Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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STEMming the Tide and Bridging the Barriers

by Eric Guillory

Editor’s Note: Eric Guillory is the director of Youth Services at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). For more information about the LCB programs, go to <www.lcb-ruston.com> or call (800) 234-4166. The Louisiana Center for the Blind is located at 101 South Trenton Street, Ruston, Louisiana 71270.

How polyhedra and suspension bridges helped to change attitudes and misconceptions about blindness.

On January 18, 2008, eight blind high school and college students gathered in Ruston, Louisiana, to participate in a groundbreaking weekend of fun and learning--the Let’s Get Physical About Science academy. This project was made possible through a grant awarded to the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana (NFB/LA) by the NFB Imagination Fund, and was a collaborative effort between NFB/LA and Louisiana Tech University’s IDEA Place NASA research facility.

“All too often, the blind are discouraged from pursuing careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The NFB of Louisiana is happy to be working in concert with the staff of the IDEA Place and the Jernigan Institute on this initiative--designed to alter these negative views and to forever change what it means to be blind for the youth of our state and nation,” says Pam Allen, Executive Director of the Louisiana Center. “An unfortunate side-effect,” continues Mrs. Allen, “of these misconceptions is that, in an alarming number of instances, blind people begin internalizing and subscribing to these views. Consequently, the proverbial bar of expectations is lowered, at least for them, leading to diminished self-esteem and a defeatist attitude.”

When I first met with Glenn Beer, director of the IDEA Place, he and his staff were very receptive to the thought of working with blind students. However, they were visibly apprehensive about how to best proceed--repeatedly telling me that they had never worked with a blind student before. Mr. Beer et al. were concerned that they might not be equipped with the tools and/or knowledge to adequately address STEM subject material utilizing formats accessible to the blind.

Their trepidation notwithstanding, the IDEA Place staff did a fantastic job of planning fun and challenging activities focusing primarily on geometric and physical science skills and concepts. “What we came to realize is that we did not need to plan anything special for the blind students,” said Dr. Carolyn Talton. “The materials we employed are those which should be used with all students, blind or sighted, to aid in developing a more kinesthetic approach to learning.”

In addition to the IDEA Place math and science experts, student volunteers from Louisiana Tech University were recruited to act as facilitators and provide assistance as necessary. Before the weekend began, I stressed the importance of not doing too much for the students, but rather allowing them to problem-solve and work as autonomously as possible. This dedicated group did an outstanding job; never once did I witness any of them enabling a student or doing something for him or her that he or she should be doing independently.

For two action-packed days, students engaged in a variety of individual and small-group activities intended to augment their understanding of the properties of both two- and three-dimensional geometric figures (such as triangles and polyhedra), and the relationship of each of these to others.

On day two, students were expected to construct load-bearing bridges and other structures out of various materials. One memorable activity involved each small group of students being given ten pieces of copy paper and a length of Scotch tape. Each group was charged with the task of designing a number of columns out of these materials; the strength of these columns would then be evaluated for their weight-bearing potential. Reams of copy paper were then stacked, one by one, on each group’s columns. The result was a wonderful mixture of drama, suspense, and comedy as each design was put to the test. The winning team’s columns managed to withstand the weight of twelve reams of paper before collapsing. It was marvelous to watch the students demonstrate, time and again, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills as they were taken through a succession of increasingly difficult challenges.

Later that evening, a dinner dance and awards ceremony took place at which students’ projects were put on display and each was recognized for his or her hard work during the weekend. It was a fitting end to two days of intensive instruction--one that was just as much a learning experience for the students as it was for their instructors and volunteers.

It is hoped that we can work together with Louisiana Tech University on future STEM subject endeavors involving our blind youth. For some of the students, it was their first time on a university campus and/or opportunity to interact with college students. “This weekend was awesome, and I have learned so much,” commented Chelsea Page, a senior from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

“Everyone here is so nice and I’ve done activities here that we normally don’t get the chance to do in the regular school day,” said Katie Wintz, a sophomore from Gonzales, Louisiana.

“I hope y’all do this again next year; I am definitely coming back if you do!” enthused Emily Weidner, a freshman from Sulfur, Louisiana.

“I had a great time working with everyone and being able to talk with the students from Tech; I am definitely glad I came,” said Michael Taboada, a freshman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Not only were the students appreciative of the proceedings, but their parents and teachers were as well. “I am so thankful that the Federation takes the time and energy to plan these activities for my daughter and other blind students. The dedication of your staff to improving the lives of our blind youth is incredible,” exclaims Michelle Jarvis, Chelsea’s mom.

“I think what you guys are doing up there is awesome; I wish I could have been there to participate,” says Melissa Hill, a teacher of blind students in Ascension Parish.

Earlier, I remarked on the excellent work done by the Louisiana Tech University student volunteers. Their zest for life and outpouring of youthful energy made this event truly memorable. One student, Danielle Hamilton, a biology major, was overcome with emotion as she said “I think I have learned more from these students than I taught them … chase your dreams and don’t let anyone tell you that your goals can’t be achieved.”

The NFB is committed to educating the public about the blind, showing them that we can in fact participate equally in society given proper training and opportunity. It was a pleasure to have been a part of the planning and implementation of the weekend--the first of more to come.

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