Increasing Accessibility in Lab-Based STEM Learning Environments

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Blue-collar jobs are being replaced with "new-collar" jobs that use technology to solve multidisciplinary problems. Building on prior accomplishments supported by federal funding under the US Department of Labor's Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program (TAACCCT), CAST partnered with Manchester Community College to remove barriers to learning in laboratory environments. By drawing on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and accessibility best practices, educators in the mechatronics program revamped materials and learning environments to optimize the learning experience for all students.

Project Description

Mechatronics technicians work with 3D printers, electromechanical systems, robotic devices, and other technologies to contribute to sectors ranging from agriculture and advanced manufacturing to renewable energy and telecommunications. The current ATE Project at Manchester Community College (MCC), Improving the Education of Mechatronics Technicians, focuses on implementing the Siemens Mechatronic Systems curriculum to develop a stackable, industry-recognized certification program and an Associate of Science degree. The Siemens curriculum uses a systems approach to mechatronics education that emphasizes how multiple technologies coexist and interact. This approach helps students learn how to troubleshoot, maintain, and operate an entire automated system, rather than just individual components. As a result, students who complete the mechatronics certification and/or degree will be prepared for well-paying jobs in growing industries, thus contributing to the U.-S's skilled technical workforce and economy.

However, after the first year of implementation, educators at MCC found some students were experiencing significant barriers in the lab-based learning environment and were having some difficulty fully accessing the Siemens curriculum. Through conversation, Dan Larochelle, Advanced Manufacturing Technology Department Chair,  learned that educators needed additional support, resources, and training to understand how they could inprove the accessibility of their materials, and design more accessible, inclusive learning environments and experiences for students. Through this project, CAST surveyed educators and found similar needs. 


Based on educators' needs, the goal of the project was to introduce UDL and demonstrate how educators can make their lab-based learning environments more accessible and engaging for all learners. Ultimately, empowering educators to cultivate a UDL mindset by taking on a “plus-one” approach to designing hands-on STEM learning had the most significant impact. 


Timeline: January-April 2021 

CAST staff conducted four 1.5-hour webinars with a final reflection. Webinars were open to all 11 of the Manufacturing faculty (full-time and adjunct) at Manchester Community College. The presentations started with a survey and the content of the webinars was tailored to meet the needs expressed by the staff. 

Survey responses:

  • “Many of my labs are multi-step procedures which some students have a difficult time following along with. They misread or omit steps which results in a poor outcome for their lab.”
  • “Whereas both of my courses involve visual aspects, I have difficulty conceptualizing integrating aspects of the courses such as drawings with dimensions or setting up a CNC machine, and with my understanding of accessibility, the possibility to allow for full accessibility for all.”

Figure 1: On a scale from 1-5 (with 1 being never and 5 being always) please rate how frequently you create opportunities in your lessons for your students to make personal connections with the material.

“Figure 1. A bar chart indicating instructors’ responses to statement 1 on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). The highest number (8, 72.7%) responded with 4. One instructor or 9.1% each responded with 1 (never), 2 and 5 (always).

Figure 2: On a scale from 1-5 (with 1 being never and 5 being always) please rate how frequently you include self-reflection in your lessons. (i.e., How often are you asking students if THEY feel they have mastered the learning goal?)

“Figure 2. A bar chart indicating instructors’ responses to statement 1 on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). The highest number (6, 54.5%) responded with 3. Two instructors or 18.2% responded with 2. Three instructors or 27.3% responded with 4. No instructors responded with either a 1 (never) or a 5 (always).


First, CAST staff conducted a survey (as mentioned above) with the staff at MCC to determine their familiarity with Universal Design for Learning and determine accessibility needs. Then, CAST hosted two introductory webinars where staff could develop a general understanding of UDL and accessibility best practices. The introductory training (slides) focused on engagement and accessibility for lab-based STEM courses — two of the major need areas established through the survey. 

Working with educators, we determined that the best next move would be to gather materials from educators and work through accessibility strategies with them, both demonstrating our techniques and brainstorming potential solutions. After the introduction sessions, we asked MCC staff to share an example of a syllabus and its corresponding lab materials with us. 

The final two webinars were structured as live training sessions during which CAST staff revised the sample syllabus and its correlating lab materials to demonstrate simple techniques and strategies educators could use to improve accessibility. 

In addition to a syllabus, we received three documents connected to one lab-based mechatronics unit. The three documents were the assessments and directions the instructor used for a hands-on project that students completed remotely. During the live training sessions for the syllabus and the lab materials, CAST staff:

  1. Asked the educators to introduce the materials and answer some questions. For example: How do you implement these materials — what is the goal? How do the documents fit together? What are the activities? 
  2. Conducted live demonstrations showcasing how to increase accessibility for the documents. 
  3. Facilitated a brainstorming session to solicit additional ideas, suggestions, and accessibility revisions. The goal of the session was to model co-design and empower the educators to use a “plus-one” approach to accessibility. 
    1. Increasing one-on-one through zoom 
    2. Video of setting up the tool “right” and then “wrong” 
    3. Asking students to respond verbally

Each meeting lasted 1.5 hours and consisted of the MCC advanced manufacturing educators and at least two CAST staff members.


Support the Development of a UDL Mindset 

Educators' mindsets are related to students through their beliefs (assumptions), language, habits, and the way they frame learning (what they pay attention to and how they interpret students’ actions). From this case study, we learned that STEM educators at the postsecondary level need resources and training to understand how they can develop habits, practices, beliefs, and approaches to how they design learning experiences and materials that are more inclusive and accessible. 

STEM educators are context experts. They understand the key skills and knowledge that learners need to gain in order to be successful in additional classes and ultimately in their careers. Universal Design for Learning offers STEM educators an educational framework they can use to set rigorous content-driven goals for learning and, at the same time, increase engagement, accessibility, and student success. Developing a UDL mindset does not mean changing content or decreasing rigor. Instead, it means designing learning experiences, curriculums, and materials that are accessible to all. 

Developing a UDL mindset starts with the core belief that the barrier is the environment, not the learner. To reduce the barriers and ensure educators are designing for all learners, attention should shift from the student to the curriculum and the design of learning. 

Educators at the post secondary level should be introduced to UDL and accessibility, and should be encouraged to develop a UDL mindset as a first step towards increasing access and engagement in their lab-based learning environments. 

Additional Resources to supporting developing a UDL mindset: 

Support “Plus-One” Thinking

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Thomas J. Tobin, author of Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, explains, “UDL is really just 'plus-one' thinking. For every interaction that learners have now — with the materials, yes, but also with each other, with instructors and with the wider world — provide one more way for that interaction to happen. The 'plus-one' approach helps to take what otherwise might look like an insurmountable amount of effort and break it down into manageable, approachable chunks. It also helps people to determine where to start applying the UDL framework so they can address current challenges and pain points in their interactions.”

STEM educators should use ongoing reflection to address the question, "What impact am I having on student learning?" Reflections should be gathered in a variety of ongoing ways, not simply through a final end-of-course survey. Educators should use these reflections to examine areas where students are getting things wrong or frequently experience barriers. Then they can apply a “plus-one” thinking to these pain points — i.e., allowing them one more way to demonstrate what they know or engage in the course — and thereby make their courses more engaging and accessible. 

Additional Resources to support “plus-one” thinking: 

Encourage the Use of UDL to Design Materials, Including Syllabus and Lab-Based Handouts, According to Accessibility Best Practices

The syllabus provides an opportunity to create a positive first impression for learners. In addition to setting expectations through a clear identification of a course’s key goals and objectives, the syllabus can also set the course climate and provide the options for accessibility some learners will need to be successful. 

Many syllabi include information about support services learners have available to them, including the disability services office and the writing center. However, if the syllabus is not accessible, learners may not be able to navigate to this information. By making the syllabus accessible, instructors can also learn valuable skills that can transfer to other documents shared in a course. The syllabus provides a good opportunity for instructors to start their journey toward developing their “plus-one” mindset on accessibility and UDL. 

CAST did a live review of a syllabus based on the template used at MCC and the following accessibility issues were identified:

  • Document structure: at first glance the syllabus appeared to be organized into sections with descriptive headings such as “course prerequisites” and “ learning objectives.” However, these section headings did not have the proper styles assigned to them. Styles add the appropriate code for the headings to act as navigation landmarks for screen reader users. Rather than reading the entire document from beginning to end, screen reader users can use a keyboard shortcut to skip through the sections of long documents until they find the one where they want to start reading. This speeds up navigation and makes long documents easier to use. CAST staff demonstrated the proper way to indicate section headings by assigning a style from the ones listed in the "Home" tab of the ribbon in Microsoft Word. In Google Docs, styles can be assigned  by choosing "Format", "Paragraph Styles". Styles include "Heading 1" for the title of a document, "Heading 2" for sections, and "Heading 3" for subsections. To provide a logical document structure, styles need to be assigned in the appropriate order, without skipping levels (a "Heading 4" should not follow a "Heading 2"). 
  • Use of list styles: lists should be created using the bulleted or numbered list options available in the formatting toolbar in Microsoft Word and Google Docs (and most other authoring environments). Screen readers will announce lists as well as the individual items in them in a way that provides helpful information about the content’s structure. (For example, a screen reader might hear: “list with three items, item 1 of 3…”). 
  • Table structure: tables are often used in a syllabus to organize information, such as the grading scale or the schedule of due assignments. To be accessible to screen reader users, tables need to have a header row. The header row makes the proper association of data pairs for someone listening with a screen reader that a sighted person makes by scanning the rows and columns of the table (e.g., assessment and participation, weight and 10%). Assigning a header row is easily done by selecting the table and checking the "Header Row" box in the "Table Design" tab of the ribbon in Microsoft Word. Google Docs does not currently have an option to assign a header row as required to make tables accessible. 
  • Descriptive links:  when pointing learners to additional resources such as the student handbook, the full web address was included in the syllabus. Long web addresses can be confusing to screen reader users when they are read aloud. Hearing the prefix (“http://www”) can get repetitive as well. The best practice is to select some descriptive text (“Student Handbook”) and make that text the link. 

In addition to the accessibility improvements, we noted ways in which the syllabus could be enhanced with some personal touches to bring some life to the document. Examples include the addition of an instructor photo (with appropriate alternative text), or a link to a video where the instructor introduces the course.

Additional Resources


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AccessATE Partner: Manchester Community College 

Project Leader: Advanced Manufacturing Technology Department Chair, Dan Larochelle.

Professor Larochelle is the Advanced Manufacturing Department Chair and a full-time professor at Manchester Community College. He developed stackable certificates in Robotics and Mechatronics, and has also created pathways for MCC’s two-year degree in Advanced Manufacturing to lead to a four-year degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology at UNH Manchester.

Professor Larochelle is also a STEM Curriculum Consultant who develops training materials and videos to teach robotics and STEM concepts. He created a robotics curriculum for middle school and high school students, and was part of a team developing easier-to-use robotic programming tools. All of his work was mapped to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Dan has been a mentor for FIRST and VEX Robotics teams at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels for over 25 years. His innovative teaching methods have inspired countless young people in NH and throughout New England.

Dan’s career started in the industry where he was the Chief Technical Officer for Intelitek. He led a team of engineers, programmers, curriculum writers, and consultants in the creation of hardware, software, and curriculum for teaching STEM principles in secondary and post-secondary schools. He managed the implementation and new product development training process for Intelitek company-wide in the areas of Manufacturing, Technical Support, Marketing, and Sales.

Dan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a Master of Business Administration from the University of New Hampshire.

Industry-Aligned Mechatronics Education

Improving the Education of Mechatronics Technicians at MCC has four goals: 1) redevelop the curriculum to realign the current Advanced Manufacturing Mechatronics Certificate with the Siemens Mechatronics Level 1 Certification; 2) provide professional development and training for College faculty to earn Siemens Level 1 Mechatronics Instructor certification; 3) investigate the program enhancements needed to implement Siemens Level 2 certification at a later date; and 4) raise interest in and awareness of an advanced manufacturing career involving mechatronics in the local area. 

The project will leverage the work of other NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) projects to build low-cost mechatronics training kits and will disseminate the curriculum and materials it develops to the ATE community. As traditional manufacturing becomes more automated and dependent on computers, the need for technicians with advanced problem-solving skills is increasing. This project will contribute to educating this next generation of skilled technical workers. This project is funded by the NSF ATE program, which focuses on the education of technicians for the advanced-technology fields that drive the nation's economy.

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.