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Understanding the world through STEM

How Perkins adapts math and science education to give students practical, real-world tools both on and off campus.

Two students demonstrate Bernoulli's Principle Experiment in advance of the science fair.

This story appears in the Fall 2018 issue of In Focus.

Secondary students at Perkins School for the Blind are learning to make a chemical equation. One student, representing sodium (Na), stands next to another representing chloride (Cl). Kate Fraser, science teacher, holds a “yield” arrow. To her left stand two students linking arms: NaCl.

Fraser explains how joining two elements creates a new compound, entirely different from its components. “You use NaCl every day: it’s salt!” she exclaims.

Perkins has been teaching math and science in some form for over 180 years, but they’ve evolved critically since then. Today, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education curriculum helps students integrate into a technology-driven world and develop practical life skills.

This recent emphasis on process and practicality may be new for some, but not Perkins.

While Fraser has watched these subjects change over several decades, the curiosity and passion they evoke are still the same. “Science studies the world around us,” she said. “Students here can learn to know it on different levels. I meet the student where they’re already at, understand their method of learning and go from there.”

The curriculum mirrors what’s taught in public school but is adapted for students with visual impairment through braille textbooks, assistive technology, raised line graph paper, braille/large print measurement tools, Wikki Stix and more. Perkins also has a public Accessible Science webpages showing ways to tailor lessons and materials.

Accommodations can make all the difference in subjects that usually rely on vision to convey ideas. “When students come here, everything is automatically adapted for them, so that stress is gone,” said math teacher Susan Sullivan. “Students are able to master concepts they might not in a typically paced class.”

Fraser believes that touch and sound are also critical. “I teach students to hear the sound of a jug being filled with liquid, so they know when to stop pouring,” she said. “I also try to get students outside. They can experience earth science by collecting leaves, feeling the texture of moss, listening to the sounds of nature.”

Fours students wearing headphones and laughing

Students regularly come in contact with STEM professionals like Amy Bower, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who’s legally blind. Some students go on to pursue STEM learning in college or professional training, and their former Perkins educators often offer support and even help find accommodations.

No matter what, students can use their learning out in the world. “There’s a quote on my syllabus: ‘Math is like going to the gym for your brain—it sharpens your mind.’ Math teaches critical thinking and perseverance, facing something hard and comprehending it,” said Sullivan.

Generous donors like the Cabot Corporation Foundation make this possible. Jim Kelly, VP and corporate controller for Cabot Corporation, said, “An important part of our mission in community giving is to promote STEM education. Designing engaging curriculum is challenging, even without the added complexity of teaching students who are visually impaired.

“Through our support, students can receive more individualized instruction. We hope it gives them access to both college and employment opportunities.” Cabot Corporation funds the Perkins’ Annual Science Fair, math teaching assistants and standardized test prep.

Perkins educators also work with teachers in public schools who instruct students with visual impairments. To that end, Fraser is developing a course supporting accessible STEM education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The course is aimed at teachers with students who have different needs across schools and grade levels.

“I’d love to see more resources to support integrated STEM education, not just through assistive technology, but in the field too,” she added. “There’s always more to do.”

Twelve students graduated on Friday from Perkins School for the Blind's Secondary and Deafblind Programs.

Exit strategy

Curbside pickup, led here by Education Director Pat McCall and Physical Therapist Lori McCall, gave parents a safe way to obtain learning materials for their children.

Learning during the pandemic

A young boy runs on the track during the Walk/Move for Perkins event.

Graduating students and families, in their own words