A Perkins student holds a turtle as science teacher Kate Fraser looks on.

Helping Students with Visual Impairments “See” Science

You may have now, or will have in the future, a student with a visual disability in your classroom.

By Debra Shapiro

You may have now, or will have in the future, a student with a visual disability in your classroom. Where do you turn for help and support?

One source is Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, the oldest K–12 school for the visually impaired in the United States. NSTA member Kate Fraser, who teaches science there, insists science for students with visual impairments “is possible and meaningful. It can be done.” Science helps these students “learn about their world,” she says, and even students with profound visual disabilities can experience the challenges and excitement of scientific discovery.

The Challenge of Obtaining Science Materials

The biggest challenge for their teachers is obtaining science materials, according to Fraser. She and her colleagues “provide as wide a range as possible,” including hands-on models, braille text, audio textbooks, and “talking scales” for making measurements. Another option is to reproduce materials like drawings or maps “in a form that is tactile and hands-on”—adding raised dots, for example. Fraser and her colleagues call these pictures “tactile graphics.” Many textbooks now contain tactile graphics, she adds, and Perkins even has a machine that does the conversion.

Older students can use computer software that helps them work with lab materials. “Technology is the biggest friend for our students,” observes Fraser.

At Perkins, teachers aim to stimulate all the senses. Sound, movement, and smell are all part of science, and “multisensory teaching benefits all students,” not just those with visual impairments, she points out.

Working with Scientists with Visual Impairments

One important component of science learning for students with disabilities is exposing them to working scientists who share their disabilities. Perkins has partnered with Amy Bower, a physical oceanographer and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who is legally blind. Their collaborative project, OceanInsight, aims “to communicate the importance of understanding how the Earth works, instill the excitement of oceanographic research, and introduce Perkins students to careers in the geoscienceshttps://web.whoi.edu/oceaninsight/ that they might not otherwise consider as accessible to them,” states the project website. Funding for OceanInsight comes from a National Science Foundation grant Bower received, as well as from WHOI, Perkins, and the National Grid Foundation of Hicksville, New York.

Kate Fraser, left, stands with Amy Bower aboard WHOI research vessel.
Kate Fraser, left, stands with Amy Bower aboard WHOI research vessel.

OceanInsight has enabled students to take field trips to Woods Hole, where they “see science in action,” says Fraser. For example, they tour a docked ship, the Oceanus, and experience the ship’s laboratories.

Students work on class projects related to Bower’s research, such as measuring the density and temperature of sea water. In 2007, students took an “online expedition” to the Labrador Sea, located between Canada and Greenland, where Bower and her team were studying ocean currents. Fraser accompanied the researchers. They called and exchanged e-mails with Perkins classes and even sent them “audio postcards” (mp3 files) describing their activities.

Some students are learning to use the “adaptive, high-tech tools” Bower uses in her work, notes Fraser. In addition, Bower and other WHOI scientists have visited Perkins to give presentations to students and parents, and Bower has judged science fairs.

The school is now in its fourth year of collaborating with Bower, whom Fraser calls “a wonderful role model for our students” showing them “careers in the sciences are indeed possible.” To learn more, read Fraser’s article, “Oceanography for the Visually Impaired,” from the March 2008 issue of The Science Teacher (TST), available free from the NSTA Learning Center.

Help for Teachers

Bower has collaborated with Fraser and her colleagues to create Accessible Science, a website with resources, materials, and activities for special education teachers, general education teachers, parents, and students. The Perkins staff is creating webcasts for teachers, says Fraser.

Perkins eLearning offers professional development to teachers, professionals, and administrators.

Besides Perkins, Science Education for Students with Disabilities (SESD, an NSTA Associated Group) offers teacher resources. See also the National Center for Blind Youth in Science website.

NSTA Resources

NSTA’s Students With Disabilities web portal links to the NSTA position statement on Students With Disabilities. Other resources from the NSTA Learning Center include:

Reprinted from NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) Reports, April 30, 2009

a mixture of beads and buttons in a cup and a piece of gauze

A Model of Platelets and Fibrin: Blood Clotting

Cover of Science Literacy

Science Resources for Teachers

The image is a Hubble Space Telescope image of a spiral galaxy.

Preparing for Middle School Physical, Earth and Space Science