Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Blind Students Can Succeed in Chemistry Classes

by Cary Supalo

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on a speech Mr. Supalo gave to the 2002 Washington, D.C., Student Seminar sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students. Cary Supalo, a former NFB Scholarship winner, is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Penn State University. He is, so he tells me, “working on a heterogeneous catalysis synthesis project in an attempt to optimize energy outputs with hydrogen fuel cell technologies.” Right. But don’t skip to the next article yet! You really don’t have to understand anything about chemistry to understand the techniques and strategies Cary outlines below. Here are some tips for budding chemists, and for students who just want to get through their chemistry class:

Cary  Supalo

Cary Supalo

Have you ever wondered why ice melts, and water evaporates? Why leaves turn color in the fall, and how a battery generates electricity? Why keeping food cold slows its spoilage, and how our bodies use food to maintain life? Chemistry supplies answers to these questions and countless others like them.

Chemistry is the study of the properties of materials and the changes that they undergo. One of the joys of learning chemistry is seeing how chemical principals operate in all aspects of our lives, from everyday activities like lighting a match to far-reaching matters like the development of drugs to cure cancer. I am going to talk to you a little bit about how I got to where I am today, and some of the many tricks that I used in chemistry classes.

It was back when I was an undergraduate at Purdue that I first realized the importance of good blindness alternative skills in my academic pursuits. When I entered college, I possessed what I considered then to be adequate skill levels in cane travel, Braille, and adaptive computer technology. But I came to the realization that more training was necessary when, after my first year at Purdue, I was not satisfied with my academic level of success, and was upset that I couldn’t use my time more efficiently. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to BLIND, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minnesota [one of three NFB Rehabilitation Training Centers for the Blind]. There I learned how to travel more independently, read and write Braille faster, and how to use adaptive computer equipment efficiently and effectively. But most importantly, I developed a positive attitude about blindness.

Shortly after I completed the BLIND, Inc., program and returned to Purdue, I decided to change my major to chemistry. The skills and positive attitude I had gained helped me end the long revolving door policy that I had towards my major. Become a chemist? How can a blind person do this? I had confidence, now, that I could find answers to that question. It also helped that I had met a blind chemistry professor who gave me basic tips and offered his help to me if I needed it down the road.

To succeed in my new major, I learned that I had to become quite good at obtaining materials in alternative formats, especially tactile drawings of graphical concepts presented in my classes. I also had to become an excellent manager of lab technicians, scribes, and readers.

I used lab technicians (lab techs) throughout my undergraduate career. A lab tech is someone that assists me in performing laboratory experiments and recording data in a print notebook. However, it is up to me to instruct the worker as to what to do, by what methods, what pieces of glassware to use, and so on. It wasn’t simply “you do this experiment for me and tell me what happens.” Some lab techs thought that this was the purpose of their job, but I quickly learned to explain to them the importance of describing results and equipment set-ups so that I could get a clear picture about what was going on in the laboratory.

When hiring a lab tech, scribe, or reader, it’s important to stress showing up on time, and to look for all the other good qualities that any employee should exhibit. I also find it helpful to establish a good rapport with that person. It is essential for blind students to show up to a lab fully prepared. This means that we have read the entire prelab, any assigned readings that go along with it, and have come up with a plan about how to perform the experiment. It isn’t absolutely essential that you understand everything before the lab session because, of course, that’s why we do the lab—to learn. In most lab classes you will be given the opportunity to ask your instructor questions about anything you don’t understand after the pre-lab lecture.

As far as succeeding in lecture courses, it is important for blind students to have good note-taking skills, whether that be on a portable notetaker and/or a slate and stylus. This is a key component of success in chemistry class. Also, it is absolutely essential for you to have access to tactile drawings about the subject on which the professor is lecturing, ideally at the same time as the professor is presenting it. This can be done a number of different ways. One method is to have someone—a scribe—sit next to you in the classroom. The job of the scribe is to use a raised line drawing kit to draw the graphical information as the professor presents it to the class.  It is important that you and your scribe establish a labeling code for your graphs so that you can easily refer back to them after class is finished, and when the scribe is not there to explain them. I learned that art students (for obvious reasons) tended to be best at this type of a job.

A second method is to simply ask the professor if he or she would be willing to make tactile drawings for you prior to the lecture. They should not have to spend more than 5 minutes drawing these figures, and you should provide them with the tactile drawing tools and materials. A labeling method for the drawings should be established so that you can follow which graph or figure to look at during the lecture. I simply asked the professor to label the graphs as, figure 1, figure 2, and so on. Then, during the lecture, to refer to the graphs or drawings by those figure numbers. As it turned out, this technique of verbalizing a label for each figure got favorable remarks from other
students in the class. It helped them, too.

I found that professors in the upper level classes of my major, and those who enjoyed teaching and really had an interest in their student’s learning, were more willing to use these accommodations. However, if the faculty member’s main focus was on research, not teaching, then they didn’t always want to follow my suggestions. It just varied from professor to professor. If neither of these techniques worked, then I arranged in advance to get a copy of a classmate’s notes so that I could get tactile drawings of the figures made after class was concluded.

In some cases, large lecture classes may have a designated note taker for the course. These notes are then put on reserve in a library for all students of the course to examine. This, too, can be a useful resource if it is available.

Tactile aids can be purchased from college book stores, such as the 3-D snap-together molecule set pictured upper right; and others, such as this felt bosrd with cardboard cut-outs, can be made with inexpensive materials.

Tactile aids can be purchased from college book stores, such as the 3-D snap-together molecule set pictured upper right; and others, such as this felt board with cardboard cut-outs, can be handmade
with inexpensive materials.

For those of you interested in studying organic chemistry, a useful tool that I developed back in the mid 90’s is something that I call a 2-D Organic Chemistry Mechanism Drawing Kit. It basically consists of a piece of felt glued on top of a piece of poster board that you fold in half for portability, and cutouts of circles and small rectangles with Velcro backing to stick on the board to represent chemical bonds. I label some of the cutouts, in print and Braille, with the symbols (N) for nitrogen, (O) for oxygen, (S) for sulfur, etc. I also use an unlabeled square cutout as a “wild card” which changes its meaning from mechanism to mechanism depending on what special catalyst the reaction may require.

To show stereochemistry, i.e., 3-dimentionality of a molecule’s structure  (which is a critical concept in understanding organic chemistry), I use cutouts of wedges—some with Velcro on both sides, some with Velcro on one side only. The smooth-sided wedges showed atoms that were above the plane of the board, and the double-sided Velcro wedges showed atoms below the plane of the board. This kit is very handy when doing homework sets as well as performing mechanisms on quizzes and exams. It is also useful when a professor is presenting a detailed mechanism in a lecture setting. Your scribe can place the structures for you on the felt board while the professor is lecturing on that topic. This greatly enhanced my understanding of the content in the large lecture setting. The materials to make this kit are cheap and easily available at any number of discount stores.

Being a good manager of readers, scribes, and lab techs are important skills for success in a technical field. You should also be able to clearly explain your needs to a faculty member, and be flexible and creative in coming up with solutions to problems that will arise as the semester progresses. Knowing what resources are available to you in Braille and in other formats is key to success in this field. A good understanding of the Nemeth Braille code will greatly enhance your pursuit of a career in chemistry and other technical fields. There are many, many science and math books that are already available in the Nemeth Braille code. These books can be located using the American Printing House for the Blind’s Louis Braille database.

It may not always be possible to get the same textbook in Braille that the rest of the students are using, but you can usually get a similar textbook. You should get ISBN numbers of potential substitute texts and share the titles, authors, edition numbers, and so on with your professor to get their advance approval for using the text. Check with your vocational rehabilitation counselor and/or the college’s Disabled Student Service office regarding funding for your books in Braille or other alternative formats.

These are just a few of the many tips and tricks that allow blind students to be successful in science and chemistry courses. To any blind student considering going into a science or engineering field, I say, go for it!

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