Accessible Science: Making Life Sciences Accessible to Students with Visual Impairments

FRASER: The most important part
of science is not so much being able to answer questions
correctly on a test or knowing who discovered what. It’s being able to become a
problem solver and a thinker and develop critical thinking. NARRATOR: Teacher in a science
lab with three students examining the spine on a human
skeleton model. FRASER: Does anybody remember
the name of those bones? Corinne? CORINNE: Vertebrae. FRASER: Vertebrae, correct. And by doing lab experiments and
activities, the students become able to
problem solve and to see that there’s a
thinking process about being able to ask a
question, make a guess about what might happen if they
did such and such a thing, then follow through a set of
procedures, and then at the end evaluate if
indeed what they did answered the question that they
were asked in the beginning. So that… helping them to be
problem solvers, helping them to be critical
thinkers, is a really important part of
science. NARRATOR: Students at a lab
table with various taxidermy birds. FRASER: Why do you think the
hawk might have a very sharp beak and very sharp
claws? Addie? I think that many students can
get the information to the same degree if the
materials and the information is made accessible to them. That’s the key, is creating
access. And it requires a bit of
creativity, and it takes a lot of time. And unfortunately,
that’s something teachers never have enough of,
is time. FRASER: Very often when teachers
in the lower levels use a technique they call the OWL
technique– it’s called Observe, Wonder, Learn– they’ll
use this as part of a curriculum when they are using science and
embedding all their curriculum in the sciences and teaching
literacy and other skills through science. So they may ask the students,
for example, to observe something that’s in a
fish tank or a terrarium in their
classroom. NARRATOR: Shots of colorful
tropical fish in a large aquarium. FRASER: Now, obviously this is
challenging for our students, that the student who’s visually
impaired can’t necessarily see what is in that aquarium or
in that terrarium. An aquarium is probably one of
the least accessible environments for our students,
because they can’t just reach their hands in and grab the
fish, you know? A terrarium can be more
accessible to our students, because generally students can
touch the things that are in a terrarium. The creatures that are in there
are hardier. NARRATOR: A student holds a
turtle above a terrarium. Various other terrariums are
shown. FRASER: They could explore those
creatures and do some observations, and
then create some questions about, “I wonder,” and,
“What I learned,” in the same way that
the other students are. A teacher who already teaches in
a multisensory fashion will be ahead of the game when
they are presented with a visually impaired student
in their classroom or a visually impaired/hearing
impaired student in their classroom. Because multisensory teaching is the most effective teaching
for any student. So if information in that
classroom is being presented in the form of models, in the
form of auditory information, in the form of experiments that
involve the students getting up and
moving around so they’re kinesthetically
getting some information through their
movement, if they’ve having a chance to
smell things. NARRATOR: Teacher and three
students at a lab table handling and smelling some
plants. FRASER: I’m going to pass this
around. All of those things will help
all students, and just coincidentally help our
students. Okay, does it have anything in
it now? STUDENT: It smells like water. FRASER: It smells like water. So a teacher who teaches in that
fashion is already ahead of the game. So if I put some perfume in this
water, okay, what would be your prediction
about these leaves tomorrow? STUDENT: It might make a scent. FRASER: It might make
the leaves scented? There are several strategies
that a student can use. One of those includes developing
of models, both using models and having
students create models. NARRATOR: Teacher presents a
large three-dimensional cell model
depicting various structures for students to touch and
examine. FRASER: So obviously no one can
really see a cell. I mean, what we see through a
microscope, especially those inexpensive
microscopes that they have, you know, in
most school systems, the kids might see a blurry blob
on the other end. So most teachers will have cell
models, many of which are three
dimensional, that students can look at and
examine. So that works for the whole
class, not just the student with visual
impairments. Another activity that is very
important for students that helps with concept
development is actually building a model
themselves. NARRATOR: Students are examining
cell models constructed with a glue gun and placing objects within the
model. FRASER: You can have a student
create a model of a cell. For example, the teacher could
provide a large piece of cardboard with
a large ring drawn in glue with a glue gun. And that’s a very tactual
membrane, so that would represent the cell
membrane of the cell. And then provide the student
with a variety of odd objects– caps, bottle caps, cotton balls,
seeds, and other things. And each of those could become
an organelle, one of those small parts of the
cell. NARRATOR: Teacher and students
gather around a model of a human
skeleton. FRASER: Another activity that’s
a very typical activity in elementary school is
understanding the human body. And one of the many, many
activities in life sciences is understanding the difference
between organisms that have backbones and
organisms that don’t, so chordates. So we’re chordates. A really fun activity for
students would be creating a backbone,
creating a model of a backbone. NARRATOR: Students examining
models of vertebrae and exploring bags
containing material to construct model backbones. FRASER: So what we do to model
this is use either a pipe cleaner or a
string, again depending on the hand
skills of the student and the length of backbone that
we wish to model. We use macaroni and jelly Life
Savers. So part of this is understanding
that models represent something that we cannot easily
touch ourselves, and that people can’t see– no
one can see them. There are a number of concepts
that I hope they’ll come away with from
building a model backbone. One is the idea that the
backbone is composed of vertebrae, that, in fact,
backbones have discs between the vertebrae,
and that, in fact, our backbone encloses
our spinal cord. NARRATOR:
Students threading material onto pipe cleaners to construct
model backbones. FRASER: One way we teach it is
to, in fact, first have the students build a
backbone that has no discs. NARRATOR: One student picks up a model backbone and holds it
near her ear. Another builds a model with
macaroni and jelly Life Savers, then holds it to his ear. STUDENT: It grinded. FRASER: And then the students
can pick up the backbone and wiggle it and hold it near
their ears and hear the macaroni vertebrae
rubbing and crushing and grinding against each other. Then we have them take off those
macaroni and rebuild the backbone with
discs, and then pick it up and again
listen and bend it and twist it, and think about the ways that
their own back moves and compare that to the movement
of the backbone that they’ve built and explore
the questions such as, “What would happen if you didn’t
have discs in your back, and how is this model backbone
like your own backbone?” When students are learning about
the traits and characteristics of different
animals, one of the expectations within
the curriculum is that they’re able to identify
differences among various species of
animals. NARRATOR: Student at desk typing
on laptop. Teacher asks a question. FRASER: Andy, have you located a
hawk sound yet for us? It’s very difficult for a
student who’s blind to see the whole animal. (hawk sound playing) STUDENT: That’s the mating call. FRASER: And we look at traits
and characteristics. However, for a lot of students
it’s beneficial if they can see actual animals. NARRATOR: Student and teacher
examining taxidermied hawk. FRASER: That’s not always
possible. You can’t get up close and
personal with a tiger. Both here at Perkins and at the
science museum there’s possible access for
students to to actually touch animals that have been
taxidermied. NARRATOR: Illustration of four
finch species with different and distinct beak
shapes. FRASER: There’s one very popular
exercise that is common in teaching biology at the high
school level, of course, is understanding Darwin and his
studies with finches, and how they evolved differently
because the shape of their beaks was influenced by
what food was there. So we collect a number of birds
from our instructional material center,
and… with varying kinds of beaks, and
we allow the students to examine them. NARRATOR: Teacher and three
students at lab table examining three taxidermied birds. FRASER: They are different
species of birds. And that may be the first time
that a student even… that student might be 16, 18
years old. That may be the first time, in
high school, that this blind student may have
seen what a bird actually looks like. They may be able to understand
or recognize auditorily the bird calls for a number of
animals. His wings… oh, be careful. But they may never have examined
what a bird actually looks like in terms of
its physical characteristics. It is extremely critical
for the teacher of the visually impaired and the
classroom teacher to talk to one another. And given the reality of the
classroom, very often the teacher is maybe only
keeping one day ahead of her students, especially a
new teacher. And very often the teacher of
the visually impaired has a fairly large caseload of
students at many schools. You know, they might see the
student for only part of a day, or an hour a day,
or a few times a week, or once a week. So being able to communicate about what the science
curriculum is and what’s expected in terms of
models is really helpful. NARRATOR: An illustration of a
diode connected to a battery is shown, alongside
a similar three-dimensional tactile diagram constructed from
toothpicks and wax strings. FRASER: Given a little warning,
a teacher of the visually impaired can create models or
tactile diagrams for the classroom teacher that
will enable that student to do whatever activity it is
the other students are doing right along beside those
students. Or in some cases, some
pre-teaching might be necessary. And so if the teacher of the
visually impaired knows ahead of time what’s
expected, and knows some of the concepts
that the student with the visual impairment might
not have, then the teacher of the visually
impaired can do some pre-instruction that
will help that student be more ready for whatever the
concept is that’s being introduced in the
life sciences curriculum. Every state has professionals
both working with students who are deaf/blind and students who are visually
impaired. Most school systems have either
a teacher who works in that school, or
what we call an itinerant teacher who travels
to that school. And so that particular teacher
would be aware of any of the resources that are
especially designed for students who are visually
impaired. There are a number of excellent
resources that have been developed for students who are
visually impaired. There are a book of tactile
drawings. NARRATOR: Braille textbooks and a large binder of tactile
graphics is shown. FRASER: It has been created and
published by the American Printing House
that most teachers of the visually impaired are
familiar with. And that readily is available,
so that if, let’s say, that day they’re looking at a
picture of an oak leaf… NARRATOR: Several tactile leaf
drawings are on one page. FRASER: …then there are
several different tactile kits that are out there that have
those in there. You know, because maybe it’s
January and there’s no oak leaves
around– they’re all under five inches of
snow. For the public school teacher
seeking resources, there are a number of options,
primary among which would be a local museum in their area. Most museums are quite willing
to adapt equipment, lend equipment, may, in fact,
have a visiting program. NARRATOR: Photographs of a
school visit to an aquarium include students
touching exhibits and handling sea urchins and
starfish. FRASER: We also had an aquarium
that we worked with, and the aquariums were very
willing to take a few of the more hardy
creatures and put them into pails with some seawater and
hand them to our students to hold and examine. And that was just wonderful. And if the teacher of the
visually impaired or the classroom teacher calls
the museum, the museum is usually quite
happy to provide whatever is needed, or can make
suggestions about ways to get that
equipment. They like to be part of the
learning process. The museums are there, in fact, to be a resource for the
community. And it’s just amazing what
museums are willing to do. NARRATOR: Parent at home looking
at Perkins Web site for science activity
suggestions. FRASER: There are lots of
teachable moments that happen in the home, and if
parents would like some additional information to
support some of those teachable moments, on
our Web site there are a number of life
sciences activities that parents could look at, and
they could do those. There’s instructions included
with pictures of what to do, usually with items that are
available around the house, and we love to have parents try
some of those activities. I totally understand the demands
on the teacher in terms of presenting information and
having to have a lot of content, especially under the demands of
standardized testing that’s coming. The scientists have developed
national science standards that the country has adopted. They were developed by a group
of scientists. NARRATOR: Cover of National
Science Standards publication is shown. FRASER: They cover all the
science areas, and in the life sciences the
threads include ecology, understanding about cells, understanding about the human
body, and others. And most states now are, in
fact, testing students at certain points along the way,
usually at least once in elementary school, and in
some states it’s becoming a requirement to
pass an exit test in the sciences in order to
receive a high school diploma. So one of the things that you
notice as you look at these standardized tests that have
been developed and which are based on what people are
teaching… NARRATOR: Video of teacher and
students with cell model. Also, taxidermied bird. FRASER: …they’re not using
three dimensional models. They don’t give you a bird and
ask you to talk about its beak or its claws. NARRATOR: Page of a standardized
test with drawings of cells as shown
and compared with the corresponding page
containing raised line drawings and questions in Braille. FRASER: They’ll give you a
drawing, a flat drawing. And for a student who is
visually impaired, that drawing would be translated
into a raised line drawing. NARRATOR: The cover of a Braille
biology test book is shown. The inside pages contain a
two-dimensional illustration of cells and the corresponding
raised line drawings with questions in Braille. FRASER: And the information
about that drawing would be provided in Braille,
describing what was there. And a student, then, needs to
move, as they become older, from interpreting a
three-dimensional bird to seeing a diagram of a bird on
paper and being… to understand the symbolic
meaning of that. And this is not easy. NARRATOR: A cell drawing in a
textbook is shown with a similar depiction of a
raised line illustration with Braille text. FRASER: And a well-designed
graphic is very important. Teachers of the visually
impaired are trained to create tactile
graphics that will be meaningful and can be interpreted clearly
by their students. So the public school teacher can
ask assistance from the teacher of the visually
impaired and know ahead of time what questions might be asked
just based on the curriculum. Very often we look at previous
years tests and sort of see, you know, “What did they ask
last year? What kinds of things might we
expect?” But generally it’s the things that are the most important
parts in the standards. The other part is just
as living beings, most of what you learn in life
science can be applied to your body and
to yourself and understanding how you grow
and change through time, and how we impact the
environment, how we are affecting our world. And our students will be
consumers someday, too, as adults. And so one of our important
tasks as teachers is to help them be intelligent
consumers as adults. So much of the life sciences
curriculum focuses on learning how to make wise
choices, and understanding what’s in your
food, and the impact of chemicals on
the land, or a number of things, and how there are ecosystems
that are all interdependent. So I think it has a huge impact,
and it’s very sad when a student is discouraged
from participating in a science lab because the
teacher’s worried that the student might get hurt. In fact, the safety techniques
that are used in labs for students work for
all students. And that if you practice safe
practices and learn some adaptive
techniques, then it’s very easy for students
to safely be involved in all of these activities and to learn a lot
about their world.

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