Topics: Featured Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science

Differentiation with Universal Design in Mind: Emphasis on All Learners

Great Minds

by Great Minds

October 17, 2022
Differentiation with Universal Design in Mind: Emphasis on All Learners

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science > Differentiation with Universal Design in Mind: Emphasis on All Learners

Equity should be prioritized as a central component in all educational improvement efforts. The 2018 Pew Center report on Diversity and Discrimination in STEM “found that a majority of Americans believe an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities in the U.S. make the country a better place to live.” This illustrates the need for equity in science education.


Culturally responsive pedagogy creates equitable learning experiences for all students, including learners of diverse economic backgrounds, racial and ethnic groups, gender identities, and education programs. Great Minds® recognizes that science matters for all students and knows that all learners possess a rich background of cultural knowledge, experiences, and interests that can be authentically integrated in their science learning. PhD Science® modules leverage students’ diverse cultural and social backgrounds to support all students in engaging with science and understanding why it matters to them.

Recognizing that students come from many different backgrounds and need individualized support is key to improving accessibility and equity in your classroom. The priority of PhD Science is to challenge all learners through accessible rigor with the curriculum incorporating the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles.


By incorporating the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles of Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression into all Great Minds curricula, we take the first step in unlocking every student’s potential by giving every student the opportunity to build knowledge. The principles of UDL make it possible for all students to achieve success and give students ownership of associated knowledge and skills. The UDL approach provides all students with an opportunity to succeed by proactively removing learning barriers; it also boosts student motivation.


The Engagement principle of UDL is centered on looking for ways to motivate and engage learners that work by providing them with choices, giving them assignments relevant to their lives, making skill building joyful, and creating opportunities for learners to get up and move around.

In PhD Science, this principle is addressed by engaging students in learning with compelling, authentic phenomena that interest them. Students generate their own questions, work together to make sense of phenomena, and gather evidence to build scientific knowledge. As students strive to make sense of the anchor phenomenon, they often engage in a Notice and Wonder routine.

PhD Science features multifaceted phenomena, such as Wayang shadow puppetry and how a soccer ball moves differently on Earth and in space, that spark curiosity around students' different cultural backgrounds and experiences. This serves an additional purpose of relating to different cultures and experiences, which is a characteristic of rich phenomena.


The Representation principle of UDL is designed to guide educators to offer information in multiple formats. Information can be represented through images, written and spoken words, symbols, videos, hands-on learning, and many other means. Interaction with multiple representations allows all students to access complex phenomena.

PhD Science was crafted to move students from reading about science to practicing science. Students actively engage in a learning cycle of asking questions and sharing initial ideas about phenomena they study, investigating those questions, developing evidence-based explanations, and transferring their new knowledge to explain the phenomena. Students learn through hands-on engagement with the phenomena they investigate. Instead of having students simply memorize the definitions of science terms, we use a ABC > CBT (Activity Before Concept > Concept Before Terminology) approach to help students experience the phenomenon so they can build enduring knowledge by experiencing the phenomenon before they apply a scientific term to it.

An activity from Level 3 Module 4 involves students exploring how placing different objects between two magnets affects how the magnets interact with each other. This is one of five Magnet Stations that students explore. As they move on to the next lesson, students watch a video and apply their learned knowledge in a new context, applying terms like attract and repel.

Every module culminates in a Science or Engineering Challenge where students apply their learning to address a real-life problem. In the Level 3 Module 4 Engineering Challenge, students work to answer the question, “how can we use magnets to design a solution to help astronauts in space?”

Action and Expression

The Action and Expression principle of UDL supports giving learners more than one way to interact with the material and to show what they know. Program-based assessments, especially those that are formative in nature, can help teachers identify and address misconceptions, scaffold the learning, and differentiate to provide students with opportunities to further explore a topic.

Like scientists, students must use multiple modalities to express their understanding and rely on discourse to develop knowledge. Students take part in purposeful discussions in which they clarify, justify, and interpret their own ideas and respond to others’ ideas to build understanding. Traditional science programs may simply arrange for students to read about scientists and their discoveries. And even if lessons do include hands-on investigations, often the only way students communicate their learning is through lab reports.

Instructional routines built into PhD Science offer students multiple means to demonstrate their knowledge. Whether it’s through Think–Pair–Share discussions or discoveries with a peer or the classroom activity of drawing an anchor model that they revisit and revise to reflect new knowledge, students have opportunities to share what they know throughout every module.


While lessons include versatile learning activities designed for all students, they also include in-the-moment Differentiation supports that provide examples of how teachers may customize instruction to support specific learning needs. Many students may benefit from the Differentiation supports; however, the supports focus on learners with physical and cognitive disabilities, learners performing above or below grade level, and English learners.

Differentiation and English Language Development examples from sidebar support


Differentiation example from sidebar support



Differentiation and English Language Development examples from sidebar support


English Language Development example from in-line support

English Language Development example from in-line support


Below are several suggestions that could be used to differentiate.

Student Grouping

Grouping students strategically promotes multiple means of student engagement and action and expression. There are many ways to group students, and every teacher knows what works best for their class and students. When grouping students, consider the task they are to complete.

Grouping students with diverse abilities works well when students perform an open-ended task and each student has a specific role in the task, such as reading, recording data, and note-taking. This student grouping method allows all students to participate and collaborate to complete a task, brings together students with complementary skills, and encourages a positive classroom culture.

Grouping students with similar abilities or interests works well in tasks where different students read portions of the same text or apply mathematical skills to solve complex problems. This student grouping method allows students to collaboratively follow common interests or apply shared skills.

Videos and Images

The inclusion of videos and images promotes multiple means of representation. Videos and images are useful for increasing comprehension of concepts that may be difficult to grasp through words alone. Providing transcripts of videos may help some students make deeper connections with the concepts the videos present, particularly students with auditory impairments.

Models and Investigations

Modeling and investigating also promote multiple means of action and expression. Students develop and use models and carry out investigations in each module of PhD Science. Students learn best when completing most of the model development or investigation activities themselves.


PhD Science piques students’ curiosity with opportunities for them to make sense of the world around them and to build knowledge through rich content that is designed to meet every learner’s needs.

Read The Makings of a High-Quality Science Curriculum blog post.

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Topics: Featured Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science