STEM Subjects and Blind Students
When the word “stem” shows up in most news sources these days, it tends to refer to the cellular biologists and their work with stem cell research. This work has great importance and may result in cures for many types of blindness as well as many other horrible diseases. This article, though, refers to STEM (in all capital letters) subjects in schools and how blind students often miss out on learning about them.
STEM, the acronym, means, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Beginning with pre-school, most of these subjects come with very visual teaching materials. Those of us who grew up with vision can synthesize many images of everything from chemistry experiments to drawings of a bored Galileo watching the incense urn swinging while timing it using his pulse to discover one of the most fundamental rules of physics. The language of mathematics, with Nimith and Gardner providing good writing systems for blind readers, has been somewhat conquered in a tactile sense but I haven’t experienced a very good audio description of anything beyond the most basic equations.
Ted Henter, who, with HenterMath (link above), attacked this problem has a lot of basic arithmetic working in Virtual Pencil and also has an algebra module that does a great job for people trying to learn these subjects who have vision impairments and, through an unexpected side effect, also seems to have found a niche among students with a learning disability that causes trouble understanding symbolic information when read visually. Thus, a package designed for blind students seems also to work for LD which makes the market potential much larger and should attract more investors and grants to such a task.
Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush the Elder all spoke to the basic facts that the US is falling behind the other western nations in education for all students in the STEM subjects. The matter seems far worse among students with vision impairments. When a blind student asks most high school guidance counselors about college choices and career opportunities, they tend to be steered toward the humanities, social work and other fields where there are jobs but fairly low pay scales.
There is a reason that, when you visit a major US university ranked in the top thirty for science and engineering that you find so many students from abroad. Simply put, the US has too few high schools like Bronx Science and too many that cater to the middling student and too few students who can excel at the university level as they never built the groundwork necessary for such studies. Again, this tends to be far worse for students with some kind of vision impairment as school systems look at the current text books and educational theorists all seem to work to improve test scores for the mediocre and ignore discovering new metaphors that can be deployed using today’s technology with a bit of solid design work and a way to educate the educators.
Why are the STEM subjects important to people with vision impairments? Simply put, a blind software engineer with five plus years experience, just like a sighted counterpart, in a solid market can earn $100,000 per year or more. Science teachers and college faculty make a large premium higher than their liberal arts compatriots. A lot of fields considered outside of the STEM fields require them to understand. Finance, for instance, can be very restricted to a person with vision impairment as, if you can’t do differential calculus, you can’t do quantitative equity analysis (for instance) and, therefore, cannot take one of those super high paying analyst jobs on Wall Street.
If you don’t understand the basics of physics, all kinds of engineering from the highly abstract DSP sorts of things which are more like programming than electrical engineering, to problems in civil engineering where a blind person may not be the best choice to work on the aesthetics of a structure but certainly could handle a lot of the calculations for things like stress loading and such.
With very few exceptions, major league athlete, taxi driver, air traffic controller, there seem to be very few careers that a person with vision impairment cannot learn to do some or most of. Unfortunately, the educational infrastructure, except in cases where very motivated parents, very motivated students and a very motivated system (Cambridge, MA for instance) combine to provide the blind students with the tools they need to work in the most lucrative jobs.
How can we change this? First off, we can look at the tools that exist today. Products like Virtual Pencil and Gardner’s Accessible Graphing Calculator and things I haven’t heard about should be brought to the attention of educators around the US. HenterMath and ViewPlus are not among the biggest players in the AT business and neither has a lot of marketing power. Both, however, have excellent products. So, in order to push this topic, you can send a letter to your local School committee or Board of Education or whatever it’s called in your area and tell them that these tools exist and describe the compelling argument that without such, the poor employment record and relatively low salaries among blinks will continue forever but, with some tools that exist today, a major change can happen in the future.
If we can start a fire with VP and AGC, we can probably start attracting grants and investments into teaching other STEM subjects from pre-math for pre-school students to surreal numbers for post-doctorate students. We can better provide companions to text books for people with textual impairments so they can study economics with augmentations that make the text books make a bit more sense to people who can’t process printed symbols.
I have my ideas on how to approach some of these problems but I am neither an educator nor educational theorist. I’m just a hacker from New Jersey who went blind and started hanging out with other blinks and made some pretty good software for my community. I hope to learn more about how to build UI metaphors that will improve efficiency and, perhaps to learn more about the educational concepts so I can participate in making these tools in the future.
As I got to grow up with vision, it’s difficult for me not to synthesize images of all kinds of scientific and mathematical information when I think about them. Unfortunately, blind children today will not have the same opportunities I did and, to improve the lot for our entire community, we should start a letter writing campaign to help promote the tools that exist and try to convince researchers and AT companies to start taking this educational divide seriously.