Release Date: 
Monday, July 30, 2007
John G. Paré Jr.
Director of Public Relations
National Federation of the Blind
(410) 659-9314, extension 2218
(410) 913-3912 (Cell)

Innovative New Nonvisual Teaching Techniques to be Unveiled at Youth Slam 

National Federation of the Blind and Johns Hopkins Collaborate to Train Future Blind Scientists

Baltimore, Maryland (July 30, 2007): Cary Supalo was fascinated by math and science growing up, but his attempts to participate fully in his science classes were usually thwarted.  Because he was blind, teachers did not believe that Supalo could safely perform laboratory experiments; he recalls that he was not even allowed to wash lab equipment.  But Supalo has proved his teachers wrong; he is now a PhD candidate in chemistry and has developed his own nonvisual techniques for completing his assignments.

The National Federation of the Blind wants to make sure that other blind students who are inclined towards science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields do not have to struggle as Supalo did.  Working with faculty and students at Johns Hopkins University, the NFB has developed new teaching techniques that will allow blind students to gain hands-on experience in these subjects.  Next week, these innovative tools and techniques will be demonstrated on a large scale as two hundred blind high school students from across the nation come to Baltimore for the National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam.  The students will conduct hands-on experiments in fields ranging from rocketry and astronomy to biology and environmental chemistry.  They will use nonvisual techniques to learn where objects are located in the night sky and how geckos climb walls without falling.  Computers will speak the data from probes used in chemical experiments aloud to the students and verbalize the information transmitted from weather balloons that they launch.

"One experiment we'll perform," says assistant professor Michael Yu, who will be presenting lectures on the role of collagen in the human body, "is turning a powder collagen into a gel-like structure, sort of like Jell-O.  For the final project, students will make a 3-D picture, called a 'swell form,' out of an image. This picture is a format the students can actually feel and 'see,' " explains Yu, who teaches in the Materials Science and Engineering department at Johns Hopkins.

“These students will perform scientific experiments using nonvisual techniques," says graduate student Benjamin Tang, who is currently pursuing his PhD in chemical and bio-molecular engineering at Johns Hopkins and is working on the Youth Slam through a GK-12 fellowship from the National Science Foundation.  “A major part of science is observation, and so the trick is to find ways in which observations that are normally visual can be conveyed nonvisually.”

Tiffani Clements, a high school student from Ramona, California, says: “I am very excited to have the opportunity to perform actual scientific experiments, since I have always been interested in science.  I am particularly interested in rocketry and astronomy, and I have always wondered how weather is forecast.”

“By teaching students scientific concepts in an environment that is completely accessible to them, we hope to broaden their interest in scientific study,” says Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which conceived the Youth Slam under the auspices of its National Center for Blind Youth in Science.  “We also want these young people to gain self-confidence and internalize the belief that they can pursue any course of study or career that they desire.”

“The National Federation of the Blind has high expectations for these young people, and we intend to raise the expectations they have for their own lives,” says Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind.  “Working with our partners at Johns Hopkins and other scientific institutions, we will not only provide these students with an unforgettable experience, but also demonstrate to the world that the blind are capable of success in fields which are falsely believed to be closed to them.  The Youth Slam will pave the way for expanded opportunity for future generations of blind students.”

In addition to Johns Hopkins University, Youth Slam activities are being conducted through partnerships with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the National Science Foundation; and United Parcel Service.  Instructional support is also being provided by Access Computing Alliance; Baltimore City Community College; the Maryland Space Grant Consortium; the Westminster Astronomical Society; You Can Do Astronomy, LLC; Humanware; and Freedom Scientific.

Sponsors of the Youth Slam and Youth March for Independence include Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; Pepsi; the American Honda Foundation; and the NEC Foundation of America, among others.

For more information about the Youth Slam, please visit