by Ashley Neybert
From the Editor: Ashley is a gifted student who not only enjoys the study of chemistry but has taken as one of her missions in the National Federation of the Blind encouraging other blind people to enter the field. Here is what she says about the challenges of virtual learning for the blind chemist and some paths leading to a solution:
Many of us know that the National Federation of the Blind has been at the forefront of leveling the playing field for the blind in science through programs such as STEM-EQ, the division of scientists and engineers, and several scholarships for blind students seeking to become scientists and science teachers of the future. We appreciate the pioneering spirit of those who have come before and now are blind chemists and members of the Federation. Their proud ranks include Dr. Jacob Bolotin, also known as the blind doctor; Dr. Cary Supalo; Dr. Ned Lindholm; and Dr. Alfred D’Agastino. I suspect there are others of whom I am not aware, but all have made a measurable contribution to blind people as scientists by functioning in the field and by encouraging others who have the determination to do the same.
Now as the coronavirus continues to keep us in our homes and keep us socially distant, many blind students are facing a brand-new challenge in science; that challenge is remote learning. Since the pandemic, sighted students have turned to inaccessible web-based science simulations, nondescriptive or even silent videos, and in-the-home designed laboratory activities using household materials. These are all largely inaccessible, leaving blind students behind on their science learning experiences compared to their sighted counterparts.
Our students want to be involved and not once again consigned to the backseat of science-learning that we have worked so hard to eradicate. But many of our traditional learning methods in sciences are difficult during this time. Many teachers have turned to inaccessible videos. Luckier students have teachers that use some accessible science simulations such as Labster or PhET, which are two of the more commonly used web-based science resources around the world. Recently these organizations have made a concerted effort to make their online science simulations more accessible to blind students. Additionally, a few students have been lucky enough to get accessible at-home science experiments to complete. Unfortunately, all of these pale in comparison to a true hands-on laboratory experience.
Recently though the ability to have a more improved remote laboratory experience has arrived. In order to achieve this, the teacher must have a computer with the JAWS screen reader from Vispero installed, an external speaker, a Sci-Voice Talking LabQuest from Independence Science with associated probes, any necessary experimental equipment (beakers etc.), and the LabQuest Viewer program from Vernier Software and Technology. The student needs only a computer with the JAWS screen reader installed.
First a teacher in a laboratory or other experimental area will turn on the LabQuest Viewer software while JAWS is running on their computer. The teacher needs to have the Talking LabQuest, probes for the experiment, and any other necessary experimental equipment. The Talking LabQuest will be interfaced with the LabQuest Viewer program on the teacher’s computer, which shows everything shown on the Talking LabQuest device on the teacher’s computer. The teacher then allows access to their computer via a JAWS Tandem session and gives the student the access code for their end of the JAWS Tandem session. Once this is done the student assumes a directed assistant approach where they tell the teacher what they want done on the experiment while the student operates the Talking LabQuest using the same keyboard commands that they would use if they were doing the laboratory work themselves.
This is useful not only in remote learning situations, but it also opens up possibilities for blind students to interact with advanced technology not available in the school setting. It has been common practice for several years now that sighted students have been able to interface with equipment remotely in a professional laboratory environment. This allows students a glimpse into a professional environment while allowing these companies to scout bright students to be their future employees. With this new capability for remote learning, a blind student could now take part in such job scouting activities, further proving to the public that the blind can be effective science employees while allowing students in economically challenged school districts to be able to work with equipment that previously was not possible.
While this does not replace the hands-on experience, it is a huge step forward to equalizing the field of science to blind participants. While the author is an employee of Independence Science, she is also a blind chemist herself and has hopes that this leap forward will inspire other companies to make their equipment more accessible to the blind.