STEM Education Can Be Accessible—And Fun!
by Madeline Mau
There are many things middle school science classes might be known for: long lectures, zany teachers in periodic table t-shirts, or group labs devolving into good-natured horseplay among classmates. My science education had some of those things (mostly the former), but there was an even bigger component many people overlooked: the inaccessibility of STEM education. Since early childhood, I had been given a science education far less adapted for my learning needs than that of my sighted peers. This manifested in a myriad of ways; teachers using inaccessible materials, sloppy or nonexistent tactile graphics, reduced opportunities for my participation in labs, and my needs being given less importance by the teacher, to name a few. These patterns caused me to become apprehensive about pursuing STEM as a career or subjecting myself to more rigorous STEM education, as I feared all of it would be similar to what I had previous experience with.
My freshman year of high school was filled with similar hurdles and challenges as my middle school career. However, I started gaining a new perspective when I enrolled in the National Federation of the Blind's STEM EQ program for high school students earlier this summer. As I am writing this, the program is in its last week. The curriculum is rigorous, with many activities devoted to developing spatial reasoning skills through technical drawing, paper folding, and puzzle-solving. My peers and I were given many challenging assignments that encouraged us to reframe how we thought about STEM as a whole through conversations with blind STEM professionals and resources about blind people in STEM fields. We were also provided many manipulatives to participate in hands-on activities like folding origami boxes, making fractals out of index cards, and drawing multi-view sketches of various objects in our daily lives. There were also ample opportunities for combining spatial reasoning with recreation, like when we were encouraged to build LEGOS with non-visual instructions or given origami pop-up books to deconstruct and analyze. Though this curriculum contained vastly different activities compared to my standard science education, it has proven to be far more valuable. It introduced me to advanced spatial reasoning concepts, gave me transferable skills I could use in my mainstream classes, and showed me how fulfilling accessible STEM could be, complete with advice from successful blind professionals.
After reflecting on my experiences in the NFB EQ program, I still don't know if STEM truly is for me. I worry a lot about what my future science education will look like, or if higher-level STEM classes will be accessible so I can succeed. However, I now understand how STEM can become more than inaccessible experiments or inflexible teachers. I've been fortunate to experience how an accessible and engaging science education can boost confidence and open up new possibilities for myself and my blind peers, and I hope others will have easy access to such opportunities in the future.