STEM learning is a cornerstone of education in today’s K-12 schools, but STEM classrooms often aren’t all that inspiring to students who are blind or have low vision.
So much of science is based on sight and observations, and when students who have vision challenges are forced to stand off to the side and listen to classmates’ observations about experiments or data, they lose some of the excitement that goes along with scientific discovery.
But students who are blind or have low vision don’t have to miss out on STEM’s engaging aspects. Science companies are creating tools that accommodate different needs, and some groups have created science experienced geared toward students with vision challenges.
Here are a few different ways simple modifications or accessibility modifications are making STEM more inclusive in classrooms.
1. The University of Arizona Sky School connects K-12 students with authentic science experiences. Through UA’s Project POEM, funded by the National Science Foundation, visually impaired middle and high school students are able to have engaging STEM experiences and explore STEM career possibilities.
“The discouragement for not considering science as their future career is a huge challenge. I’d like to make sure students with visual impairments receive the clear message that science is something that is very accessible,” says Dr. Sunggya Hong, an associate professor and program coordinator of Visual Impairment Specialization with the University of Arizona, in a video about Project POEM and the Sky School.
The project connects students with university mentors and industry mentors who are themselves visually impaired, which helps give the students an idea of how they might study STEM or work in STEM fields.
To ensure vision-impaired students had great experiences at the Sky School, staff learned about visual impairments and brainstormed how to modify activities to make them more accessible.
One activity asked students to learn about tree identification as part of a larger project.
“We had to come up with diff ways to identify trees–the other ways are things that are still listed in field guides such as examining bark, feeling texture, with leaves or needles you can feel that rather than just use your sight. It allowed us to make use of more of our senses, which is what a good scientist should do,” says Rebecca Lipson, assisstant director for education at the Sky School.
Using sound to indicate changes in data is another way to modify STEM activities.
“We had an astronomy activity where students take light signals, or waves, and turn them into sound waves, so students can make predictions based on what they’re hearing, and on the data they pick up auditorily,” says Kathryn Busby, a Sky School instructor.
The program is an example of how STEM learning can be inclusive and engaging for all students.
2. Independence Science’s Talking LabQuest helps blind and low-vision students participate and engage more fully in classroom lab activities.
The Talking LabQuest uses Vernier Software & Technology’s sensor interface to help blind or low-vision students work with data by speaking out loud with real-time data readings. It also offers spoken menu navigation.
“This is something that, traditionally, would involve a sighted person standing next to a blind student in a lab, reading off the data,” says Ashley Neybert, a curriculum specialist for Independence Science, the company who makes the Talking LabQuest. “This causes the student a lot of confusion, because if you don’t interact with the components, oral descriptions don’t help make any sense of it. Science is mainly data analysis, so if I can’t look at my data myself, I can’t figure out any trends–so I almost can’t do science without being able to access that.”
But tools like Talking LabQuest can change that, says Neybert, who is herself a blind scientist. In fact, Independence Science is mainly made up of blind scientists.
“Talking LabQuest doesn’t just read off the data points; you can hook it up with an embosser or have it read aloud data points, so you can examine it on a raised line drawing or hear specific data points,” she says.
Independence Science was founded by Dr. Cary Supalo, a chemist who is blind. During research, Dr. Supalo found a 50 percent increase in the number of students who said they were more interested in STEM because they no longer felt pushed off to the side, Neybert says.
“You learn by doing,” Neybert adds. “That’s for all kids, not just blind and low-vision kids, but if you’re sitting in the corner for three hours of a lab, of course you’re not going to like it–you can’t participate. This is a hands-on way to participate.”
Neybert says the company has received comments from instructors saying students like using Talking LabQuest and have increased grades, along with comments from blind students themselves saying they understand science better after using the device.
3. Dave Blanchard was a specialist teacher when he first started adapting tools for students with vision challenges, and he has continued his practices in his role as curriculum coordinator at Cambridge-Isanti Schools in Cambridge, MN.
“All the kids did was consume content on iPads. One of the challenges I faced, because I was a specialist, I worked with all students at the school, including students of all different ability levels. Two students were legally blind and one student was legally vision-impaired,” he says. “In previous years, those students hadn’t been able to do much in a very visual class–it was all on iPads and all hands-on activities that required hand-eye coordination.”
Blanchard was inspired to improve the experience for students with vision challenges. He says he knew he wanted to use Osmo, which combines iPads, reflective AI technology, physical movements, and objects for hands-on play, with students.
“That was unsettling to me,” he says. “I had the idea of changing the way they used Osmo to be able to put clear braille letter tags on the Osmo tiles. We went through and brailled all of those tiles.”
For example, students play word games within the Osmo app by looking at an image on the iPad screen and finding the corresponding physical letter tiles to spell the name of the image. Blanchard set the app to display a sight word, and an instructional assistant read the word aloud to vision-challenged students, who then used the braille tags on the letter tiles to spell the word.
“I think it was probably the first time they got to do exactly what the rest of the students in class were doing,” he says. “They got to experience it themselves and it was probably the first time I saw these kids really excited all the way through class.”
4. Some companies are looking at ways to lower the cost around accessibility.
“I’m glad groups are driving awareness and bringing about change. I see some areas where enough isn’t being done, and it’s still very expensive to get some of these solutions into classrooms. It would be great to see broader solutions and affordability,” says Vernier CEO John Wheeler.
“So much of what’s done in science is a visual representation of graphs, and that doesn’t always translate well to existing tools.”
Vernier’s Logger Pro is a data collection and analysis software that offers accessibility features to help blind and low-vision students. To help students with vision challenges, the software uses sound to correlate to changes in data. For instance, the pitch becomes higher as values increase. Students also can play back a data collection run, with tones increasing or decreasing to represent a line increasing or decreasing over time.
“The need is great, but the small numbers of students in need drive up the cost,” Wheeler says. “There are affordable ways to leverage existing technology to make this accessible to schools.”