Denver School Gets Blind Students Into Chemistry

Aug 6, 2013

Mixing chemicals in a high school lab is challenging enough. Imagine doing it if you were blind.

A group of visually impaired students from all over the country had that chance at Metro State University in Denver recently.

It’s part of an effort to get more blind people interested in science, technology and math — fields in which they are severely underrepresented in the workforce.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jenny Brundin of Colorado Public Radio has more.



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Mixing chemicals in a high school lab is challenging enough. Now imagine doing it if you were blind. A group of visually-impaired students from all over the country had that chance at Metro State University in Denver recently as part of an effort to get more blind people interested in science, technology, and math. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin has more.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Quinita Thomas expertly traces her fingers around the top of a glass beaker. She gingerly touches the sleek sides of an electronic probe, then she feels the hard edges of a metal test tube holder. And the 17-year-old can hardly contain her excitement.

QUINITA THOMAS: Science is my favorite subject. Actually, I'm a geek.

BRUNDIN: She's also...

THOMAS: Completely blind and I'm proud of it.

BRUNDIN: Quinita, who goes by Q, is in a chemistry lab at Metro State University. It's part of a summer program sponsored by the Colorado Center for the Blind.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That was a good question, Q. We are going to be using a pH meter today. So first question is, how many of you...

BRUNDIN: Q and other blind students are learning to analyze the pH levels of various liquids. First, Q reads the lab procedures in Braille.

THOMAS: Refer to the data table and fill each of the test tubes two to five to about the same level with its respective solution.

BRUNDIN: Her partner runs her fingers over the equipment, getting it ready, then they really have to listen very carefully to these instructions for the little machine in their hands. It's called a Talking LabQuest, and it looks like a handheld calculator.

CARY SUPALO: All right. Now, the harder functional buttons for the four corners. All right. So I'm going to...

BRUNDIN: Professor Cary Supalo guides them around every nook and cranny of the Talking LabQuest. One thing it allows blind people to do is put a probe in liquid. It then spits out a numeric pH value.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: 5.74, 5.96.

BRUNDIN: The main message Supalo wants to get across to the students...

SUPALO: It's OK to be a blind person in the laboratory.

BRUNDIN: Supalo helped develop the machine. He's an assistant professor of chemistry at Illinois State University. He's also blind. He also helped invent a device that graphs data and then play sounds to represent the data trends in the graphs.

SUPALO: And if it goes down in tone, say, it goes, eww, like that, that implies a negative slope of the line. Or if it's a sinusoidal wave, it'll go woo, woo, woo, woo, sound like a siren.

BRUNDIN: These gadgets help. But for blind students to work in a lab, it's really all about communication.

THOMAS: No, that's tube one. That has the vinegar in it.


THOMAS: Oh, I have lemon juice in my hand.

BRUNDIN: And Supalo emphasizes that ambiguity doesn't cut it.

SUPALO: It's over there. This one. That. OK. That's ambiguous. You say, the first beaker on your left or the furthest beaker to the right.

BRUNDIN: But it's still hard when you can't see anything. Across the room, another set of students is struggling.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #2: I'm going to have to do it over again because I messed up big time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's OK. It's all right. We can fix it.

BRUNDIN: The boys weren't really listening during the explanation and got confused about the procedure. Plus, they're having trouble using the Talking LabQuest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Shh. I can't hear it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And then you need to break down...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Unintelligible)

BRUNDIN: Typically, blind chemistry students have a sighted partner in the lab. It fulfills the academic requirements, but it's not particularly inspiring. Q says sighted students take chemistry for granted.

THOMAS: They get accepted into schools and colleges, and they say, oh, I'm taking a chemistry class. And it's like, well, I want to take a chemistry class, however, I don't want to work with a sighted student. I want to be able to do this independently.

BRUNDIN: The American Foundation for the Blind says less than a quarter of blind people in the U.S. are employed. Of that number, only a tiny fraction are in science, technology, engineering or math-related fields. Part of the problem, stereotypes about what blind people can do. Professor Supalo recalls a (technical difficulty) that he gave at a conference in Germany to a group of skeptical chemists.

SUPALO: So I lit a Bunsen burner, I heated up a beaker full of water, I poured from one container into another. And as they say, people seeing is believing.

THOMAS: You know what we could do...

BRUNDIN: Back at the lab bench, Supalo's adaptive gadgets are giving Q the time of her life.

THOMAS: All right. Hold on, hold on. So let's take the coke and the lemon juice to see what happens. Yeah.

I know I'm blind and all that, but just because I can't see does not mean that I can't mix chemicals together and not be afraid about something exploding up in my eye, you know? I mean, this is something that I'll definitely remember.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Where's the heat coming from?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Your hand. And it's going to the what?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Beautiful, beautiful.

BRUNDIN: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.