Opening the STEM classroom to students with visual impairments

Kathryn Twigg
February 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A student that is blind sits at a desk with a bottle of glue and piece of paper in front of jim. He reaches out to run his fingers over the raised lines of dried glue on the paper. This is his first time understanding the shapes of a fingerprint. This high school student is participating in the STEM Extension Weekend, part of the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired, a career-readiness program offered at Penn State’s University Park campus every summer.

The goal of the STEM Extension Weekend, which is taught by members of the Penn State Eberly College of Science, is to show these students that they can go to college for and have a career in science, even with their visual impairments. 

“We are teaching these kids how to advocate for themselves,” said Katie Mantz, a forensic science instructor who is a part of the program. “We teach them how to take the responsibility to talk with their professors about the accommodations they need. We give them the confidence and knowledge to make sure they have the experience they deserve.”

The three-week-long Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired was established in 2014 as a partnership between the Pennsylvania Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS), the Pennsylvania Teaching and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN), and Penn State’s College of Education and College of Health and Human Development. It covers a variety of topics, including daily living activities, self-advocacy, technology skills, social interaction, rehabilitation, and career exploration. In 2016, Penn State’s Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Outreach partnered with the summer academy to create the non-optional STEM Extension portion of the program, where students get to explore science in ways they may never have before.

The STEM Extension program currently includes the subjects of chemistry, physics and plant biology, which are introductory courses that most first-year students will take in college, as well as forensic science, which ties all of the subjects together and gives students broad exposure to a variety of science topics. Evening activities like the STEM Networking Dinner allow students to meet with professionals in different science careers, as well as undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from various fields of science. Students also attend a research expo, where faculty researchers explain real-world applications of their science, some of which is helping blind and visually impaired individuals.

Summer academy students learn about galaxiesStudents use tactile images of galaxies to learn about the basics of astronomy and astrophysics.

Students participating in the STEM Extension Weekend, part of the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired, use tactile images of galaxies to learn about the basics of astronomy and astrophysics.

IMAGE: Carmen Vanderhoof, Penn State

Angela Bischof, associate teaching professor of chemistry at Penn State and an instructor for STEM Extension, recalled one student in particular, and a moment she’ll never forget. After performing an activity that involved safely lighting a candle using long fireplace lighters, the student turned to Bischof in awe, saying, “I’ve never lit a candle before.” The student then blew out the flame and had a friend take a picture as she lit it again. 

Since STEM Extension’s inception in 2016, the Penn State faculty and staff who serve as instructors have fine-tuned their teaching methods to convey STEM topics to blind and visually impaired students. They recently shared their knowledge and expertise during the PaTTAN HELIX conference, which was held Nov. 11-14, 2018, for teachers and parents to learn how to accommodate and assist these students and help them benefit from learning as much as sighted students. 

Four instructors from Penn State addressed the teachers and parents in the audience and described the simplicity of most accommodations that allow students that are visually impaired to be as engaged in the classroom as sighted students. It is a matter of taking the time to think from the perspective of those that are visually impaired and consider how the lessons can be adjusted in their favor, they explained. For example, in electricity experiments, one can put a piece of thick tape on one wire but not the other, to separate them. In the laboratory, vials can have a raised edge of glue or twine to mark the differences between them. Apps for electronic devices can make an observation, such as color, through the camera and then verbally describe it to the user.

As much as the speakers taught, they also were willing to learn. They took the opportunity to ask the audience, which was full of people who work every day with students that are blind and visually impaired, for their opinions and feedback. They valued the ideas from these teachers that had disabled students in their everyday classrooms and parents who had children with these disabilities. 

“Educators are lifelong learners,” said Mantz.

A student who attended the summer academy in a previous year was also among the audience and asked questions from the student perspective. She noted that “there weren’t many braille materials” and was delighted to hear that the 2018 program introduced many new braille materials. The instructors hope to continue to grow and obtain more materials to enhance student learning. 

The 2019 Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired will run from July 13-31.

Last Updated February 12, 2019