Accessible science for students with visual impairments

A girl holding a turtle while wearing vinyl gloves.
October 16, 2014

On Perkins' Accessible Science portal, teachers will find downloadable adapted activity sheets, recommended teaching materials, online resources and a webcast presented by Perkins Science Teacher Kate Fraser. All of the information is aimed at making every science experiment accessible to every student in the classroom.

"Science education is about teaching how to solve problems," says Fraser.

Fraser teaches students in Perkins' Secondary Program and is working with Perkins' educators from the Lower School and Deafblind Programs to create a campus-wide science curriculum covering grades Pre-K through 12. The adapted curriculum takes the same material taught in public school science classrooms and makes it accessible to students who are visually impaired, blind, or deafblind.

"We think the curriculum will really improve the amount of exposure to science for our students," Fraser explains.

With a little creativity, Fraser creates opportunities for her students who are visually impaired to understand science through a multi-sensory teaching approach. In her webcast, Fraser uses the example of creating tactile models to help students understand life sciences. Three dimensional models of cells using materials like cardboard, glue, cotton balls and bottle caps, can help students to understand the makeup of every living thing.

"No one can really see a cell," Fraser points out. "All matter is made of particles that are too small to be seen. The way these particles come together, interact, or separate is the foundation of all things on Earth."

To understand the functions of the human spine, Fraser's students create a model by stringing macaroni (vertebrae) and gummy lifesaver candies (discs) onto pipe cleaner (representing the spinal chord). By creating and handling the model spines, the students are able to appreciate such concepts as how the spongy cartilage (lifesavers in this case) protects the bones in the spinal chord.

From developing problem solving abilities to gaining a better understanding of their own bodies and how human beings impact the environment to learning to make wise choices as a consumer, the lessons students learn in the science classroom often have profound impacts on their adult lives.

"It makes them more intelligent consumers," Fraser notes. "They can use their scientific education to analyze what they're hearing."

In the science laboratory students also learn important safety and organizational techniques, which greatly impact their independence and daily living skills.

"In order to be an effective science student and work in a laboratory you need to be extremely well organized," Fraser explains.

Since launching the Accessible Science website, Fraser has been delighted by the emails coming to Science@Perkins.org from educators interested in learning more about how to include students who are visually impaired in the science classroom. Fraser encourages regular science teachers to work closely with teachers of the visually impaired and experiment with hands-on lesson plans to see what works for each student's individual learning style.

In addition to sharing teaching strategies online, Fraser uses her experience to lead workshops at the Perkins Training Center, where teachers from across New England come to receive specialized professional training.

"It's a really nice chance to meet in person with people who are actually working with students in public school classrooms … which is the bigger audience we're hoping to reach," Fraser says.

Interactive weekend and vacation programs offered by Perkins Outreach Services to Students also help to make science accessible to students in public schools. Past programs have included a sleepover at the New England Aquarium where students will learn about science and marine biology as well as a Space Exploration Program allowing students who are visually impaired to experience the thrill of space missions.

Fraser believes our future depends largely on the next generation's scientific literacy and understanding of how the world works. She has made it a personal mission to ensure that students who are visually impaired are given the opportunity to understand and experience essential scientific concepts.

In sixth grade, Fraser developed her personal passion for science when she did a project on trees and learned all they do for the ecosystem - providing shelter for animals, holding the earth in place with their roots, and releasing oxygen for all living things.

"I was totally hooked from there," recalled Fraser, who was discouraged from pursuing a career in science by family and friends. "The era I grew up in was not an era when women could be whatever they wanted."

Having experienced exclusion herself, Fraser is determined to nurture her own student's scientific curiosity and dispel the notion that students who are visually impaired cannot fully participate in science.

"Science teachers at Perkins believe we achieve real success when our students enjoy classes, participate in laboratory experiments, ask questions, and fully engage in the joy of learning science," Fraser concludes.