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Science ‘on their fingertips’: Texas professor making chemistry available to blind students

A closeup view of hands holding a 3D-printed model of an electron microscope image of a butterfly. The image of the butterfly is raised and textured so the hands can feel the image.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard
A student at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired holds a 3D-printed model of an electron microscope image of a butterfly, feeling the shape with their fingers, as part of the In Your Element program teaching chemistry and hard sciences to visually impaired students. Students used 3D-printed materials and other tactile aids to understand processes and technology used in electron microscope imagery.

Taking a chemistry class typically involves using your eyesight – noticing color changes in a test tube, or making drawings to describe the structure of a molecule, for example.

For many blind students, the apparent visual requirements can put chemistry out of reach. Teachers often don’t believe it’s possible to succeed in the subject without vision. But a new program developed in partnership with Baylor University chemistry professor Bryan Shaw aims to open up what’s been called “the central science” to more people with blindness or visual impairment, whether they’re fulfilling a high school requirement or planning for a career in science.

On a warm Tuesday in Waco, eight high school students donned lab coats, safety goggles and gloves, ready to enter a Baylor chemistry lab. They were there to learn about how the lab does science. But more importantly, they were about to feel how that science is done – using their own hands.

The students from around the state are participants in a program from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. These short-term programs give full-time TSBVI students – as well as kids who attend other schools around the state – opportunities to have educational experiences that are normally unavailable to them.

A man stands in front of a group of students. The students are seen from behind and the man is facing them, arms raised while speaking.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard
"Blind high schoolers are told, 'Don’t go in the lab. It’s too dangerous. It’s too visual,'" said Baylor University professor Bryan Shaw, seen here speaking to a group of students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "And that’s a problem.”

Shaw received a $1.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to make the study of chemistry more accessible to people with blindness or low vision – and the three-day TSBVI program is just the beginning of what he has planned during the five-year term of the grant. He says the ability to study chemistry is foundational to understanding any other branch of science.

“If you want to study neuroscience, biology, medicine, engineering, physics, you have to learn chemistry,” Shaw said. “And historically, it’s been the worst subject in terms of accessibility. Blind high schoolers are told, ‘Don’t go in the lab. It’s too dangerous. It’s too visual.’ And that’s a problem.”

Shaw and a team of blind chemists designed experiments and tactile learning aids that the high school students are using to get a literal feel for chemistry. In the lab, Shaw and a graduate student introduced esters – chemical compounds that create familiar smells.

Shaw described what his student was doing for the visitors.

“He’s gonna take the alcohol,” Shaw said. “You can probably smell the alcohol. He’s gonna take the carboxylic acid. You’ll probably smell that. And as soon as he mixes those things together, you are gonna get blasted by banana flavor.”

A TSBVI student wanted more explanation. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you’re gonna smell it,” Shaw said.

And sure enough, once the chemicals had been combined, a banana-like fragrance rose from the test tube.

Before their lab day, Shaw and his team of blind chemists visited these high school students at TSBVI in Austin. The team built 3D-printed models and tactile images to illustrate chemistry concepts for blind learners.

Three people are seen from the back, facing a 3D printing device that’s about the size of a typical office printer. With their fingers, they examine a tactile graphics image of a butterfly that was produced by the printer.
Frank Feuerbacher
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High school students gather around a row of 3D printers in a Baylor chemistry lab. Chemists used the devices to print models of molecular structures and tactile graphics that allowed the visually impaired students to feel a representation of the parts of a butterfly’s body.

Aubree Sears, a 14-year-old student from Weatherford, Texas, who is blind, said the tactile graphics gave her a better understanding of how certain molecules work.

“We were able to see, like, the elements and the bonds and all that in glucose, and they were just on, they were pieces of paper. They were graphics,” she said.

The examples were practical, too, including the makeup of familiar foods.

“One thing that glucose is in are potatoes, but then there are completely different things it’s in,” Sears said. “It all just depends on how the atoms and molecules and all that are arranged.”

The tactile graphics were a hit with everyone. Shaw said the students never put the plates down.

“They constantly kept feeling them, rubbing their fingers over different parts, nonstop,” he said. “That’s them seeing – because we see with our visual cortex; we don’t see with our eyes.”

Back in the lab, technology gave another assist to the would-be chemists, in the form of a robot that can mix chemical compounds so scientists don’t have to. The robot, which has a temporarily broken arm, is currently in demo mode, but Shaw said it will eventually be able to accept instructions from a chemist, and then combine chemicals accurately and safely.

Mayte Gonzalez, a doctoral student working in Shaw’s lab, showed the robot to the students.

“So it’s an arm that can pick up, like, a chemical tube and open it up and take out the chemical that you want to use,” she said. “So kind of like human arms. They can do the experiments for you, with the press of a button.”

A table of dozens of test tubes sits under a large machine with a mechanical claw used for grabbing the tubes facing down.
Frank Feuerbacher
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A robot that can mix chemical compounds was shown to the visiting students. Currently in demo mode due to a broken arm, the robot will eventually be able to accept instructions from a chemist, and then combine chemicals accurately and safely.

It’s one thing to demonstrate an accessible approach to chemistry, but Shaw’s goals are bigger. He and the chemists who worked with him to develop the program want more visually impaired people to have a chance to study chemistry, and even pursue advanced degrees.

“In our program, we’re trying to find and train some of the first totally blind experimental chemists from an early age,” he said.

And when they enter the field, those young scientists can look to role models like Mona Minkara, a professor of bioengineering in the chemistry department at Northeastern University whose journey was bumpy at times.

“I got diagnosed. I was told I was going to be totally blind when I was 7,” she said. “You know, whenever I talked about how I wanted to do science, I was told that it was impractical, too difficult. But my love for science didn’t really change.

“I had professors tell me I don’t belong in their science classes, that I’m going to fail. But I also had individuals that encouraged me to follow who I really am.”

But even if a student doesn’t plan to make chemistry a career, Yale postdoctoral fellow Mathew Guberman-Pfeffer said creating accessible materials and ways for scientists to work is vital.

“We would never tolerate, as a society, a kid taking a course who’s told, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, you’re getting no textbook, right? But you have to learn the material.’”

A woman stands in front of a group of students in a classroom. The students are seen in their desks from behind and the woman is facing them, speaking.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard
Emily Alonzo speaks to a group of students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired as part of the In Your Element program teaching chemistry and hard sciences to visually impaired students in Austin on Oct. 10, 2022.

The project team hopes that what a group of high school students learned over a few days in the lab, besides pure enthusiasm for science, will also translate into practical tools and technology for science educators. Laura Hospitál, who teaches physical science at Texas School for the Blind, said she learned from observing her students in the chemistry lab.

“Whenever a teacher gets to observe another teacher, there are always things that you learn,” she said. “Some of the adaptations that Dr. Shaw is using, we haven’t used. So I would definitely consider using those as well. There’s a lot to learn from different teaching styles. I think the real hands-on approach is a lot of fun for the kids.”

Next steps are perfecting the technology and getting it into the hands of more teachers. Shaw says it’s about freeing blind chemists to focus on the kinds of discoveries those Texas high school students made in the lab.

“They were seeing stuff for the first time,” Shaw said. “They were really amazed. And that’s how science works. You get interested because you see something when you’re a kid – you may not understand what it is or how it works, but it’s beautiful, it’s weird. And it just pulls you in. And we watched that today. It was on their fingertips.”

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