Making science accessible

Perkins students have always used hands-on methods to study science, from botany to astronomy

Six boys in old-fashioned clothes stand around a wooden table, conducting a science experiment

Studying science has always been a priority for Perkins students, who use tactile items and hands-on experiments to learn. In this 1929 photo, Perkins students conduct an elaborate scientific experiment involving two large basins filled with liquid, wooden paddles and an egg beater.

March 1, 2017

Samuel Gridley Howe, Perkins School for the Blind’s first director, was committed to teaching “scientifically.”

From the very beginning, students at Perkins used their sense of touch to explore scientific subjects ranging from physics to anatomy to botany. According to Howe, “The principle, on which the education of the blind is conducted, is to endeavor to place eyes in their fingers’ ends, and to adapt all the apparatus of education to this new sight.”

As he was in so many other areas, Howe was ahead of his time. When a child is blind, deafblind or visually impaired, it can be difficult to teach them about things they cannot touch. Howe understood that students who were blind did not have the benefit of learning about the natural world incidentally through observation, so tactile exploration of models supplemented theoretical science instruction.

In 1839, after relocating to a spacious campus in South Boston, Howe established a tactile museum at Perkins featuring taxidermy animals, minerals, shells and models of the solar system. Howe’s successor, Michael Anagnos, was similarly enthusiastic about the tactile mode of instruction and expanded the museum’s holdings – purchasing 501 new objects in a single year. Among his contributions were papier-mâché botanical models of fruits and flowers, purchased in France.

Subsequent directors would take a different approach to science instruction – emphasizing practical applications over theoretical work. By the early 1900s, it wasn’t uncommon to see students in a chemistry class sitting at a lab bench, surrounded by beakers, tubing and other equipment while their instructor looked on.

In the late 1940s, Perkins began to host science fairs. Young biology students exhibited models of skeletons crafted from plasticine and clay, while young chemists showed off sometimes odorous chemical reactions.

The tactile museum also underwent a major renovation. By the 1950s, exhibits were integrated into the curriculum, making them a dynamic element of classroom instruction. In a zoology class, for example, students could touch a wide variety of exotic stuffed animals, including an anteater, sloth, bat, toucan, tortoise, and a small alligator or crocodile.

Today, technology has opened up new scientific horizons for students who are blind or visually impaired. Students at Perkins can be found in the lab measuring the oxygen levels of water from Perkins Pond or experimenting around campus with an emerging scientific field called soundscape ecology.

The annual science fair has also evolved. In 2013, Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, visited Perkins to observe science projects that ranged from measuring audio amplification of tin cans, to exploding soda bottles, to exploring biodiversity in succulent plants.

Whether at a science fair, in the classroom or out in the field, Perkins’ commitment to enhancing students’ scientific knowledge of the world remains as strong as ever.

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