American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) WAYS AND MEANS
by Barbara R. Heard
From the Editor: Barbara R. Heard is an assistant professor who has enjoyed teaching biology to students for fifteen years. This article includes information from her recent study evaluating the effectiveness of the specific accommodations that enable blind and low vision students to participate in the laboratory activities of college biology courses.
My eighty-year-old father thoroughly embraced the arrival of computers. In the late 1990s he managed his accounts and corresponded with family and friends online. My children giggled because he signed every instant message "Love, Grandpa," but we enjoyed keeping in touch daily at a time before text messaging.
Eventually my father began losing his vision to macular degeneration, a condition that severely worsened after he underwent open-heart surgery. We searched for ways to help him continue using the computer, but the technology wasn't advanced enough back then. We watched, frustrated, as something that had given him such pride, independence, and joy faded from his life.
That experience instilled in me an awareness of the importance of supportive technology for people with blindness and visual impairment, an awareness I carried into my career. I wondered how I would support blind and visually impaired students in my biology classes. After all, biology is a science in which students interpret graphs, identify microscopic images, streak agar plates with microorganisms, dissect worms, and determine the eye color of fruit flies. How could a blind student participate in those activities?
When I inquired whether our science department had ever supported a blind student, I learned that one student several years earlier had taken a chemistry class. No one knew of any other blind or visually impaired students who were completing courses in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) at the college.
Studying life excites and humbles me. I enjoy sharing my love of biology with my students. It was important to me to discover how to share that excitement with all students, sighted and blind. I researched specific accommodations for the science laboratory, the importance and benefits of active participation in laboratory activities for blind students, many new supportive technologies, and several criteria important to student learning. I discovered that no standards exist regarding the specific accommodations that should be provided (Moon, Todd, Morton, and Ivey, 2012), that college biology instructors have little experience teaching blind students (Womble and Walker, 2001), and, not surprisingly, that the number of blind individuals in the STEM professions is quite small (Moon et al., 2012; Supalo, 2010).
A few professors had written articles detailing their experiences supporting blind students in the college biology laboratory, including explanations of specific accommodations they had provided (Caldwell and Teagarden, 2007; Vollmer, 2012; Womble and Walker, 2001). Considering the limited number of studies evaluating the effectiveness of specific accommodations (Supalo, 2010), I was left questioning whether they were effective. Answering that question was critical, so I decided to evaluate their effectiveness by gathering the perceptions of those most closely involved: blind biology students and instructors who had taught them.
To locate potential participants for the study, I emailed the disability support services offices and biology instructors at 714 institutions of higher education across the United States. After eight weeks, five students and fifteen instructors had completed the surveys. The twenty students represented had disabilities that ranged from mild visual impairment to total blindness, and they were supported with a variety of specific accommodations.
Three of the students, including two who were totally blind, had no specific accommodations provided. However, most of the students had an aide to assist them; many commented that lab partners and groupmates were helpful. Some used computers in a laboratory setting. One student used a tablet to enlarge images. Other technologies included projecting microscopic images onto large screens or televisions, offering tactile models of cells, and using audible devices for measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Braille-labeled beakers and images, enlarged font sizes, and extensive descriptions were beneficial as well, which led to a realization: specific accommodations don't have to be technologically profound to be effective. "Some things just seemed really impossible for a blind person to do," said one student. "But every week I would come in and my instructor would be waiting for me, usually with half a craft store in tow. I learned about cells with tactile images made with puffy paint. I learned about gram stains with stickers and pipe cleaners, and I learned about genes with buttons and beads. I found out that pretty much any lab is possible to do. There is some creative way to make it make sense. You just have to have someone who is really patient to help you out."
Advance planning is key. Instructors recalled being unprepared to teach blind/visually impaired students and unaware of available technologies, making instructor professional development crucial. "I was making it up as I went, and I had no idea what technologies might be out there that could be helpful," said one professor who was teaching a totally blind student for the first time. Creativity and innovation are necessary when adapting existing teaching methods, but instructors need to prepare ahead of time. Universal instructional design urges us to incorporate methods for accommodating students as courses are developed rather than modifying them after the fact, and to ensure that all course materials are accessible.
Students in this study revealed how much they wanted to learn and actively participate in the laboratory activities. As an instructor observed, "She desperately wanted to participate in this class . . . [and] threw herself into the class with great enthusiasm." Instructors indicated their earnest endeavors to support the students, several explaining that they worked with the students outside of regular class time, with positive results. "I will never forget handing [my student] a sea anemone," said one professor. "Her response was, 'So THAT's where Nemo lived! I couldn't figure it out from the movie.'" A student with low vision remarked, "I was pleasantly surprised," and a totally blind student pronounced, "It was a great experience."
Perhaps the most moving account is one professor's story of a student's reaction to viewing microscopic images for the first time through an apparatus projecting images onto a television screen. "One day she was sitting in front of the television looking at a slide of a water weed that we always use to show cytoplasmic streaming, and I could see that she had a tear running down the side of her face. I asked her if she was okay, and she told me that she had heard other students describe what she was looking at in other biology laboratory courses, but she had never actually seen it herself. She was so excited that she spent the next two hours looking at everything she could find to put on a slide that she had always heard other students or instructors describe to her, but never seen."
Of the twenty students represented, seventeen were unable to participate actively in all of the required laboratory activities of their courses. Even though specific accommodations were provided for fifteen of those seventeen students, some activities proved prohibitive. Ongoing research is necessary, and improvements to specific accommodations are essential. Most of the students were able both to construct and interpret graphs, but skills that presented challenges for students included finding and identifying microscopic images; recording results requiring color interpretation; using Bunsen burners and/or hot plates; assisting in animal dissection; working with potentially harmful chemicals; pipetting, pouring, and measuring liquids; and taking notes and recording data without assistance. The study did not include all possible activities of a biology course, such as participating in fieldwork, inoculating agar plates with microorganisms, or interpreting a gel electrophoresis. With continued research, the goal is that we can develop specific accommodations for those activities that are currently prohibitive for many blind and visually impaired students.
This study is just the beginning. An instructor remarked, "Unfortunately some of the blind/visually impaired students I have instructed told me they were afraid to take a biology laboratory course because of how visual most of them tend to be." Yes, biology instruction is visually oriented, but it shouldn't be limited only to sighted individuals. A different, inclusive approach is necessary, one that enables blind and visually impaired students to use senses other than sight in order to learn. "At first I never imagined I could take any science course," wrote one blind student. This study revealed that blind and visually impaired students not only can take college biology courses; they can complete such courses successfully.
It is my hope that blind and visually impaired students will come to believe they can take any science course. Study participants supported that sentiment. An instructor wrote, "During all the years I have taught, I have never had a blind student or any disabled student perform at a lower level than the other students. They have faced challenges all their lives and been successful. Why shouldn't they be successful in a biology laboratory course?" Another instructor remarked that the blind student observed by touch something the sighted students in the class had missed. A blind student mentioned earning an A in the class thanks to specific accommodations, and another proclaimed, "I also think I learned more than other people in my lab."
When more blind students enter the sciences, they can assist in developing more effective accommodations and serve as mentors and role models. Improvements in technology will continue to support students as well. Parents, teachers, and counselors should encourage blind and visually impaired students to consider biology classes and pursue careers in STEM, because science is for everyone. As a blind student participant concluded, "It proves that a blind person can learn biology, and a blind person can do chemistry, and a blind person can do physics. It's pretty amazing stuff."
You can learn more about my study or contact me by visiting my website at <http://bheardu.net>.
Caldwell, J. E., and Teagarden, K. (2007). "Adapting Laboratory Curricula for Visually Impaired Students." Proceedings of the 28th Workshop/Conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE), 28, 357-361.
Moon, N. W., Todd, R. L., Morton, D. L., and Ivey, E. (2012). "Accommodating Students with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Findings from Research and Practice for Middle Grades through University Education." Atlanta, GA: SciTrain: Science and Math for All, sponsored by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 0622885.
Supalo, C. A. (2010). "Teaching Chemistry and Other Sciences to Blind and Low-vision Students through Hands-on Learning Experiences in High School Science Laboratories." (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (3442959)
Vollmer, A. C. (2012, July 26). "Seeing Biology through the Eyes of Visually Impaired Students." Odds and Ends, Teachers Corner: Pedagogical Issues. American Society for Microbiology. Retrieved 11/14/2014 from <http://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter/2012/07/seeing-biology-through-the-eyes-of-visually-impaired-students.html>
Womble, M. D. and Walker, G. R. (2001). "Teaching Biology to the Visually Impaired: Accommodating Students' Special Needs." Journal of College Science Teaching, 30 (6), 394-396.