Increasing access to chemistry for high schoolers with blindness: a program to jump start Central Texas

  • Project Description

    Project Narrative: Students with blindness are systematically excluded from chemistry because of the unmet challenges of making the laboratory, data, and imagery accessible. In a collaboration involving Baylor researchers, five teachers/accessibility specialists at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), and three PhD chemists with early blindness, this project is: (i) developing and testing new methods of making 2D/3D curriculum more accessible, and (ii) adapting chemistry labs at Baylor to be robotically accessible to 30 TSBVI high school students for annual Special Research Experiences. An external evaluation will use a randomized controlled trial to test the hypothesis that Special Research Experiences positively affect TSBVI student interest, confidence and sense of belonging in STEM.

  • Abstract

    Project Summary: Students with blindness face explicit bias and systemic exclusion in chemistry. The chemistry laboratory remains especially inaccessible—“off limits”—to students with BLV. The exquisite 3D imagery of chemistry also remains inaccessible, as visualizing each image in a textbook would require a large hand-held model. Excluding students from the “central” science—from its tools, data, and imagery— can inhibit learning in other STEM fields. In the state of Texas, 11,000 children and young adults (age 0- 22) have blindness or low vision (BLV). The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) educates ~ 600 K-12 students per year. The objectives of this project are to increase access to chemistry labs, instrumentation, data, and imagery for high school students at TSBVI (grades 9-12). The project team involves: (i) five PhD-level chemists (three have been completely blind from childhood or birth), (ii) one special educator at Baylor University, (iii) five TSBVI teachers and accessibility specialists, and (iv) the Laboratory Safety Program Manager at Baylor University. Special Research Experiences (SRE’s) have been planned at Baylor University for 30 new TSBVI high school students per year. These two-day experiences will be accompanied by pre-lab and post-lab tactile curriculum, safety training, and role modeling from PhD chemists with blindness. In Aim 1, accessible curriculum is being developed for SRE’s via 3D printing, tactile printing, Braille printing, and audio recording. In Aim 1, millimeter-scale “micro models” of 3D images are also being designed and developed (as an alternative to conventional large tactile models). The ability of TSBVI students to visualize these micro models by oral and manual stereognosis is tested during SRE’s. In Aim 2, lab spaces at Baylor are being modified to be accessible to TSBVI students, to conduct the four SRE’s described in Aim 3. Outfitting the lab involves use of “high tech” solutions (e.g., robots that weigh, dispense and mix solids and liquids) and “low tech lab hacks”. In Aim 3, four different Special Research Experiences will be provided to 15 new TSBVI students per semester (students assigned a different SRE each year). Two SRE’s involve the synthesis of industrially important molecules, using a robotic reactor at Baylor University that is safely enclosed inside an air-tight, blast-proof glove box. Two other SRE’s allow students to use electron and atomic force microscopy and tactile printing to visualize nanoscale molecular assemblies (e.g., protein fibrils and carbohydrate scales of butterfly wings). The four experiences will provide students with knowledge of microscopy; mass spectrometry; simple organic reactions; and protein aggregation. Students will learn that they can visualize the highest resolution imagery from microscopy via tactile graphics. Students will learn that they can safely do chemical synthesis using robots inside glove boxes. The hypothesis, tested in a randomized control trial, is that SRE’s will increase TSBVI student interest, confidence, and sense of belonging in STEM.