UA Trains Visually Impaired Youth for STEM

Images and data from the UA’s Mars HiRISE camera are being used to help visually impaired students gain interest in scientific exploration and study.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications - July 5, 2017

Using images and data from the University of Arizona's Mars HiRISE camera, Sunggye Hong and Stephen Kortenkamp are creating educational experiences and tactile tools about the Red Planet to help students gain insight and interest in scientific exploration and study — and motivate students to imagine their future as scientists.

Their interdisciplinary work at the UA has gained the attention of the National Science Foundation, which has provided a grant at more than $1 million to fund a research and engagement project.

"Opening up STEM careers through better awareness among pre-college-age students is a real need," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "I very much admire that UA faculty in the College of Education are helping create this awareness for students with visual impairments through their engaging approach to learning. This project and the NSF's support for it are outstanding examples of what the UA can do for students through collaboration and the creativity of our faculty members."

Called Project POEM, short for Project-Based Learning Opportunities and Exploration of Mentorship for Students With Visual Impairments in STEM, the effort will involve 35 middle and high school students with visual impairments in a 14-month program meant to train them toward the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

"Mars is one of the most fascinating topics in the world of science today. If a student has an opportunity to study and to analyze data collected from Mars, that would be a very exciting and motivational component to helping students' interest in science," said Hong, associate professor in the UA College of Education's Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies and principal investigator on the NSF grant.

Other Project POEM collaborators are the UA Sky School, the UA Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, the UCAR Center for Science Education, the American Printing House for the Blind and Denver-based educational consultant McREL International.

In developing the program, Hong and his partners were attentive and responsive to the Next Generation Science Standards, a multistate effort developed by a team of researchers commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation.

Mentors to Lend Support

As such, the program will be project-based, rich in content and complemented by the support of mentors — UA undergraduate and graduate students and also STEM industry professionals who have visual impairments.

The educational tools being designed also address the problem of students with visual impairments having too little access to the types of resources that can help them understand complex scientific topics and drive their interests in science.

"Much of the STEM curricula is so visual, so you must make appropriate adaptations and modifications for the materials to be used," Hong said.

"We know that there are these difficulties, but there are also techniques we can use to navigate such barriers," he said. "If students are frustrated with not having properly modified materials, they can talk through problems with people who have gone through the same frustrations, and students with visual impairments can figure out ways to overcome those difficulties."

Using images and data from Mars sourced by the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the team led by Hong is also creating tactile, 3-D models of the surface of Mars that students can use to study the planet's physical characteristics.

Over the course of the program, the middle and high school students will learn about STEM concepts and Mars through learning models and other forms of engagement. They then will work alongside their mentors to develop and execute a research project about Mars, relying on adapted images and also data from the UA's HiRISE camera currently operating on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The project draws heavily on the child education expertise of Kortenkamp, associate professor of practice in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in the College of Science, who also written and published children's books on topical issues related to science.

Kortenkamp also said he is especially dedicated to improving resources for students with visual impairments after having worked early in his UA career with a student who was blind.

"Astronomy is such a visual field, so it became a challenge for me in how I was teaching the course," Kortenkamp said. He began to more readily employ audio components and also introduced tactile tools — resources he would use for years.

"Finding other ways of presenting the material, rather than just lecturing, is so fascinating. And putting that extra effort of finding materials and presenting them — whether your student can see them or not — helps to show that you are truly invested in learning," Kortenkamp said.

Also motivating Hong and Kortenkamp is the need for improved STEM-related educational resources and the problem of underemployment among individuals with disabilities, especially in STEM fields.

Creating a 'Set of Experiences'

Individuals with visual impairments are highly underemployed, with the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Foundation for the Blind reporting that only 30 to 38 percent of that adult population is employed. 

"When you see 70 percent of a population unemployed, that is a huge problem," Hong said. "Our idea was that if we could create a set of experiences for students with visual impairments to give them knowledge about STEM fields and find ways to keep them motivated in considering the STEM field as a potential occupation, we could raise their persistence toward STEM."

Ultimately, the team plans to develop curricula that K-12 teachers may use to replicate the program in other parts of Arizona and the nation.

"Students with visual impairments are capable of becoming successful scientists — if all the pieces of the puzzle are given appropriately," Hong said. "It is not the limitation of an individual, it is more about awareness of the public and working to bring STEM experiences to people with visual impairments."

Also, a research initiative is embedded within the project, and the team will be evaluating best approaches and methods for designing the effective and immersive experience to actively engage students.

"Not everyone will become a scientist. But if they can gain interest in these technical areas, they may take a different route in life or have a deeper appreciation for the field and become more technologically savvy," Kortenkamp said. "It never hurts to have some of that background, or at least be comfortable around science and math."