Braille Monitor               February 2024

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Eureka! It All Matters!

by Cary Supalo

Cary SupaloFrom the Editor: Dr. Cary Supalo is a research chemist, a consultant with Educational Testing Services (ETS), and the founder of Independence Science, a company that develops and markets tools that make science measurement equipment accessible to blind students. In his presentation at the 2023 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Supalo talked about the magic of science and how parents can help their children consider this a viable career option. This article originally appeared in the 2023 Convention Issue of Future Reflections, the newsletter for parents of blind children produced by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults.

Children often ask the question, what is science? As you can imagine, this question has many different answers. Science can simply mean investigating phenomena around us and seeking answers to scientific questions. To others it might mean trying to gain a greater understanding. And to others, it might mean applying the scientific method to try to understand and explain a phenomenon. I think a simple definition would be fundamental problem solving. How can we ask scientific questions and answer them? This fundamental critical thinking skill set can and usually does go beyond scientific questions. Your child can use this valuable life skill to figure out how to go from Point A to Point B. It might also mean for your child what to do to make a chocolate cake from scratch, or to explore plant life in the back yard. Do you see where I am going with this? Fundamental problem solving is at the core of what scientists do for a living.

Moving on, chemistry is the study of matter. There are different branches of chemistry. Some of these branches are organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and physical or theoretical chemistry. Many blind people tend to go into the theoretical realm of chemistry. This area of chemistry involves lots of complex computations that are usually done on a computer. However, most chemists are experimentalists. These are the ones who get to design experiments and conduct all kinds of chemical reactions and perform extensive diagnostic tests, depending on the theory being evaluated.

In my graduate research at Penn State University, I studied inorganic chemistry, which is the study of the transition metals or the D block elements on the Periodic Table. My research interest involved the synthesis of different transition metal-supported catalysts. We were investigating how hydrogen gas could be produced from different organic materials for the purposes of serving as an alternative fuel source. I worked in conjunction with researchers from Universal Oil Products and other chemical engineers from the Illinois Institute of Technology in downtown Chicago.

Much of the research instrumentation I was expected to work with was not accessible with any access technology. Therefore, I had to come up with work-arounds. My primary tool at that time, in the early 2000s, was a human research assistant. I will simply call this assistant a lab technician, or lab tech for short. I had to recruit my lab techs from the pool of undergraduate chemistry and other science majors. I interviewed and hired them, and in some cases fired them when things did not work out well. These individuals were paid a decent wage for undergraduate students. I was able to work out a funding structure for their pay. My research advisor, the chemistry department, and the office for student disability services each paid one-third of the assistant's wage. Thus the financial obligation was spread around so I could get the hours I needed to do my work.

I always needed to have several lab techs available in case someone called in sick. Sometimes exams would get a little overwhelming during a particular week, and thus the techs were unable to work. Lab tech time was almost always scheduled in advance, but sometimes the research experiments required working at non-normal hours, i.e., at 2:00 a.m. Scientific discovery does not always work on a schedule that is convenient to us, but rather when Mother Nature says the discovery will be revealed to us as scientists. It is up to us both to be there and to recognize the discovery when it happens, and of course to document observations and other key data.

Next, I will mention the documenting of observations. Blind people need to have good ways to take and keep organized notes. I use electronic notetakers. However, the slate and stylus is also a popular method. Some may record observations on a computer or smart tablet device. Whatever the tool, the important thing is for a blind person to have an accessible way to record their own observations.

Also, blind people need to know what is and is not important. We must know what types of clarification questions to ask at the appropriate times with minimal, if any, disruption.

We must also have good communication skills and develop an innate ability to read other people's behavior through inflections in voice and direction of speaking. Overall, we must know how attentive others are to what we are saying.

Another challenge is to communicate visually by drawing visual graphics. Many blind students like to describe graphics in words. This tends to be all right for a blind audience, but for sighted colleagues in a scientific meeting, this method does not often go over very well. Being able to draw graphical representations using raised-line drawing kits is a good starting skill to develop. This method may eventually transition to drawing on whiteboards for groups of people.

I had the pleasure of serving as an assistant professor of chemistry at a state university. I was asked to teach first-year general chemistry lab courses and upper-level science education methods courses for future teachers. My ability to draw molecular structures, chemical equations, and other mathematical calculations on a whiteboard helped my instruction a great deal. My students tended to be very vocal if I did not write something clearly!

I also was expected to grade lots of handwritten homework, lab reports, and quizzes. I accomplished this by employing a human reader who read the response to each question, and I assigned the points that were properly earned. Eventually I was assigned a grader to assist me with the application of rubrics and other answer keys that I prepared.

In the end, a lot of what was required to serve as a faculty member was good time management, the ability to use alternative skills of blindness, and the capacity to think outside the box. A blind faculty member must figure out how to access information which, by its very nature, is not innately accessible.

Now, why is all of this relevant to you? Some of you are wondering, how can my son or daughter succeed in science? I will say that science is not for everyone. However, for a long time, blind students were discouraged from pursuing science careers at all. We were told that science is too visual, or that lab work is not safe. A teacher might simply say, "I have no idea how you can do this work."

I am here to ask you today if your child has an interest in science. One good indicator is they ask lots of inquisitive questions about why things are the way they are. Or maybe they like doing math problems. Or they like animals and/or going to science museums. The key thing for you as parents is to encourage them and keep them engaged in science activities. Enroll them in enrichment programs, take them to science museums where they can take part in firsthand, engaging activities. Sometimes if you can get a group of blind students together to go to a science museum and let the staff know several weeks in advance, they can arrange a special hands-on session for you. It just requires a little planning. Once you have done this, please write about your experiences for Future Reflections. Share your ideas with other parents about things they can do to keep their children engaged in science activities.

With regards to IEP meetings, I have learned in recent times that it is important to document the types of access technology your child will be using in their classes. For your information, multi-line refreshable Braille devices are coming in the extremely near future. You can see some of them on display in the exhibit hall at this convention. It is expected that these devices will be commercially available within the coming school year. If you want your child to have the use of these technologies for their schoolwork and their K-12 standardized tests, make sure these technologies are mentioned in their IEP.

Finally, I want to circle back to my initial message. Scientists perform fundamental problem solving each and every day. No two days are ever alike. If you can learn how to ask good questions, you can be a scientist. If you can learn how to apply the scientific method and use data to answer questions, you can become a scientist. Knowing your blindness skills, leveraging human assistance when necessary, and understanding the limitations of access technologies is just as important as what access technology can do. If your child can learn to do all of these things as they mature, they will be able to pursue almost any career path they choose. I hope that some of them will want to study science. Not all of them will, and that is all right. It's one thing for them to choose not to pursue science as a career; it's quite another thing for them to be told they cannot study science, that science is out of reach for them because they are blind.

I am going to end with one of my favorite quotations from a famous 1980s movie, Back to the Future. "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Thank you very much.

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