Braille Monitor                                                    January 2010

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Working to Empower Blind Students
to Participate Fully and Independently in Science Classrooms and Laboratories

by Cary A. Supalo

Cary Supalo instructs a blind student in the Tyndall effect using a sensor to measure the density of a liquid.From the Editor: The following article was adapted from remarks Cary Supalo made at a press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on July 20, 2009. He is completing a doctorate in chemistry at Penn State University and is a leader in the NFB of Pennsylvania. This is what he said:

I lost the sight in my left eye when I was eighteen months old, and the eye was removed. I lost the sight in my remaining eye when I was seven years old. In short, I went to bed one evening and woke up the next day with no primary vision. I could still see objects and shades of color, but my ability to read print was gone. My parents took me to the eye doctor and found out that a blood vessel had hemorrhaged in my eye, causing my retina to detach.

At the time not much could be done to repair the damage. It’s possible that, if it had happened today, it might have been repairable, but over time the retina and the related brain cells died, and, as you probably know, brain tissue does not easily regenerate. Now my only hope for restoring my vision would be a complete eye transplant, but the state of medical science is years away from making such an operation feasible.

As a result of my experiences as a child, I developed a strong interest in medical terminology and scientific discovery. I hoped to go to medical school and possibly conduct the key research to restore my vision. However, once I discovered that biology classes entailed animal dissections, I switched my studies to chemistry. While a struggling undergraduate student at Purdue University, I was mentored by both faculty members and graduate students in the chemistry department, and they encouraged me to keep working hard on my chemistry, saying that I would eventually understand it if I worked hard enough. They were right.

I advanced from one chemistry class to another. I often conducted my laboratory activities simply by working with another person in the class but more commonly with an undergraduate student not enrolled in the class but paid an hourly wage to assist me. This is called the director-assisted approach to handling laboratory equipment. These paid assistants acted as my eyes and hands in the laboratory, carrying out the instructions I gave them, regardless of whether or not I was correct. Only when I instructed them to implement an unsafe procedure would they ask me to rethink that step. This rarely happened.

The director-assisted approach worked well for me throughout my undergraduate years and into my graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University. While working toward my master’s degree, I took an interest in inorganic chemistry and was included on a research project making transition-metal-supported catalysts for various reactions, including the water-gas-shift reaction and the dehydrogenation of toluene to methylcyclohexane. Eventually I began researching the methanol-steam-reforming reaction. It was this research that caused me to encounter the limitations of my traditional approach to working in the laboratory.

With catalysis, any small variation in technique can introduce new variables. Since I had up to five undergraduate students assisting me at any one time and they each had their own variations in technique, they all introduced their own variables. These differences might involve something as simple as the way the reagents were stirred together or the way they were poured into the reaction crucibles.

Although I completed my master of science in inorganic chemistry, my results were not anything to write home about, so I never published any of this work. Since the statistical analyses of my final results indicated no actual relationship between the variables I had selected, the only real conclusion I could draw was that relying on the director-assisted approach in the laboratory had clearly had a negative impact on my work.

This led my research advisor, Dr. Thomas E. Mallouk, and me to think of ways I could be more independent in the laboratory as I entered the PhD program at Penn State. I also recruited a group of other experts to assist in this effort, including Dr. H. David Wohlers, a blind chemistry professor at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and Alan Roth, a science teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis, Indiana. We began discussing accessibility concerns in science classrooms and laboratories.

We decided to interface commercially available science probes from Vernier Software & Technology with the JAWS screen reader and script them to work with Vernier’s Logger Pro data collection software package. This project became the Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind (ILAB) at Penn State University, which I conceived, helped found, and currently manage. The research was funded for three years by the National Science Foundation. We worked with Mr. Roth’s science classes to collect feedback on our efforts, then received funding for another three years to expand our work into mainstream classrooms. We have since advanced the tool functionality to include real-time probe readings, data table navigation, reading of x-y Cartesian graphs, and access to statistical information on data collection runs.

As of early 2009, the only way a school could obtain these new technologies was by being a participating institution in the ongoing ILAB project. Consequently, I started my own company, Independence Science LLC, based in Lafayette, Indiana, in March of 2009, to find a way to support the development of new technologies once NSF funding concludes in 2010. The firm is a licensed Vernier Software & Technology distributor and offers the interface with the JAWS screen reader and consulting services for training on this equipment to students, science teachers, and outreach staff members throughout the United States and internationally. In fact, the company recently formed a partnership with the Torres Foundation for the Blind in Trinidad.

The goal of Independence Science LLC is to provide cutting-edge access technologies to empower blind students to increase their roles in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions. Providing this underrepresented population of lifelong problem solvers with the technologies they need to apply their skills to scientific problems is opening new doors of opportunity for the blind. Educators and students need to know that people with blindness or low vision can take fully active roles in science education and the science professions once they have the right tools in their hands.

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