Cary Supalo touches the hands on his watch and tells me that our train should be pulling up any minute. Moments later, I see the headlights of the commuter train that will take us from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to West Trenton, N.J.
It's been a long week for Supalo, having visited several high schools and research collaborators across the country, and he looks worn. Hopewell Valley Central High School, in Pennington, N.J., is his final stop, and he has invited me to come along.
Supalo, who attends Pennsylvania State University, is nearing completion of the work for his doctorate in chemical education. For his thesis, he is following the progress of 10 blind high school students as they test several assistive instruments for the chemistry lab. Supalo and his colleagues at Penn State and collaborating institutions are developing these tools with a grant from the National Science Foundation Research in Disabilities Education program.
Blind himself, Supalo is keenly aware of the challenges blind students face in learning chemistry, especially in the lab. When he was in high school in the early 1990s, Supalo wasn't allowed to touch anything in the lab, he recalls. He wasn't even allowed to wash labware because his teacher was afraid Supalo would hurt himself.
Such experiences and a passion for equal access to education motivate Supalo to do everything he can to make sure the next generation of blind chemistry students has more opportunities in the lab than he had.
Roughly 100,000 students at the K-12 level in the U.S. are blind, according to Mark A. Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Whether these students decide to major in chemistry, literature, or business when they're in college, almost all of them will be expected to take some chemistry in high school.
Traditionally, blind students got through chemistry lab by partnering with a sighted assistant. Although this arrangement got the job done, it robbed the blind student of a hands-on lab experience. "It was fairly unsatisfying to do laboratory chemistry, because I always worked with an assistant," says Dennis Fantin, who is now a chemistry and biochemistry lecturer at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo. "The reality was that the assistant did the work and reported to me. I sat on the stool." Fantin does point out, however, that having a sighted assistant can offer intangible benefits, such as cultivating a blind student's ability to extract information from others.
Nevertheless, this feeling of dependence can discourage blind students from considering chemistry as a possible career. "Students get shunted away, they get discouraged, they get blocked from pursuing something they might otherwise be very good at," notes David Wohlers, a professor of chemistry at Truman State University, in Kirksville, Mo. Wohlers, who is blind, says he was told by his guidance counselor in high school that it was "too bad" he couldn't major in chemistry. Despite that discouragement, Wohlers received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Kansas State University.
New assistive tools are now giving blind students a taste of the independence they crave. One example is the submersible audible light sensor (SALS), under development by Supalo and his collaborators on the Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind (ILAB) project.
At Hopewell Valley Central High on the day I visit, junior Trevor Saunders, who is blind, shows me how he uses SALS in his Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry lab. The SALS probe emits a specific pitch when it senses a color change in a solution, for example during a titration experiment.
Saunders also demonstrates the color analysis laboratory sensor (CALS), which is another probe to determine the color of solutions. CALS is still under development by the Penn State chemistry department's electronics shop, Supalo says, but SALS should be on the market by the end of the year.
Supalo and his collaborators have also written computer scripts that allow nearly all the laboratory probes developed for sighted students by educational company Vernier Software & Technology to be adapted for blind students. The only noticeable difference is that a blind student's laptop would be equipped with screen-reading software that reads aloud the data collected by the probe. Because they simply adapt off-the-shelf equipment, the assistive tools won't become outdated when the technology evolves, Supalo says.
Efforts at using technology to assist blind students in the chemistry lab began in the late 1970s at East Carolina University, when the late chemistry professor David C. Lunney and graduate student Alger D. Salt built a talking instrument for blind undergraduate student Richard Hartness, who was frustrated by his lack of independence in the lab. Nicknamed the "dumb talking box" because the instrument did not contain a microprocessor, it could nevertheless voice digital measurements such as temperature, voltage, current, pH, and time. The instrument also conveyed signals from gas chromatographs and infrared spectrophotometers as rising and falling pitches. Hartness, who now works with the Metrolina Association for the Blind, in Charlotte, N.C., says the device gave him independence.
Lunney and his colleagues later developed a more advanced, microprocessor-based instrument called the Universal Laboratory Training & Research Aid (ULTRA). Robert C. Morrison, an East Carolina chemistry professor who codirected the ULTRA project with Lunney, says the devices were at the cutting edge of technology at that time, "but the technology changed so fast that it was nearly impossible to keep up." ULTRA, which weighed 40 lb and cost $8,000, was never commercialized, but it effectively proved that such a device was possible. Many of Lunney's papers describing the work have since been published in journals and on the Internet. "He was a big fan of putting everything he could in the public domain so that anybody could use it," says Margaret M. Gemperline, who worked on the project as a graduate student at East Carolina.
Assistive tools do not have to be high tech to be effective, notes William J. Skawinski, a blind chemistry professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He remembers that one of the most effective tools he had in graduate school was a glue gun filled with glitter glue. He would ask his dad or his cousin to go over NMR spectra with the glue gun so that he could feel the peaks. "It was absolutely perfect for getting the information from those spectra," he recalls.
On the day that I visit Hopewell Valley Central High, Saunders' AP chemistry teacher, Lillian A. Rankel, pulls out several boxes of creative adaptations that she and her students have developed for Saunders. For example, they have foam magnetic cutouts of various chemical equations that Saunders can feel and move around on a magnetic board, pipettes that are notched with precise measurements, and a pie tin that Rankel places under a drop counter so that Saunders can hear how quickly liquid is coming out of a burette.
Rankel says when she learned in 2005 that Saunders would be taking her chemistry class, she went to a craft store and bought foam boards, peel-and-stick magnetic sheets, glitter paint, and a hot-glue gun. "To tell someone they can't do a lab just because they're blind, that's not right," Rankel says. "Every parent wants the same opportunity for their child. I would want the same opportunity for my kids if they were blind."
Blind students often just need for someone to tell them, "You can do it." In June, Fantin organized a chemistry workshop where blind and visually impaired high school students did experiments that rely heavily on nonvisual senses. For example, the students performed acid/base neutralization using lemon juice and baking soda. They tasted the results, monitored the changes in pH with an audio pH probe, and then tracked the evolution of CO2 gas with headphones at a listening station.
The students also extracted fats and oils from a variety of foods, including french fries. "It's satisfying to actually put your fingers into the fat or the oil and to realize that, through some interesting chemical procedures, you can actually end up with substances that have a very different feel," Fantin says. "When this experience is followed up by making the very compounds you have isolated with a simple touch-coded molecular modeling kit, the differences between saturated and unsaturated lipids begin to take on real meaning."
Fantin says he hopes his workshop will motivate blind students to give science a try. "Once the interest is there, the technology certainly exists to enable blind students to gain a rather complete understanding of the subject," he says.
Fantin's workshop is among a growing number of programs designed to encourage blind students to become interested in the sciences. Since 1998, French perfume giant L'Occitane has offered an annual summer workshop for blind and visually impaired high school students to study perfume-making in Provence.
And in 2004, the National Federation of the Blind began hosting an annual Science Academy, which has evolved into the Youth Slam. This year's event was held over five days in July and brought together 200 blind and low-vision high school students from around the U.S. to engage in activities intended to build confidence and increase science literacy.
These efforts also help raise awareness among the general public about what blind and visually impaired individuals are capable of doing. "Some of the most creative people I've met have been blind," says Kurt Herzer, who is legally blind and a premed student at Johns Hopkins University. "I think the perspective they have on things is enhanced by their visual loss."
The American Chemical Society offers resources to assist individuals who are blind or visually impaired. James M. Landis Jr., chair of the society's Committee on Chemists with Disabilities (see page 42), says the committee helps connect blind and visually impaired students with working chemists who are also blind or visually impaired, who can serve as their mentors.
Rankel connected with Supalo in 2005 through the committee. Since then, Supalo has made numerous trips to Hopewell Valley Central High to follow Saunders' progress. Rankel always invites Supalo to stay at her house, and she has a home-cooked meal waiting for him when he arrives. She knows that Supalo loves ice with his soda and that the best way to explain the location of each item on his plate is to relate it to the hands on his watch. For example, corned beef at three o'clock and carrots at nine o'clock.
Supalo and Saunders have also become close friends, talking about everything from music to whether Saunders should ask a girl to his school's prom. Supalo says Saunders reminds him a lot of himself when he was in high school, reserved but fiercely ambitious. "Whenever Trevor has a success, I take pride in that," Supalo says. "It doesn't matter whether he succeeds, just that he got the chance to participate."