Students with blindness and low vision are often excluded from chemistry labs and offered few accessible representations of the subject’s imagery, which can significantly hinder their ability to learn about and participate in chemistry. Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, hopes to change that through a program funded by an NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA). His inspiration to start the program came from his son, who is visually impaired due to childhood eye cancer, and his son’s friends who have also experienced partial or complete vision loss.
“Chemistry focuses on dreaming up assistive technologies to help us visualize particles and structures too small to see with our eyes. The field is actually well equipped to make itself accessible because all it’s ever been is trying to understand things we can’t see,” Dr. Shaw says.
Experiencing Chemistry Firsthand
The SEPA program, which is a collaboration between Baylor and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), has created 3-day research experiences for high schoolers with blindness and low vision. The first research experience, held in October 2022, was split into two parts. In the first, Dr. Shaw, three of his graduate students, and three chemists with blindness who serve as mentors (Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, Ph.D.; Mona Minkara, Ph.D., also a program co-leader; and Hoby Wedler, Ph.D.), traveled to the TSBVI to give eight students a chemistry lesson. They brought a wide range of finely detailed tactile graphics that enabled students to explore scientific imagery and better understand how electron microscopes work.
For the second part of the experience, Dr. Shaw and his team brought the students to Baylor for 2 days. The team trained the students in lab safety and provided them with lab coats, safety goggles, gloves, and Bluetooth glasses that transmitted audio input from various devices. Then, they took the students on a tour of Dr. Shaw’s lab, including an area adapted for use by an undergraduate researcher with blindness. Other activities included:
- A lesson on electron microscopy, during which students felt the parts of the microscope and interacted with tactile versions of images it produced
- A demonstration of synthesizing five chemical compounds that contribute to the scents of butterscotch, banana, pear, pineapple, and wintergreen
- An opportunity to learn about the structures of common proteins through grape-sized 3D models
- An introduction to a robot that can assist with weighing reagents and carrying out chemical reactions
- A tour of Baylor’s campus
Throughout the entire experience, the mentors talked with and encouraged students. “At the start, the students were somewhat skeptical, but within the first day of the program, they were excited and wanted to learn more science. Their attitudes changed so much because they had accessible materials,” says Dr. Minkara, who was frequently discouraged from pursuing science throughout her own life because of her blindness. “Even I learned new things. For instance, I never knew what an electron microscope looked like until this program. It’s phenomenal to be part of this.”
Building a Bright Future
Moving forward, this SEPA project plans to host at least one research experience each semester. Dr. Shaw hopes that the students from the first experience will return for a second, where they will, among other things, learn about polymers and test out the lab robot. They’ll also each get to choose an object for the electron microscope to image, and then they’ll receive tactile graphics of the resulting pictures. He also plans to give new students the opportunity to participate in the activities of the first research experience.
“My ultimate goal is that, because of our work, a student with blindness is inspired to become a scientist and makes discoveries that change the world,” says Dr. Shaw. “I also hope that educators all over the country, and eventually the world, start seeing how easy it is with modern technology to make scientific imagery and labs accessible to people with visual impairments.”
The Baylor SEPA program is funded by NIGMS grant R25GM146265.