American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)       LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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Unlocking the Impossible

by Deborah Kent Stein

Arianna Benally carefully studies a dissected starfish during STEM2U Phoenix.In my high school chemistry class there were twenty-seven students, and the teacher divided us into teams for our weekly laboratory sessions. Twelve of the teams were pairs of students, but on my team there were three of us--two sighted students and me. In the course of the year I never touched a beaker or a Bunsen burner. I never once measured or stirred or poured. It was my job, the teacher told me, to record the data my teammates produced. Otherwise I was expected to keep safely out of the way.

Math classes weren't much better. In algebra I listened to the scratch of chalk on the blackboard as the teacher explained, "Just put this in that column, multiply it by X, put your result down here, and divide it by Y. See how easy this is?"

For generations teachers have told blind students that math and science are "visual subjects." In truth there is seldom anything inherently visual about a given area of study. However, visual teaching methods can exclude blind students from the learning opportunities they need and deserve. The achievements of blind people in science, technology, engineering, and math prove over and over that eyesight is not a prerequisite for insight in the STEM fields.

Since my regrettable experiences with high school math and science, I have encountered an impressive gallery of blind scientists and mathematicians from the past three centuries. Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739), totally blind since infancy, taught mathematics at Cambridge University and was regarded as one of the leading theoreticians of his day. More than a century before Louis Braille invented his reading system, Saunderson developed a tactile method for doing mathematical calculations. Francois Huber (1750-1831), blind from cataracts by age fifteen, spent his life studying the social structure of the honeybee colony. Ralph Teetor (1890-1982), who was blind from birth, invented the first cruise control system for the automobile. Physiologist Jacques le Magnen (1916-2002) lost his sight after he contracted encephalitis at thirteen. He became a pioneer in the study of taste and olfaction. For these and countless others, blindness was not an impediment to original thinking.

This issue of Future Reflections focuses on STEM education and careers. Educators Marilyn Winograd and Lillian Rankel suggest science experiments that can be conducted by young blind children, and paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij shares how his parents encouraged him to explore the natural world. Kane Brolin and Ameenah Ghoston write about their STEM-related careers, and hobbyist Frederick Noesner explains how he unraveled the engineering behind a wooden clock built in 1835. Natalie Shaheen describes a series of STEM enrichment programs for blind youth sponsored by the NFB Jernigan Institute through a generous grant from the National Science Foundation.

In all of their endeavors, blind people in the STEM fields have been boldly creative. In many instances they have invented the tools they need in order to advance their learning. I hope that the articles in this issue will encourage parents and teachers to lead the next generation of blind students to question, explore, and discover. I hope the blind students of today and tomorrow will no longer be relegated to the sidelines, but will have a wealth of hands-on opportunities inside and beyond the STEM classroom. May they approach STEM with a spirit of adventure.

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