American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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A Place of One's Own: The 2019 STEM EQ Program in Baltimore

by Natalie Shaheen

From the Editor: The NFB has long recognized that blind students face serious challenges in gaining access to opportunities in mathematics and the sciences, due to the emphasis on visual learning when these subjects are taught in mainstream classrooms. For more than a decade the NFB has hosted summer opportunities in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), showing blind students that they are capable of pursuing STEM studies and careers. In this article, project director Natalie Shaheen describes the most recent NFB STEM program, the 2019 STEM EQ.

Mara Oneichu sits at a drafting board, using a print/Braille ruler.In June 2019 I was thrilled to join thirty blind high school students who gathered at NFB headquarters in Baltimore for a week of learning and fun in STEM EQ. STEM, of course, stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and EQ refers to "engineering quotient." Made possible through a generous grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), STEM EQ gives blind students hands-on experience in the STEM fields. The NSF grant provides for STEM EQ programs in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and for two programs to be held in 2021. Each program focuses on structural engineering.

Structural engineering is sometimes described as the practical side of architecture. Architects are largely concerned with aesthetic effect when they design a building. They think about how people will use the space, and they try to design places that will meet human needs. Using architectural blueprints, structural engineers figure out how the building actually can be constructed. What sort of interior beams and braces will be needed to keep the structure intact? How can the floors be made strong enough to withstand the weight they must carry? Can the building survive if an earthquake strikes?

"What would you build if you could create a place of your own?" This was the framing question we asked the students for the 2018 and 2019 STEM EQ programs. The students let their imaginations rove freely, and each of them came up with an idea. Whether it was a recording studio, a carpentry workshop, or a country getaway, each building had to meet a given set of criteria and constraints. Criteria are things that a design must do, and constraints are things it cannot do. For example, one criterion was that the place must be an enclosed space. It could not be a gazebo with open sides or an amphitheater open to the sky. A constraint was that the place couldn't exceed 130 square feet. If you build a structure of less than 150 square feet, usually you don't need to get a permit.

Few of the students had ever been exposed to drawing. They had almost no experience examining or creating pictures or diagrams of any kind. Once they decided on the building they wanted, they began to experiment with designs. Instead of drawing their designs they worked with a variety of arts and crafts supplies. They built "scratch models" with toothpicks, pipe cleaners, construction paper, aluminum foil and other materials.

At the next stage, the students were introduced to some of the disciplines they needed as structural engineers. They tried some basic drawing with the Sensational Blackboard. They learned what engineers mean when they refer to an orthographic projection or an isometric perspective.

Jesse Fung conducts an experiment to determine the amount of stress on building materials.One kind of technical drawing the students learned to read and create is called a multi-view drawing. A multi-view drawing allows someone else to understand the place you want to build. Usually a building can be shown by drawing three views: a top view, a front view, and a right side view. The students had to create multi-view drawings for their structures. Students and instructors worked out tactile conventions to represent the specific line types used by architects and engineers. In determining these tactile conventions, they tried to stick as closely as possible to the conventions that are used in visual drawings. This system is a work in progress! We're still trying to figure out the best way to represent the nuances of visual drawings in a tactile format.

One of the constraints the students had to keep in mind was that their buildings had to be able to support the weight of heavy snow. In fact, each building had to be strong enough to hold the amount of snow that might fall during a winter in Alaska! To calculate the strength of their buildings, the students learned about force propagation, the ways that forces move through a structure. If five feet of snow is piled on the roof, how is all that weight distributed throughout the building? As they worked out these calculations, the students discovered the practical value of studying math, especially trigonometry.

All of the students did the mathematical calculations for their own structures. For some, who had never had proper access to the material in their math classes, these calculations presented real challenges. Many of the structures were fairly basic in form—rectangles, squares, or pentagons. Others were highly unusual. One student designed a structure with nineteen sides!

With the guidance of David Neitfeld, the woodworking instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), the students next created scale models of their structures. According to the scale, one inch represented one foot, so a building that would be 130 feet wide when completed would be 13 inches wide as a model. To build their models, the students used balsa wood and worked with some basic hand tools. 

By Friday, the final day of the program, each of the students had a set of "deliverables" to display. These deliverables were as follows:

The students displayed their work at a grand expo on Friday. NFB staff members, parents, and members of the community visited one display after another. Everyone asked questions and marveled at the ingenuity the students had shown.

Natalie Shaheen leads a group of STEM EQ students as they explore the Jerusalem Mill Living History Museum in Kingston, Maryland.In the 2019 STEM EQ program we were very fortunate to have outstanding instructors. Wade Goodridge from Utah State University has worked with NFB science programs for the past six years. He began his career teaching industrial arts at the high school level, and he later moved on to become a hydraulic engineer. Although he is sighted and had no experience with blind people before he came to the NFB, from the beginning he was comfortable with the young people in our STEM programs. He brought two of his graduate students to the 2019 STEM EQ.

Peter Anderson was another STEM EQ instructor. He develops programs at the Science Museum in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ann Cunningham, a tactile artist who teaches art at the CCB, shared her expertise in raised-line drawing. Another instructor was Melissa Lomax, who formerly coordinated programs for blind youth through BISM (Blind Industries and Services of Maryland). Chris Meyer and Daniel Belding, both from Indiana, served as blind mentors.

Although they couldn't join us in person, several blind professionals spoke with the students via Skype. Blind engineer Nathanael Wales and blind architect Chris Downey shared their experiences and strategies for the workforce. Alexander Richmond, a blind student majoring in civil engineering at the University of Alabama, and Mark Colasurdo, a blind doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, explained how they handle classwork and projects. Many of the STEM EQ students felt that these conversations were the high point of the week.

Our thirty STEM EQ students were a richly diverse group. They came from nineteen states and one U.S. territory, Guam. They ranged in age from fourteen to nineteen. Sixteen identified as female and fourteen as male. Eighteen described themselves as Caucasian and twelve as coming from other racial backgrounds.

At every NFB STEM program it is exciting to watch the students grow and change, even in so short a time. One of our students was very strong in math and had no trouble with any of the calculations. However, he had never worked with tools. He had been told that carpentry was out of the question for him because of his low vision. At the end of STEM EQ, he announced that he would start to do woodworking when he got home. Now he knew that his blindness did not prevent him from using tools.

The student from Guam had been sheltered in many ways. Few opportunities had been available to her growing up. Yet her family allowed her to make the twenty-four-hour journey from home, changing planes three times to get to Baltimore. Making that journey was an achievement in itself!    

The students worked hard to design their buildings and create their models for the expo. But there is always time for fun at NFB events, and STEM EQ was no exception. One evening the students went to a state park and played beep baseball. On other evenings they went shopping, played board games, or just hung around getting to know each other. By the time they scattered to their homes across the country and over the Pacific, they had made new friends and become members of our NFB family.

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