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the Last Word

Teaching Chemistry to Blind and Visually Impaired Students

by Christian S. Hamann, Ph.D.,
associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and chair of the faculty

Faculty at Albright College routinely mentor students in undergraduate research. In the summer of 2009 I agreed to work with chemistry and history major Henry "Hoby" Wedler, a junior at the University of California-Davis.

The relationship developed out of my sabbatical collaboration with Professor Dean Tantillo at UC-Davis the year before. I knew of Hoby, although we had not formally met, because Hoby always asked insightful questions at the end of departmental seminars. He also took copious notes during seminars, typing - somewhat loudly - on a personal recording device.

When I returned to Davis for the summer of 2009 to continue my sabbatical research, Dean asked me to mentor Hoby. I happily accepted. I thought, "Wow, here's a bright, articulate undergraduate who asks good questions of world-class scientists. Impressive!"

"Just one more thing," Dean added. "Hoby is blind."

What exactly had I just committed to do? I had no first-hand experience with blind students.

My senior thesis student Nicole (Reed) Klinksiek '04 had developed chemistry experiments for blind students during the summer before her senior year at The North Carolina State University. Nicole's excited accounts of that work were inspiring, but once-removed was as close as I had come.

But, I knew how to teach, I knew how to do research, and I knew how to be a mentor. Put those skills to use, I told myself, and you can do this.

Two years, two manuscripts, a dozen poster presentations and one summer camp for blind teenagers later, I realize I committed to a professional transformation in my approach to research and teaching.

I arrived in Davis that summer and met with Dean and Hoby to establish Hoby's project, using computational methods to predict the physiologically relevant structure of a chemical motif prevalent in commercially available drugs. Concurrently we would be assembling or developing the accommodations necessary for Hoby to work as independently as possible.

With the support of the Tantillo research group and other faculty at UC-Davis, we created a set of systems that allow Hoby to explore hypotheses by developing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and discussing and presenting the results of his research.

Hoby had a terrific head start studying science as he participated in youth camps that focused on the STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) disciplines. Currently a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in Dean's lab, Hoby hopes to be a college chemistry professor, so our conversations naturally turned toward the education of the next generation of chemistry students. With the Tantillo group and others we developed a series of experiments designed to introduce blind or visually impaired (BVI) high school students to the world of experimental chemistry, both wet and dry.

In July this year, with support from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Hoby and I, along with Davis graduate student Jason Harrison, led the chemistry module for the biennial NFB Youth Slam at Towson University in Maryland. Over five days, 15 BVI students and five mentors explored chemical synthesis (converting a chemical that smelled like dirty sneakers into a chemical with the odor of bananas), volumetric analysis (determining the concentration of acid in lemon juice using olfactory detection, an experiment developed by Klinksiek) and the biochemical synthesis of biofuels (fermentation of sugar into ethanol purified by distillation and used to power a fuel cell).

The students presented their experiments at a camp-wide science fair at the end of the week. Once relegated to recording data for their lab partners, the students were now active participants in their own discovery process. In most cases their theoretical knowledge was quite strong. They connected opportunity with accessibility in the same way that practicing scientists connect theory and experiment, emphasizing the power of both wet and dry chemistry and the inextricable link between these fundamental aspects of the scientific process.

I stepped up my teaching game: While I still gesticulate (a useless technique with blind students but a tough habit to break), I am more careful with my words and more patient with my students' responses. And I continue to raise the bar while simultaneously providing the support necessary so my students can clear the bar. Working with BVI students further cemented my commitment to excellence in teaching and learning.

Faculty members play an essential role in helping students strive to achieve the best of their potential. At Albright we focus on connecting students to their abilities, regardless of preparation, background, advantage or disadvantage. Applying the same approach to address special needs (which in some cases began with blindness and included attention deficit and hyperactivity, autism spectrum conditions, and cerebral palsy) allowed my fellow Youth Slam instructors and me to tap into a creativity that we are only beginning to appreciate.

I am grateful to my Youth Slam students for teaching me more about teaching. Their bravery and willingness to learn new material inspires me to discover new teaching techniques and ways to connect students to their abilities.

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