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

This webcast is intended to assist educators in adapting Science curriculum for visually impaired and deaf-blind students.

Visit our Accessible Science microsite to learn more!

This webcast is intended to assist educators in adapting Science curriculum for visually impaired and deaf-blind students. While the demonstrations were recorded in a classroom at Perkins School for the Blind and Perkins’ students assisted in the video, the strategies and techniques described can be applied across grade levels and subject matter.

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Presented by Kate Fraser

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Teaching Strategies – Observe, Wonder, Learn
  3. Multi-Sensory Teaching
  4. Adaptive Strategies Models
  5. Communication & Planning
  6. Resources
  7. Testing Standards
  8. Importance of Making Life Science Accessible

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Making Life Sciences Accessible to Students with Visual Impairments with Kate Fraser. 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 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.

CHAPTER 2: Teaching Strategies – Observe, Wonder, Learn

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.

A student holds a turtle above a terrarium. 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.

CHAPTER 3: Multi-Sensory Teaching

FRASER: 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.

A student at a lab table handling and smelling some plants. 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?

CHAPTER 4: Adaptive Strategies – Models

FRASER: 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 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.

A student examining cell models constructed with a glue gun and placing objects within the model. 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)

Teacher and three students at lab table examining three taxidermied birds. 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, 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, in high school, that this blind student may have seen what a bird actually looks like. They may be able to understand or recognize auditorially the bird calls for a number of animals. But they may never have examined what a bird actually looks like in terms of its physical characteristics.

CHAPTER 5: Communication & Planning

FRASER: 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.

An illustration of a diode connected to a battery is shown. 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.

CHAPTER 6: Resources

FRASER: 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.

Braille textbooks and a large binder of tactile graphics is shown. 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.

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.

CHAPTER 7: Testing Standards

FRASER: 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.

Pictured is a two-dimensional illustration of cells and the corresponding raised line drawings with questions in Braille. 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 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.

CHAPTER 8: Importance of Making Life Science Accessible

FRASER: 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.

Visit our Accessible Science microsite to learn more!

Making Life Sciences Accessible to Students with Visual Impairments with Kate Fraser.

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