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Blind Students Confront the Chemistry Lab

Audio

Aired 8/18/09

Theoretical science is a field that's open and accessible to all. But lab work poses some real challenges to blind students interested in becoming chemists. A dozen blind San Diego teenagers visited a UC San Diego lab to feel and hear the results of some basic chemical experiments.

— Theoretical science is a field that's open and accessible to all. But lab work poses some real challenges to blind students interested in becoming chemists. A dozen blind San Diego teenagers visited a UC San Diego lab to feel and hear the results of some basic chemical experiments.

Penn State Ph.D student Cary Supalo (left) demonstrates a voiced computer system that helps visually-impaired chemistry students gain independence in the lab.
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Above: Penn State Ph.D student Cary Supalo (left) demonstrates a voiced computer system that helps visually-impaired chemistry students gain independence in the lab.

High-pitched tones in this chemistry lab are coming from small devices called a SALS sensors. They're electronic boxes attached to thin glass probes which measure ambient light when dipped in a liquid. The tone changes pitch as the liquid changes color, allowing these blind teenagers to know whether their chemistry test worked. The man running this workshop, in UCSD's York Hall, is a Penn State Ph.D student named Cary Supalo, who is blind himself. He demonstrates a voiced computer system hooked up to some other sensors.

"So when you hit Control-Shift-S, listen to what it's going to tell us: 'Not collecting. Two sensors found. Temperature. Relative humility.' Did everybody hear that?" he said.

Supalo got his master's degree in inorganic chemistry. But he's made science education his specialty, with a focus on using technology to bring the blind into the lab. Lab work is a fundamental task all chemists need to do. But observing the results of tests has required the ability to see. Lab managers also fear that blind people could be harmed by the many toxic materials that can't safely be touched. Supalo says today blind people can work in laboratories, even without the help of a sighted assistant. In addition to adaptive technical tools, it requires certain skills.

"Organization is key," said Supalo. "It can be as simple as knowing where you place it on your bench top, you know, 'Here's where this is and here's where that is,' to being familiar with what that chemical can do to you and to others."

Another blind chemist is Dennis Fantin, a research professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Every summer he also teaches blind high school students how to perform lab work.

"My reason for doing that is not because I want to train a bunch of blind bench chemists," said Fantin. "My reason for doing it is that chemistry really is a gateway course to all of the sciences, the whole natural world."

Fantin said the key technical challenges for blind chemistry students are data collection and analysis. Talking computers and audible sensors are among the things that make lab work accessible. One common task for chemistry students is learning how to make a battery. For the sighted, a light goes on when the circuit is closed. Fantin said in his class an electrical buzzer goes off.

"Chemistry occurs all around us with or without human beings being able to see," he said. "The question is how do you take measurements, how do you take data, how do you make observations."

Back in the York Hall lab, a ninth-grader named Harrison reflects on his limited scientific education.

"I was just saying I haven't taken chem yet except for the time I had to drill 50 elements into the periodic table," he said.

Blind, like the others, Harrison probes a liquid with a SALS sensor to hear its color change. He feels an airtight plastic bag expand, which tells him carbon dioxide is being produced inside. Another blind teenage student, Erica, who attends San Diego's Preuss School, says this is the first time she's actually worked in a science lab.

"To get hands on, in an experiment, yea," she said. "Usually I just sit around and watch. Listen."

The technology that's available in this workshop is still unknown in most high school science classes. John Miller is an electrical engineer who's president of the science division of the National Federation of the Blind. He said today blind chemistry students who want to work in a lab still typically need sighted assistants. Miller says that's a problem because it means you're only as good as your assistant's observations, and it's very hard to understand the process of discovery. But he says things are already changing, and in a few years Miller expects the blind to see science as a field that will include and welcome them.

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