American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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SABER Final Outcomes Report

by Seth Lamkin

From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind has long recognized that blind people need access to employment in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In this article, an edited version of a report submitted to the National Science Foundation, Seth Lamkin reports on the Federation's initiatives to open opportunities in STEM education for blind students.

At the 2019 NFB EQ program, a participant tactually explores a wooden model as instructor Wayne Goodridge explains perspective.The NFB's Spatial Ability and Blind Engineering Research project (SABER), in partnership with Utah State University and the Science Museum of Minnesota, was a five-year effort to broaden the participation of blind and low-vision youth in STEM. The project delivered informal STEM programming for blind youth, refined and published that programming in a free and nonvisually accessible online medium, created a new and unique instrument by which spatial ability can be tested nonvisually, and disseminated scientific and consumer-oriented publications and presentations to a variety of audiences.  

NFB Engineering Quotient (EQ), the primary programmatic component, was a one-week engineering program for blind youth ages fourteen through twenty-two. Supported by project partners and blind adult mentors, these youth planned, designed, built, and tested through a hands-on, iterative process. Participants mastered the basics of tactile engineering drafting, including multi-view drawings and pictorial drawings; calculating and visualizing force propagation in a structure; and basic truss analysis. They also spoke with blind engineers to learn how they mastered their craft, what alternative techniques they use, and what obstacles they overcame and how.

Project leaders developed workarounds to ensure full participation for blind youth in engineering activities, including a tactile multi-view drawing manipulative, models of post and beam construction, a column tester, nonvisually accessible construction jigs, and more.

The programs normalized nonvisual ways of learning and knowing so that participants felt safe and respected in a positive, affirming environment. In the majority of their learning experiences, blind youth are forced to conform to sighted methodologies. These methodologies limit their ability to absorb knowledge and are harmful to their feelings of self-worth, diminishing what they believe they can accomplish. For example, many participants reported that they had had limited access to hands-on STEM experiences prior to NFB EQ. Evaluation data showed that the program contributed to a better understanding of engineering, an increased interest in studying science and engineering, and a better sense of career goals. One participant told evaluators, "I am the only blind person at my school, and this week was so inspiring, meeting and talking with so many other blind people like me. This program allowed me to engage in, gain a better understanding of, and apply real engineering concepts. It was so satisfying to learn these concepts and then do something using the concepts."

A participant examines a wooden model inside a plexiglass box. The box has tactile diagrams showing each side of the object, teaching the concept of a multi-view drawing.The NFB EQ for Teachers: A Nonvisual and Accessible Engineering Curriculum, is now available as a free, open educational resource. It consists of lesson plans, tactile graphics files, Braille-ready files, and other resources that facilitate accessible engineering instruction. While created for blind learners, the lessons can also be facilitated with sighted learners, and the curriculum is completely accessible for use by blind educators and parents. STEM-learning toolkits for parents of blind children include STEM skill-building activities, DIY (do-it-yourself) adaptations, and additional resources appropriate for youth, ranging from preschool to high school learners.

Twelve peer-reviewed papers were published during and after the SABER initiatives. Several more articles were disseminated via consumer publications and blog posts. Additional papers are forthcoming. Numerous presentations at professional conferences and consumer organization conventions disseminated results to interested communities. For example, blind youth gave presentations at a number of conventions and meetings of blind professionals in STEM.

The Tactile Mental Cutting Test (T-MCT) was developed, tested, and refined with SABER participants and with youth and adults at conventions and agencies for the blind. The original mental cutting test, developed by the College Entrance Examination Board, was entirely visual. The T-MCT utilizes a set of three-dimensional models and tactile solution choices to represent the same experience in a nonvisual way. It is a multimodal tool that could benefit both blind and sighted individuals. It is documented as reliable and valid.

Broader Impacts

A participant takes the tactile mental cutting test (T-MCT), the instrument designed by SABER personnel to test spatial ability.The five-year SABER initiative has come to an end, but its results have a widening reach. Here are some ways that the SABER initiative is spreading ideas and resources to an ever wider audience.

The NFB EQ for Teachers Curriculum is now available. It is a free online resource for anyone to utilize in the education of blind youth.

Accessible STEM techniques have been integrated into an accessible technology course at Illinois State University (ISU), where Project Director Natalie Shaheen is an assistant professor. Through this program pre-service teachers of blind students will enter the field with the knowledge required to engage blind and low-vision students in STEM.

Undergraduate and graduate assistants under co-principal investigator Dr. Wade Goodridge are now pursuing research on spatial ability as it relates to blind and low-vision youth and adults.

Tactile graphics and tactile graphic conventions developed for the program have been shared informally with science educators and institutions of higher education.

A greater understanding of spatial language and how to deliver nonvisual instruction to blind youth over web-conferencing platforms has been developed and disseminated.

Participants in the NSF-funded Advancing Research Impacts in Society (ARIS) Summit attended presentations and staffed interactive exhibit tables at the NFB's headquarters. Dr. Shaheen gave the keynote address and Dr. Goodridge connected with faculty interested in using the T-MCT and collaborating on future spatial research centered on accessibility.

Several universities and science institutions have benefited from accessible techniques and lessons. Spin-off collaborations are underway.

For further information, visit the following websites:

NFB EQ For Teachers: A Nonvisual and Accessible Engineering Curriculum: https://nfb.org/programs-services/education/national-center-blind-youth-science/nfb-eq/nfb-eq-teachers

NFB EQ for Parents: A STEM Learning Toolkit for Parents of Blind Children: https://nfb.org/programs-services/education/national-center-blind-youth-science/nfb-eq/nfb-eq-parents

To access free versions of the publications that came from this project, you can use this link, which will take you to the NSF publication repository search results for our award: https://par.nsf.gov/search/term:1712887.

Disclaimer: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1712887. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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