To learn and work in STEM fields, you must have content knowledge and the skills to do the work of that field—to conduct experiments, to engineer solutions, to develop algorithms. The term process skills has been used by some scholars to define the skills required to do STEM. For example, Padilla (1990) categorized science process skills into basic (e.g., observing, measuring, communicating) and integrated (e.g., interpreting data, experimenting, formulating models).
The way that blind and sighted people execute STEM process skills is different. The differences in how blind and sighted people execute these skills is most pronounced for embodied skills, the tasks that require physical engagement and manipulation. For example, sighted scientists and engineers take raw data and render it as visual images to interpret the meaning of the data. Blind scientists and engineers take raw data and render it into nonvisual formats such as tactile graphics, 3D prints, and sonification. Both blind and sighted scientists interpret data; the blind scientist touches and listens, and the sighted scientist looks.
In the video below, blind STEM professionals explain a variety of nonvisual STEM process skills that they use.
Specific Skills Used in this Curriculum
A variety of nonvisual STEM process skills are used throughout the NFB EQ Curriculum. Below you will find descriptions of each skill.
Setting Up Your Workspace
There are many ways you can setup a workspace for nonvisual STEM labs and activities. Over the years, we have found some organizational approaches to be particularly effective at supporting nonvisual work.
- Trays: Large trays are excellent tools for defining the workspace, particularly at large tables or lab benches where several people are working in close proximity. Any large tray can serve this purpose. Half sheet pans (13 by 18 inches) are often the perfect size; they are small enough to not encroach on others’ workspace and provide enough space for materials.
- Everything in its Place: Giving each material and tool a home in your workspace and returning items to their home after use eliminates the need to use short term memory to recall where you set a tool.
- Stowing Tools: Blind people explore workspaces to locate items by lightly skimming their hands over the work surface. Stowing sharp and hot tools away ensures the workspace is safe for tactile exploration. For example, at NFB EQ, we stowed tools that were not in use in the following ways
- Hot glue guns were stowed in coffee cans with the hot tip in the bottom of the can and the handle at the mouth of the can. By stowing the hot glue guns in a coffee can, students could be confident that they would not inadvertently touch the hot tip of a glue gun while exploring the workspace tactually. Moreover, students knew when they reached into the mouth of the coffee can, they would find the cool handle of the glue gun, not the hot tip.
- Blades (saws, X-Acto knives, utility knives) were stowed under the cutting surface where possible. For example, X-Acto blades were slipped under the cutting mat leaving only the handle exposed. If the blade could not be stowed under the cutting surface, the tool was always set in the same place with the sharp part of the blade facing the outside of the workspace.
- Scissors and snips were stowed in the closed position, so the sharp blades were not exposed.
NFB EQ Lessons using these nonvisual workspace setup techniques include:
Nonvisual observation is any method of observing that does not utilize vision. In STEM, it’s common for blind people to observe tactually, auditorily, and even olfactorily. In the NFB EQ curriculum, tactual and auditory observation are the predominant nonvisual observation techniques.
Tactual Observation: When observing tactually, a blind person might use a few fingers, one or both hands, their whole body, or a tool (e.g., a cane). In the NFB EQ drawing lessons, for example, a student might use one hand to observe as they draw with the other hand to ensure their lines meet in the desired location. When exploring the full-size doghouse model in the Engineering Drafting and Multiview Drawing lesson, students might use their entire wingspan to observe the shape of the building. Finally, when something is too large, too small, or too dangerous to touch directly, blind students should use a tool for tactile observation. For example, when using hot glue to construct their scale model, students could use a craft stick to observe how much hot glue is on a surface, as touching the hot glue directly is likely to cause a burn. On a larger scale, if a student wanted to explore the roofline of a single story building directly, they could extend their cane (or a taller person’s cane) overhead to trace the roofline.
Auditory Observation: In the NFB EQ curriculum, auditory observation is primarily used in conjunction with the Sci-Voice Talking LabQuest in the Engineering 101 lesson. The Sci-Voice Talking LabQuest is a handheld laboratory computer with a built-in screen reader that announces data as it is collected. Below is a video of Dr. Supalo using the Sci-Voice Talking LabQuest and auditory observation.
NFB EQ Lessons using nonvisual observation techniques include:
- Tactual Observation
- Auditory Observation with SciVoice Talking LabQuest
Measuring is a nonvisual STEM process skill that is used heavily in the NFB EQ curriculum. Generally, blind people measure using a combination of nonvisual observation and an accessible instrument. Often, when measuring, one needs to make a mark at the desired location—blind people use a variety of approaches to create tactile marks. For example, when constructing the model of their structure out of balsa wood at NFB EQ, students often used their thumbnail to score the soft balsa wood. When using harder woods, blind carpenters often use an awl to scratch the wood. When working on paper, blind students can use a tactile drawing board, such as the Sensational Blackboard, or a tactile sticker, such as a small piece of craft foam.
There are three common instruments for measuring length: the Braille ruler, tactile calipers, and the click rule. The Braille ruler is the least precise tool of the bunch. The tactile calipers facilitate precise measurement to the 16th of an inch and, in skilled hands, the click rule facilitates precise measurement to the 32nd of an inch. Below are four videos demonstrating how to use the click rule for precise nonvisual measurement.
NFB EQ lessons using these nonvisual techniques for measuring length include:
- Intermediate Drawing
- Engineering Drafting and Multiview Drawing
- Forming Foundations, Fun with Forces
- The Roof System
- Forces in a Roof
- Engineering 101
Blind people use a Braille protractor to measure angles. The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a robust collection of videos about how to use a Braille protractor.
NFB EQ lessons using these nonvisual techniques for measuring angles include:
Blind people use accessible scales and balances to measure weight. Talking food scales are generally accurate to the gram and are, thus, a great solution for measurement tasks that do not require precision. Talking food scales are simple to use and are self-voicing.
When precision to the tenth or hundredth of a gram is required, the OHAUS Scout® series of balances are the most accessible tools. These balances work seamlessly with accessible data-collection equipment such as Logger Pro and the SciVoice Talking Lab Quest. When the balance is connected to the accessible data-collection equipment, blind people can access the output from the balance via synthesized speech.
When learning about forces and in other unique instances, a spring scale might be a more appropriate tool. No accessible spring scales are currently commercially available. However, tactile markings can be added to spring scales to make them accessible. Note: Look for spring scales that do not hide the data output behind a clear piece of plastic. To be accessible, one must be able to read the output tactually.
NFB EQ Lessons using these nonvisual techniques for measuring weight include:
Many STEM tasks require some method of cutting. Blind people can use a wide variety of manual and power tools to cut accurately and safely. The difference between cutting nonvisually and visually is how one acquires information about:
- where to cut,
- if the cutting path is free of obstructions (e.g., fingers), and
- the accuracy of an in-process cut.
The measuring section above outlines how blind people mark the length of a cut by scratching a line into the cutting surface. George Wertzel, a master woodworker who happens to be blind, demonstrated how he gathers all three types of information nonvisually in an episode of The Highland Woodworker.
There are some strategies that will make cutting confidently and safely with scissors a simple task. Knowing where to cut is key to making accurate cuts. Cutting lines can be made tactile in a variety of ways: paper can be creased or folded on the cut line, cut lines can be raised by tracing them on a tactile drawing board, or plastic templates can be used to guide cuts.
Understanding how the blades of the scissors work is another key to success. Blind youth, even teens, may not have had an opportunity to learn how exactly to use this tool. So they may not understand that. Although scissor blades are sharp, the blades are unlikely to cut anything without applying pressure (i.e., closing the handles). This means it is safe and even necessary for a blind person to use their non-cutting hand to tactilely locate the opening of the blades and the position of the object being cut in relationship to the blades. Once the blind person is confident the object is properly positioned, they should remove their non-cutting hand and close the handles to make the cut. While cuts are in process, the same strategy can be employed—using the non-cutting hand to re-check the blade position. To ensure accurate cuts, it is often necessary to pause several times while cutting to check and recheck the blade positioning tactually.
NFB EQ Lessons using these nonvisual techniques for cutting with scissors include:
Using Hand Saws
Learning to use hand saws accurately and confidently takes practice whether you are doing the work nonvisually or visually. It is important to provide yourself or your blind student ample time to practice so they can make mistakes and try again until they can make accurate cuts with ease.
Beyond practice, there are two keys to cutting accurately and safely with a hand saw: hand positioning and lining up the cut. Appropriate hand positioning varies by saw. Often with small hand saws, one hand operates the saw and the other hand stabilizes the work or the body. It is important to ensure the stabilizing hand is not in the cutting path.
To line up a cut with a hand saw, use the saw blade like a cane. When the saw blade slips into the line you scratched into the cutting surface, you will know the cut is properly lined up. You can also use your non-cutting hand to look at the position of the blade.
NFB EQ Lessons using these nonvisual techniques for cutting with a hand saw include:
With plenty of opportunities to practice and some simple nonvisual strategies, blind people can easily use hot glue.
Some simple planning ahead is the easiest way to make using hot glue a safe experience. Protect the work surface from melty drips using poster boards. Have empty coffee cans available for glue guns to be safely stored while not in immediate use. Placing the glue gun in the can with the hot tip down, will help prevent any burns while tactilely locating the glue gun. Also, have small cups of water at the workstation to mitigate any potential burns on fingers.
First you must understand the basics of how a glue gun works. Explore a cold glue gun to find the tip, where the glue will come out; the trigger, which will release the glue; and the opening for inserting new glue sticks, which is on the back end of the tool. Ensure you understand which parts of the glue gun will be hot when in use and which parts will be still safe to touch.
Since touching the hot glue with fingers will cause a burn, direct touch is not a wise nonvisual observation approach. Instead, use a popsicle stick like a cane to observe the hot glue that has been extruded from the gun. You can also use the popsicle stick to spread or remove glue while it is still hot. Practice using the hot glue on a scrap surface, such as a poster board, to determine how much glue will come out of the gun when applying different amounts of pressure to the trigger. Once the glue dries, which usually takes a few seconds, you can touch the now cool glue directly for additional observation.
It is common to get a little hot glue on your skin while working with a glue gun. The key is to know how to quickly get the hot glue off your skin to avoid serious burns. Two quick ways to cool the glue and get it off your skin are:
- Rolling your fingers together to quickly ball up the setting glue, and
- Dipping your fingers in the cup of water at your workstation
NFB EQ Lessons that involve the use of hot gluing techniques are:
Performing mathematic calculations is a necessary skill in a variety of STEM activities. Blind people can perform simple and complex mathematic functions using an accessible calculator. The type of accessible calculator used will depend on the complexity of the math, the student’s preferences, and what is available.
There are several options available when it comes to accessible calculators including: calculator apps built into computers and smart phones, handheld talking calculators, calculator apps on Braille notetakers and refreshable Braille displays, and web-based calculators.
The built in computer and smart phone calculator apps are likely to be the most readily available and are usually accessible with screen readers or screen magnifiers. So blind people can usually perform simple math calculations using devices with which they are already familiar. The main limitation of this option is the limited number of math functions the calculator apps can perform. Typically, these calculator apps will only offer simple mathematic operations and no scientific functions. This is also true for the majority of handheld talking calculators that can be purchased commercially.
There are a couple of talking scientific and graphing calculators available, such as the Orion TI-30XS and TI-84 Plus. These handheld talking calculators function the same way as their visual equivalents, and they have the added feature of speech output. The learning curve for these devices is likely to be minimal.
If you already use a Braille display or Braille notetaking device, you may also have access to an accessible calculator on that device. The operations available on these calculators varies from simple to scientific, based on the device. The Braille output available via these calculators may be beneficial for more complex calculations with lengthy numerical values. Sometimes having the ability to review the numerical information carefully in Braille is ideal verses trying to hear an entire value with speech on a talking calculator.
There are also software and online accessible calculator options that students can access using screen-reading software or magnification. Software, such as the Audio Graphing Calculator by ViewPlus, can be purchased and installed on a computer. Other popular and free online options are the DESMOS Graphing calculator and the DESMOS scientific calculator. DESMOS has useful documentation about accessibility.
Whether installed with software or accessed online, these computer-based options offer a combination of audio output and optional tactile graphics features with access to compatible embossers. The software offers a wide variety of functions and features that may not be available on other accessible calculators. These are great options for performing complex mathematics and creating graphs. They may also take more time to learn and troubleshoot, but you will gain important skills that can be applied in a variety of STEM applications.
NFB EQ lessons that utilize accessible calculators are:
- Forming Foundations
- Fun with Forces
- Columns of Calculation
- The Roof System
- Forces in a Roof
- Engineering 101
With the appropriate tools, blind people can independently and successfully present data. Reporting data after completing an experiment is a key part of the scientific process.
There are several great ways to create accessible data tables and charts. Braille readers can create data tables using a Braille writer. This involves creating tactile tables using Braille lines, then filling in the corresponding data. It is useful to set up these tables with enough space between lines and columns for data to be recorded later. It is also possible to purchase tactile graph paper, which can be inserted into a Braille writer or written on using adhesive Braille labels. These sheets already have tactile grid lines, so there is no need to create the lines with the Braille writer. Tactile graph paper comes in several size grids; the larger grids tend to work best for data tables.
If the data needs to be presented in a chart, such as a bar graph or pie chart, you can use tactile drawing boards or craft supplies to make tactile charts. Papers with differing textures can be used to represent different categories on the tactile charts and Braille labels can be added.
Those with access to computers can also use spreadsheets to create tables and charts. Microsoft Excel, for example, can be used with screen readers or screen magnifiers. Microsoft has a useful tutorial about using Excel with screen readers. If you also have access to an embosser with tactile graphics capabilities or other tactile graphics tools, the digital charts can be made into tactile graphics.
NFB EQ Lessons that utilize data tables are:
You may find that you need to learn how to complete other STEM process skills nonvisually. Often times sighted teachers and STEM professionals have no idea how to perform the skill in question nonvisually. There are two key strategies you can use to learn any nonvisual STEM process skill.
- Apply a principle or technique from another nonvisual STEM process skill to the novel task. For example, if the task requires you to work with something that is too small or too dangerous to touch directly, you could apply the “small cane” popsicle stick technique from the hot glue section. Blind makers use this technique when working with Arduino boards.
- Reach out to other blind people. If you don’t know blind people who possess the knowledge you seek, send an email to a relevant NFB listserv such as NFB-Science, NFB Computer Science, or National Association of Blind Students.
Padilla, M. J. (1990). The science process skills. Research Matters - to the Science Teacher, No. 9004. https://narst.org/research-matters/science-process-skills
Wedler, H. B., Boyes, L., Davis, R. L., Flynn, D., Franz, A., Hamann, C. S., ... & Wang, S. C. (2014). Nobody Can See Atoms: Science Camps Highlighting Approaches for Making Chemistry Accessible to Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Journal of Chemical Education, 91(2), 188-194.