How One D.C. Teacher Reshaped Online Learning For Students Using Zero Barriers in STEM

Remote learning, as a result of the global pandemic, has brought topics of diversity, accessibility, equity and inclusivity to the fore of conversations concerning the state of education. The pivot to fully virtual and hybrid instructional settings has pushed educators to find new solutions to challenges related to accessible and inclusive STEM learning.

The Zero Barriers in STEM Education initiative, funded by General Motors and Smithsonian Accessibility Innovation Funds, offers teachers in DC Public Schools professional learning opportunities, high-quality science content and materials to strengthen their ability to use inclusive strategies in their classrooms.

The initiative also prepares teachers to become leaders of change in their schools by supporting teachers to form a school-based team that identifies and addresses an area of improvement in utilizing inclusive and accessible practices in STEM programming so that all students have robust STEM experiences.

Below are the reflections of a DC Public Schools teacher leader participating in the Zero Barriers in STEM Education program.


As I entered the 2020-2021 school year, I felt like I became a new teacher, having to learn how to teach online school. Unpacking my laptop and throwing a few posters on my living room wall, I was thrusted into a new world. As I began my online teaching, everyday was unique. I had to plan different lessons and integrate social skills onto the screen. I also had to manage 20 kids virtually, which seemed impossible.

After about two weeks into the school year, I started to get the hang of managing my classes and using the online tools to teach, however, I now needed to identify how to make sure I could reach every child. I asked myself, “What does this look like and how is it possible?” Using the Smithsonian class Zero Barriers, I was able to refer to a variety of styles and learning methods. I was able to recall and use examples such as turning on Closed Captions while watching a video and making sure the lighting in my camera area was suitable to vision impaired students. I wasn’t sure these things were making a difference, but it all came together when a student would remind me to turn on closed captions or it’s too bright in my area.

I teach science and I push into the other teacher’s classrooms each day. I know my kids are focused on the screen all day and it can be grueling, even the most well-behaved children. I needed to come up with a way that was more interactive and less screen time. I came up with an idea that would take a lot of upfront work and I still wasn’t sure if it would work. I created boxes of science supplies for each child. These boxes were filled with experiment materials such as vinegar and baking soda for us to study reactions. I was able to use the excess supplies in my classroom to make these 300- Grades PreK3-5th grade boxes. Parents and/or legal guardians needed to stop by the school and pick them up, using all current and expected safety procedures of masks and distance. This has had a huge effect on my kids, and they have enjoyed the science experiments and I have received numerous kudos from parents. This has had a profound impact on my daily online teaching.

I don’t have all the answers to teaching online, but I do have the power to try various methods and to plan ahead. Treating each day as a new one and crying tears of joy in the afternoon when it works. I take each day slowly and make sure my time is being used to better my student’s lives. One day this will be over, we will be in a new normal, and we will return to the classroom and my students will not be too far behind in science.

About the Author

Sherrell Williams
Program Manager


Sherrell Williams is the Program Manager for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) within the Professional Services Division of the Smithsonian Science Education Center.  Sherrell manages the SSEC’s  programs that support educators in identifying, and removing, barriers that discourage students, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, from pursuing pathways to STEM education and STEM careers.  In this role, she is able to support the work of educators to connect and create lasting impact in their school communities, and education systems. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she managed school-based family programs at Turning the Page, where she fostered relationship-building between school staff and families to increase meaningful family engagement in Washington, DC public schools.  Her work in continuing conversations around DEAI stems from a teaching career, where she successfully led as a mentor teacher and implemented schoolwide initiatives to address lack of diversity in parent involvement.  Sherrell earned a BS in Health Management from Norfolk State University and a M.Ed. in Education Policy and Leadership from American University.