by Arielle Silverman
Editors' Introduction: It is no mystery that our country spends a large amount of money to enhance interest and study in the areas of math and science. The average student might be persuaded to enter these fields. However, for a blind student, such interests might be inhibited by the misconception that blind people can't play an active role in a science lab.
Arielle Silverman is a senior at Arizona State University, majoring in Biology and Psychology. She plans to pursue graduate work in social psychology. She is the president of AABS, as well as a member of the state aphiliates board. In this article, she proves the hypothesis that blind students really can dedicate their talents to whatever field they choose.
One October afternoon about two years ago, my biology lab received a rather interesting assignment. We were divided into groups of four and given an aquarium containing ten crickets. We were to observe the crickets for ten minutes; then, we were to design and carry out an experiment testing some notable aspect of the crickets' behavior.
The crickets made little noise besides their characteristic chirping, so most of our observations were visual. Though I could not see the crickets, I was working with three energetic girls who provided a detailed explanation of the crickets' every move. Before long, all four of us noted a pattern: The females eagerly jumped on top of both each other and the males, but the males did not seek physical contact with others. Therefore, we decided to vary the ratio of males to females and observe how frequently the crickets jumped on top of one another. I did not physically manipulate the crickets, but I was involved in the design of the experiment, and I recorded the data in my Braille Note. Sure enough, as we added female crickets to the mix, the number of "touching events" between the crickets increased. This finding by itself might not be very exciting, but it was a good example of the scientific method, which is what college science labs are really about.
As a biology major, I have now completed two biology and two chemistry labs. Before starting college, I worried about how I, as a totally blind student, could participate actively in the labs. After all, I cannot read chemical bottles or measuring instruments, nor can I look at cells under a microscope. However, I discovered that lab work is not about sight but about understanding and applying the science. By using what I learned in the lecture portions of my biology and chemistry classes, I found that I could participate in the labs along with my sighted classmates.
Most of the labs were done in groups, so my main strategy was to understand the material at least as well as my lab partners. By doing this, I could both help and lead my group in planning our experiments and interpreting our data. In addition, I was always expected to pull my weight in writing the lab reports, even sections that were graphical in nature.
A few of our lab assignments were individual. For these, I chose to work with a science graduate student that my university hired as a lab assistant. For example, the assistant helped me when I needed to know how a chemical solution looked or when I had to present my data on a poster. Some assignments, though, were fully accessible without the assistant. In one project, I grew corn plants in my dorm room and tested whether praying would affect the height of the plants. I measured the main leaf of each corn plant using a Braille ruler and compared the lengths of the prayed-for and not-prayed-for plants. It was fun to gather my own data without any sighted assistance. While I enjoyed working with the hired lab assistant, I think that I could have done just as well on my own or if I had hired my own reader.
Looking back, I would say that my lab courses were challenging, not because of my blindness, but because labs are meant to stretch one's thinking skills. The labs have taught me much about biology and chemistry. More importantly, though, they have showed me that a blind student can participate actively in any course. The most important technique for any student, blind or sighted, is to study hard and be familiar with the course material. Once that is achieved, the rest is just a matter of creativity and, sometimes, teamwork.
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