Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

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Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind

by Cary Supalo

From the Editor: Cary Supalo is a longtime Federationist and a leader in the NFB of Pennsylvania. He is president of the Happy Valley Chapter and a graduate student in chemistry at Penn State University. This is what he says about providing blind students the access they need in science laboratories:

The Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind (ILAB) Project (National Science Foundation Grant #HRD0435656) is a research program at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU), in partnership with Truman State University (TSU) and the Indiana School for the Blind (ISB), with additional collaborators from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the Institute of Chemical Education (ICE), and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC). Other support from Vernier Software and Technology, gh, LLC, and the chemistry department at Purdue University are also contributing to the ILAB project. The purpose of the ILAB project is to develop tools and techniques that enable the target group, blind and visually impaired high school and college students in introductory chemistry classes, to perform their own data acquisition in the laboratory. While the tools were successfully integrated into a modified and adapted curriculum at ISB, the team is now searching for mainstream curricula in order to demonstrate that these tools will perform well in typical, unmodified classrooms.

Many of the tools (currently undergoing field testing at ISB) consist of probes already available from Vernier Software and Technology, such as basic thermometers, pH meters, conductivity and voltage detectors, and several balances for measuring mass. These probes plug into a device called a LabPro, which interfaces the probe with a personal computer; a software package called Logger Pro, also from Vernier, then allows the user to access the tools from his or her PC in real time. The ILAB team is also at work with a JAWS script writer from SSB Bart Group to create JAWS script files, which will allow the screen-reader to work seamlessly with Logger Pro. Vernier has expressed interest in making future versions of Logger Pro more screen-reader friendly once this proof of concept study is completed.

The ILAB project uses other, currently available tools as well, including a talking bar code reader, useful for identification of chemicals, and graphic devices such as the Draftsman, which assists study by producing tactile representations of information in science and math classes. Portable electronic notetakers, laptop computers, and even the traditional slate and stylus also aid in recording data. Certain aspects of the Science Activities for the Visually Impaired/Science Enrichment for Learners with Physical Handicaps curriculum, also known as SAVI/SELPH, are also employed. This curriculum uses low-tech methods that enable blind people to measure weights and determine densities as well as measure liquids and is available from the Lawrence Hall of Science for grades K through eight. More information can be found at their detailed Web site, located at <http://www.lhs.berkeley.edu/cml/saviselph/>.

Hardware tools have been developed by the ILAB team as well. A senior design electrical engineering team designed a device called a submersible audible light sensor (SALS) during the spring 2005 semester. Later the SALS received further modifications from Rod Kreutter, the director of the electronics shop in the chemistry department at Penn State University. This third-generation device uses a light sensor encased in a glass tube connected to a control box and produces audible tones that change as the sensor detects changes in light level. Chemical reactions in solution often result in a change in the amount of light transmitted. The SALS produces an audible tone, the pitch of which corresponds to the light level at the sensor. This allows a blind user to follow the course of a reaction in real time. In addition to the laboratory, this device may also have home applications, such as determining the light levels in a room. The team is also working on probes that will indicate colors and liquid levels in burettes.

The ILAB team recently sponsored the workshop Seeing Chemical Reactions through Sound conducted at both the 2006 NFB of Virginia and Pennsylvania state conventions in Richmond, Virginia, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Approximately thirty attendees used the SALS sensor in the iodine clock reaction. This reaction causes a solution to change color abruptly, and the SALS output tone changed its pitch as the solution changed from colorless, then to blue, and finally to black, informing participants exactly when each change occurred. For more information visit the ILAB homepage, located at <http://ilab.psu.edu>.

Educators; parents of blind children; blind students interested in careers in the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics professions; and anyone else interested in the ILAB project are encouraged to contact Cary Supalo at <cary@chem.psu.edu>.

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