UA helps visually impaired ‘see’ science

Business News | 2 Jun, 2018 |

A dozen middle and high school students with visual impairments will come together on Mount Lemmon on Sunday for a weeklong education program designed to engage them in science, technology, engineering and math.

The students, from all across Arizona, will complete an adapted version of the University of Arizona’s Sky School, a K-12 science education program held at the university’s Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.

The students will engage in a variety of activities, including insect identification, water quality assessment, nature hikes, and telescope viewings augmented with sound. They also will hear presentations from UA scientists, learn the ins and outs of conducting research, and will give their own scientific presentations.

The weeklong experience kicks off a larger 14-month UA initiative, funded by a grant of more than $1 million from the National Science Foundation, called Project POEM (Project-Based Learning Opportunities and Exploration of Mentorship for Students with Visual Impairments in STEM). The project aims to get visually impaired middle and high school students interested in STEM careers.

While STEM fields such as astronomy can be highly visual in nature, they shouldn’t be considered inaccessible to blind or low-vision students, says Sunggye Hong, principal investigator on the grant and associate professor in the UA College of Education‘s Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies.

Yet, people with visual impairments continue to be highly underrepresented in STEM and often lack encouragement from others to pursue opportunities in those fields, Hong says.

“Not a lot of visually impaired students are choosing STEM as their potential career area,” he says. “We wanted to work together to come up with some motivational, inspirational, scientific projects that increase the motivation of kids who are blind or visually impaired toward STEM.”

The students’ work in STEM won’t end with their Sky School experience. From September to May, they’ll be teamed up with UA students majoring in STEM, and will continue to participate in a unique STEM curriculum developed by the project team. They’ll receive materials that include 3-D models of real spacecraft and documented impact craters discovered in Arizona and on the surface of the moon and Mars – all of which the students can experience through touch. 

Co-principal investigator Steve Kortenkamp, an associate professor of practice in the UA’s Department of Planetary Sciences and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is casting those 3-D models in his lab. Many of them are constructed based on data and images collected by the UA’s Mars HiRISE camera.

“Astronomy is usually a very visual field, but we have a way of making it hands-on,” Kortenkamp says. “The overarching theme is for students to develop an appreciation for how astronomers use impact craters to explore planets in the solar system.”

The students in the program will each be paired with two mentors, with whom they will interact virtually and present their work in the program – a UA student in a STEM major and a visually impaired professional who currently works in STEM. The industry mentors are located throughout the country.

“We were successful in locating 12 industry scientists that have visual impairments,” said project director Irene Topor, a retired UA associate professor of practice in the College of Education, who spent more than 20 years training teachers to work with visually impaired students. “The areas of science they work in include oceanography, mathematics, software engineering, biomedical engineering, organic chemistry and more.”

Students will arrive at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center at around 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, and will remain on site through the morning of Friday, June 8.

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