During the NC State Engineering VIB Camp, high school students successfully completed hands-on activities in real-life NCSU STEM labs. Campers with visual impairments and blindness (VIB) worked along side NCSU professors and student teams in their labs. During the summer, each of these particular lab teams were a combination of current NCSU undergrad and graduate students, a high school teacher, and a supervising professor. In the Biomechanics Lab, Dr. Kate Saul’s research applies mechanical engineering techniques to improve treatment outcomes for neuromusculoskeletal disorders.
Campers learned about the research through a PowerPoint discussion and video, then broke into three groups for hands-on activities. One activity demonstrated how the muscular system works using real bones along with models to show how the bones, muscles and joints work together. Other activities included attaching sensors to arm muscles to measure the energy output; and, stimulating the muscles using small amounts of electric current.
In the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) labs, Dr. Brendan O’Connor’s research focuses on the development of low-cost, high efficiency flexible organic solar cells. In these two labs, students had the opportunity to prepare slides in a sterile environment and then learn more about the tools and processes involved with this type of research.
In the Computer Science Lab, Dr. Tifffany Barnes’ team did a hands-on activity that helped explain the theory behind computer code; these students also facilitated a lively discussion about their passion for computer science and their experiences about being in the computer science department.
How can a student with visual impairments or blindness (VIB) successfully complete hands-on lab experiments? Here are some of the modifications used in the labs during the engineering camp:
Screen sharing app (Join.Me) to view the PowerPoint presentation on individual camper smart phones or tablets
Real objects and simulated models (Examples: real bones and models of joints)
Lab materials placed on tables for easy access of materials and to encourage students to examine and tactual explore
Modified tools that used sounds to represent visual data (Example: Voltmeter with buzzes and lights to indicate muscle energy)
Explore tools prior to using (Example: Glass slides)
Guided individual instruction (Example: Learning to use eye-dropper tool before creating slide and tweezers to carry and move slides)
Detailed verbal description of tools and materials that cannot be physically explored (Example: Hood, “glove box”)
Students are divided into groups so that every student can do the activity from start to finish independently. Rotating between stations keeps students activity involved with less down time.
The same basic accessibility accommodations apply in K-12 education as well as on the college level. The following are suggestions for mainstream educators to incorporate into their labs:
Unfortunately, in mainstream classroom labs, students with VIB are often on the sidelines and are not expected and/or not allowed to do the hands-on portions of the lab. Especially in K-12 labs, students are working with non-hazardous materials and the experiment procedures are typically “safe” for everyone. Students with VIB should be actively involved throughout the entire activity.
Set-up for Success
Schedule a time for the student to explore and learn about the tools that will be used in the lab
Teach the student how to use the tools – initially in a non-sterile environment using non-hazardous materials. (Example: Practice creating slides using the long-handled eye-dropper with water at a desk or sink instead of under the sterile hood.)
Provide written instructions ahead of time. If demonstrating through a video, make sure that the video describes each step and what is happening during each step.
Only if needed, use hand-under-hand; in some instances, hand-over-hand guidance may be appropriate.
When providing instructions, model what you are doing. In some cases, the professor may model the steps directly with the student who is VIB, or another student may model while the professor explains.
Gloves: keep in mind that students with VIB often rely heavily on touch and that rubber gloves can interfere with the sense of touch. When previewing tools and procedures, consider initially handling the tools without gloves. Some students will need to practice putting on these gloves! (Hint: Be sure that the gloves are the right size for the student!)
Divide the class into small groups of 2 or 3 people if possible. This will encourage each person to be actively involved.
Encourage each student to do the activity independently – from start to finish. (Remember, the student with VIB will miss many important details if he/she is expected to “watch” another student performing a step of the procedure. Ideally, the student with VIB should do the entire activity himself/herself.)
Advocate, Advocate! Both with the teacher/professor and with peers.
Ask to pre-view tools, procedures and the written description of the activity
Ask for hands-on guidance, modeling, clarification
Learn to ask guiding questions in order to receive good verbal descriptions!
Expect to be actively involved and be a team player!
Be creative – can you magnify, use lighting, ask for detailed descriptions, touch, use modified tools, etc. in order to make the activity more accessible?
Ask detailed questions – peers and educators may forget to describe or may not know how to provide good descriptions
Kindly remind teachers/professors to post or send PowerPoint presentations, instructions and other pertinent materials ahead of time
Be open to learning about accessibility and be creative in coming up with accommodations/alternative ways of doing things!
Consider class arrangement: if possible, have uncluttered work space
Students with VIB may need additional work space,
Students with VIB may need containers to separate/organize materials
Students with some vision may need color contrast. (Example: Viewing a clear liquid on a glass slide sitting on a white counter will be challenging to see. Try placing the slide on a black placemat.)
Students with VIB may benefit from special lighting and magnification devices
Students with VIB may need modified equipment
If possible, use equipment that provides auditory feedback and/or haptic feedback
For students with low vision, model the activity under a document camera and display the activity on the screen. Use a screen sharing app so that the student can view the screen on his device and can zoom/magnify as needed
Be sure to clearly describe in detail what is being done and the reactions that occur
Provide the student with accessible written materials ahead of time
Schedule a time for the student to do pre-learning with yourself, possibly with the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (K-12); or with a qualified lab assistant/TA (College level).