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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

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.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous VK said...

I study Maths at Oxford, and one of my tutors mentioned that one of the new students he selected from interview this year was blind (It came up in a conversation about the difficulty in altering accomdations to suit students in Oxford - all the colleges are committed to providing any new student with the access he needs, but this often gets restricted by the buildings, which are all grade one protected).
He said he had never met any mathematician so obviously capable of pursuing a mathematical career - she could hold large strings of equations in her head, and manipulate them _and_ draw sensible conclusions. I'm in my final year, and I can't even cope with arithmetic without resorting to paper and pencil.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

The Fred's Head Companion
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Filtered Drinking Fountain for Your Dog Guide

By Michael McCarty

After receiving my first dog guide, my wife and I went shopping at our local pet supply store for one of those large tanks that hold water for the dog and
our cats to drink from. I liked the idea that I wouldn't have to be constantly filling a water bowl, which for me meant that I wouldn't be constantly spilling
a water bowl. It turned out that this tank has its own set of problems.

The tank is rather large, so getting it from the kitchen sink to its usual place in our dining room is difficult once filled with water. My wife can't lift
it at all once completely filled. You have to sit the tank of water upside down and place the bowl on top and then quickly flip it over so that the water
from the tank will run down into the bowl. If you're not quick enough, the bowl falls away from the tank and water spills everywhere.

After a few dayss of sitting around, the water gets slimy and the corners of the bowl turn green. Why they didn't make the bowl perfectly round is a mystery
to me but this nasty slime that builds up can't be good for animals to drink. Because the bowl constantly has water in it, you can't simply flip it back
over to remove the bowl for cleaning so you end up wasting whatever water is left in the tank. You have to pack the entire thing back to the kitchen sink,
trying not to spill the slimy water on the floor so you can dump the water out, clean the bowl, refill the tank, and set it back on the floor again. It's
just not worth the work folks!

I was sure pleased to find that someone has built a water bowl that not only solves these problems but is also a way to bring relaxing sounds to your home
at the same time.

The 1.5-Gallon Ultra Bubbler is an automatic pet water freshener that uses an air pump to oxygenate the water, thus inhibiting the growth of bacteria and
leaving only fresh-tasting water. Its large-capacity reservoir supplies your pets with 1.5 gallons of fresh water, enough for an extended period of time.
Best of all, this automatic pet drinking fountain has an adjustable air flow valve that lets you control the size of the bubbles that intrigue your pets
and provide a soothing atmosphere in the surrounding area.

You'll appreciate the large opening that makes the 1.5-Gallon Ultra Bubbler easy to fill. This dishwasher-safe pet fountain is also easy to clean. Additional
features include a translucent reservoir for a quick view of the water level.

Cats love to drink from running water supplies, that's why they will drink from the bathtub while the water's running. This fountain gives them exactly
what they like and the sounds of the bubbles is rather relaxing after a long day at work.

Specifications

Dimensions: 13 3/4" x 12 1/8" x 10"

Capacity: 1.5 gallons (6 liters)

Click this link to purchase the 1.5-Gallon Ultra Bubbler from the Smarthome website.

posted by Michael McCarty at 10:56 AM

http://fredsheadcompanion.blogspot.com/2006/09/filtered-drinking-fountain-for-your.html

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4:08 PM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy comrades! This topic struck Chairman Mal like a dagger right to the old Aorta. I have a strange flavor of RP, the inverse form, and I was never given an opportunity to really learn Math and Science in High School. Believe it or not, my ambition was not to be an all powerful revolutionary leader at the time. No, the Chairman wanted to be the first blind astronaut. Ever the organizational powerhouse, I led my own space club for blind people, and our patron was no other than Aaron Cohen, the erstwhile Director of the Johnson Space Center. Mr. Cohen had a very positive attitude toward blind people and assured our members that we could be Flight Participants and even Mission Specialists on Space Shuttle Missions. Our instructors in High School thought they were doing us a favor by automatically placing the “totals” and “partials” in bonehead Math, and no accommodations were made for us in Science classes. The Special Ed teachers were too lazy or too frightened of our failing to let us attempt more challenging classes and actually cheated by changing enough of our answers on exams to let us pass these courses. Consequently, when I attempted to take Algebra and Trig in College, I failed and went into a deep depression. Perhaps this is now responsible for the wellspring of anger driving my radical beliefs. Of course, really teaching blind kids math and science isn’t all that radical; just difficult for teachers. I am very pleased that the blind lady in Brittan will get the opportunity to develop her talents. I just wonder if a normally abled blind student could be accepted. I mean one, like me, who can do the work but can’t memorize long strings of equations plus formulae to impress the Don. Thanks, BC, for advocating for the blind astronauts of tomorrow. Regards, Chairman Mal: Power to the peeps!

8:26 PM  

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