Future Reflections         Convention Report 2010

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FROM ALCHEMY TO CHEMISTRY: A BLIND SCIENTIST BREAKS THROUGH

by Cary Supalo

Dr. Cary Supalo directs children during the Digging into Science workshop experimentIntroduction by Carol Castellano: Over the past several years the National Federation of the Blind has put a great deal of effort into breaking barriers so that blind children can participate fully in math and science. We have our science academies and astronomy workshops in the summer. We have a great Website that we invite you to visit. Cary Supalo is one of the movers and shakers in this effort. He is a graduate student in chemistry at Penn State University and will soon have his PhD. I'm very happy to introduce Cary Supalo.

The ancient Greeks believed that lead could be turned into gold. Trying to achieve this goal, they practiced a science called alchemy, using all sorts of concoctions and operations. However, they never succeeded.

The seventeenth-century scientist Robert Boyle, often considered the father of chemistry, questioned how chemical compounds interacted with one another and started studying basic chemical phenomena. Boyle is most noted for his discovery of how pressure and volume of gases interact, which became known as Boyle's Law.

In the nineteenth century, scientists such as Dmitri Mendeleev designed the modern Periodic Table. They placed the elements in columns and rows with the elements going down each column having similar physical and/or chemical properties. It is these chemical and physical properties that chemists today hold near and dear to their hearts.

When people ask me what a chemist does for a living, I sometimes give them what I consider a profound statement: "I control matter for a living." It sounds more impressive than it really is, but in essence that is what chemists do. We problem solve to figure out why things are the way they are. We also try to make new compounds in the hope of improving the quality of life for humanity. However, sometimes we make things that are detrimental to humanity, such as certain pesticides, hydrogenated food oils, and Thalidomide.

Why is all of this important to the blind?

In years past, it has been difficult for the blind to have access to career paths in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions. These fields were perceived to be too difficult or too dangerous for the blind to pursue. But why have STEM activities been seen as too difficult or too dangerous?

Some people indicate the reason has been the historic lack of accessible technologies. Others say it is because science teachers are concerned about injury to blind students and their classmates. Still others believe that science teachers generally do not possess the technical knowledge base to provide Braille support and other adaptive assistance to blind students. In other words, life would be simpler for teachers if blind students stayed away from science classes.

Dr. Cary Supalo, blind chemistIt may also be that many blind students themselves do not feel comfortable handling laboratory equipment and glassware. This discomfort might result from the student not being allowed to handle various items in the home. Some parents overly shelter their blind children, not allowing them to wash dishes, do housecleaning, use knives at the table, cook dinner, etc. Many parents of blind children feel that working with chemicals is not safe and could result in harm.

For all of these reasons, the National Federation of the Blind started the National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) and <www.blindscience.org>, the world's first dynamic Website where parents, teachers, and students can obtain tips on teaching and learning a wide range of math and science concepts. We now have the knowledge base. Next we need the technology. Through my work as project manager of the Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind (ILAB) project at Penn State University, a suite of relatively low-cost talking and audible tools has been developed for blind students in science classes. These tools can be used by students of physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. A number of these tools are commercially available from Independent Science, LLC, a consultancy licensed Vernier distributorship that I founded.

We have interfaced the JAWS screen reader with the Logger Pro Data Collection software package to make all laboratory probeware from Vernier Software and Technology accessible to the blind. These devices include temperature, pH, oxygen, conductivity, motion, magnetic field, humidity, turbidity, voltage, and approximately two hundred other types of probes used in numerous scientific fields of study. Various devices are appropriate for use by elementary school, middle school, high school, and college students. Some of this probeware can even be used in research laboratories.

Independent Science is now working to develop additional access technologies that we hope will open more doors of opportunity for the blind. Earlier this year, the company received a small business innovation grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the first handheld data collection device for the blind. Students can plug various Vernier probes into the device to collect data in classroom laboratories or in the field. This technology will allow blind students to collect pH measurements in forest streams or swimming pools, check outdoor humidity, or plot acceleration and velocity while they ride a roller coaster. The device is currently in initial testing, and we hope to have it commercially available by the time the 2011 NFB national convention rolls around.

The blind have come far in the sciences in recent years. I think Dr. Jernigan would be proud of what we are doing, and more important, of where we are going. However, all this work will have been for nothing unless we encourage more blind students to study STEM curricula. We also need you to encourage and inspire teachers of the blind to believe that it is beneficial for the blind to study science. Science is challenging, but we blind people are excellent at problem solving through numerous aspects of our daily lives. Problem solving is a key characteristic for any scientist to possess.

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