Volume III Number 4, December 1996

Teaching Science To The Visually Impaired: Purdue University's Visions Lab

David Schleppenbach
Purdue University

The areas of science and mathematics have traditionally been inaccessible to students with visual impairments. Complex and high-tech fields such as Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Biology, and Mathematics are rife with visually-presented concepts and information. Historically, this complex visual information has not been made available for widespread use in a format easily accessible to blind and visually impaired students. This lack of information, in turn, leads to decreased interest in scientific fields by the blind, and thus few visually impaired scientists exist to provide standards for imparting scientific knowledge to the blind and to serve as mentors and role models for those visually impaired students who wish to pursue careers in the sciences.

The Purdue University VISIONS Lab, which stands for Visually Impaired Students Initiative ON Science, is a research laboratory dedicated to providing access to the numerous science courses at Purdue. Since its inception in the summer of 1995, this university-funded lab has served as a production facility for providing visually impaired students with educational materials and as a research lab for developing new adaptive technologies. Interestingly, the VISIONS Lab was part of a university-wide response to the problems that visually impaired students face when attending a major university, and included the efforts of individuals from the Office of the President to the individual Teaching Assistants themselves, and everyone in between. As of Spring 1996, the VISIONS Lab has worked with two blind pre-medicine majors and one low-vision graduate student in Chemistry. The VISIONS Lab has been involved with course work from many different departments, including but not limited to Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, Psychology, Biology, Agronomy, and Spanish. As can be seen, the VISIONS Lab has rapidly expanded beyond its initial design to become a gestalt facility, encompassing and supporting the daily needs of the students as well as predicting and planning for future needs.

The approach of the VISIONS Lab to solving specific academic problems encountered by visually impaired students can be divided into two distinct parts: educational needs and technological needs. It is often the case that the latter is most easily provided; however, it is of paramount importance that the educational requirements of learning not be lost in the forest of high-tech, glamorous equipment. To this end, the VISIONS Lab administrators participate in planning the student's course needs on a semester-by-semester basis with the help of case conferences with the student, his or her instructors, and several university student service organizations such as the Dean of Students Office. After the needs have been assessed, the scientists involved in the daily operation of the lab take charge and develop the necessary technology to realize these educational necessities. The VISIONS Lab currently employs several graduate and undergraduate students, under the administration of the director, who develop and produce the educational materials needed by the students on a daily basis.

In order to fully understand the power and usefulness of this approach, the two halves of the VISIONS Lab problem-solving strategy will be examined for two courses from two disparate disciplines. The courses to be discussed in detail are Organic Chemistry and the Calculus. These classes serve as excellent examples of the technological and educational advances developed by the VISIONS Lab and available as educational standards on the World Wide Web. In every case, the adaptive technologies used for a particular class depend primarily on the abilities and strengths of the students. For example, a student skilled in Braille will receive most of the course information in tactile format, whereas a student geared towards auditory learning will be the recipient of taped lectures, computer-synthesized screen readers, and other vocal learning methods.

The VISIONS Lab originally was conceived as a means to solve a nagging problem in mathematics, specifically dealing with a particular calculus course. Calculus is a special challenge for the blind, as it is very difficult (and sometimes not possible) to interpret all of the mathematical information orally. What was needed at Purdue was a way for the blind students and faculty to quickly and easily interact with each other and communicate complex mathematical ideas. Since the two blind students at Purdue were different types of learners, one auditory and the other tactile-oriented, a general strategy to service both was desperately needed. The solution to this problem, which was produced by the VISIONS Lab during its initial development stages, was to develop a software program that would translate mathematical and scientific equations into a format appropriate to blind students. The initial approach was to convert the equations into the standard Nemeth Braille code for mathematics; later, modifications were made to allow speech output of the equations (this is still in development). The program is available on the VISIONS Lab homepage at http://www.chem.purdue.edu/facilities/sightlab.index.html and is freeware, together with a manual explaining its use.

Also available is a tutorial manual to the Nemeth code, that follows most example equations in the Nemeth Braille Code for Science and Mathematics, 1972 rev., and translates it into Braille using the program. The program was created as a giant macro for WordPerfect for Windows version 6.0 or 6.1 and produces all output in proper Nemeth Braille code. This allows the various secretaries at Purdue who type materials for the Calculus courses to submit the tests in electronic format to the VISIONS Lab. The secretaries must follow a few simple typing conventions when creating the documents, but these conventions in no way prevent the final document from being used by BOTH sighted and blind students. Also, the typing conventions are clearly detailed with examples in the manual and are usable by someone with no knowledge of Braille. The VISIONS Lab, upon receipt of the electronic copy of the document, converts the equations into Braille using the macro. The literary portion of the document is then translated using a commercially available Braille translator, the Duxbury (TM) Braille Translator for Windows. Many other translators would be suitable as well, however, such as MegaDots(TM) from Raised Dot Computing. The final Braille document is embossed on a Braille printer such as the VersaPoint Braille embosser. This entire process, from receipt of the electronic document to printing of the Braille copy takes about 5 minutes per page translated on average. Of course, documents that are not in electronic format or that include special items may take longer. This process is certainly easier than translating the entire document by hand, which may take days or weeks.

After the development of the Braille translation software, the next natural step was to allow for speech output of equations as well. This project, currently under development, will allow students to translate the equations themselves and have the information read to them via a standard software package (TextAssist (TM) for the SoundBlaster (TM) family of sound cards). Concomitant with this project is another in sound imaging. This project attempts to vocally image two- or three-dimensional objects (such as matrices in math or molecules in Chemistry) in three dimensions around the listener's head. This is currently being done with the SoundBlaster (TM) card and the Qsound (TM) software technology, as well as a pair of Altec Lansing (TM) SurroundSound (TM) speakers.

Of course, some aspects of calculus require more advanced treatment. For example, much of advanced calculus deals with the interpretation of two- and three-dimensional graphs, and how aspects of them relate to mathematical equations. This information simply cannot be communicated orally, and yet it is vital that the student understand graphical relationships, since many key ideas in science and math are too complex to be interpreted symbolically. Indeed, the use of models and visualization to simplify complex ideas is a critical skill for future scientists; blind students, like others students, must be able to assimilate vast amounts of data at a glance by the use of graphs and diagrams. In order to deal with this problem, the use of a Tactile Image Enhancer (TM) from Repro-Troniks (TM) was used. Various standard computer graphing packages such as MathCad, Maple, and Mathematica were modified to produce graphs with Braille labels created by the Duxbury Braille Font for Windows (TM). After printing these images in ink, the images were transferred via Xerox to Tactile Image Enhancement paper and converted into a raised Tactile Image via the Tactile Image Enhancer. When appropriate, these graphs and diagrams were embedded in the Braille text of the document by cutting and pasting. For images that are not reproducible by the computer or available in electronic format, scanners were used with a graphics program like CorelDraw (TM) to produce ink output for subsequent image enhancement. This general technique, like the equation translation, has two advantages: the ability to accept electronic forms of diagrams for enhancement, and the overall speed of the process. For diagrams received in electronic format, the entire process - from modifying to pasting into the Braille document - can take less than 15 minutes.

The second subject dealt with by the VISIONS Lab, and perhaps the most challenging, is Organic Chemistry. This field involves several problems that are especially difficult for blind students. First, Organic Chemistry involves a tremendous volume of material, which is barely tolerable by many sighted students and can be too much for some blind students to keep up. This is mainly because of the lengthy process of listening to taped or read materials. Second, most of the material in Organic Chemistry is two- or three-dimensional in nature, and it is critical to have an understanding of spatial relationships of molecules to be an organic chemist. Finally, the laboratory part of the class must be modified to allow blind students to use the laboratory equipment, perform experiments, and take data.

For the Organic Chemistry lecture, the main problem was in translating the material into Braille or tactile images for the blind students. The main process once again involved the translation macro, which can also translate all chemical reactions not involving complicated two- or three-dimensional molecules. For those molecules which are not expressible in linear format, tactile images were once again embedded in the appropriate part of the text. For producing Braille tactile diagrams of chemical structures, several standard chemical drawing programs were used, including HyperChem, ChemDraw Pro, Chem 3D, and Chem Windows. These modifications have been standardized and are available on the World Wide Web. Also, some modifications and/or additions to the existing Nemeth code had to be developed to allow for complex chemical reactions and structures, as this was not a part of the existing code. Whenever possible, the spirit of the Nemeth code was kept in mind when developing new conventions. Thus, many of the conventions are very small adjustments to existing rules and symbols to allow for inclusion of information from the world of Chemistry. These new Braille conventions are also available via the VISIONS Lab homepage on the World Wide Web. One problem with converting chemical diagrams is that often the diagrams are too complex or too crowded for successful tactile interpretation. Because it is difficult to decide what information (if any) can be excluded from a complex chemical diagram without loss of meaning, careful consideration was given to educational adaptations. With the help of Chemistry faculty and teaching assistants, the diagrams are simplified on a case-by-case basis, with the main goal of remaining as true as possible to the original diagram. In general, many diagrams can have their original meaning preserved by simply enlarging the details to allow proper tactile resolution of things such as location of atoms, movement of electrons, etc.

A final problem for the blind Chemistry students was in the evaluation of their learning. Often when taking tests or quizzes, the organic student must demonstrate knowledge by drawing detailed diagrams of reaction mechanisms or chemical structures. Three different approaches were used to combat this problem. First, a Velcro box was constructed with Velcro pieces that attach to the surface and stick. The pieced are differently shaped and labeled in Braille as to the identity of the piece. The geometry of the particular piece indicates its identity as well. For example, carbon atoms are squares labeled with a "C", and in chemical reactions, Carbon bonds with four other atoms (indicated by the four sides of the square). Electrons are represented by small circles. This allows the student to interact with a tutor, teaching assistant, or proctor and demonstrate a reaction to someone who does not know Braille but does know Chemistry. A second approach was the use of raised line drawing kits, such as the Swail dot inverter or the Sewell raised line drawing kit, both available from the American Printing House for the Blind (TM). Here, both the student and proctor can draw "stick" diagrams (which are commonplace means of expressing reactions in Organic Chemistry) and interact in real time just like a sighted student with an ink pen. A final approach was the creation of software, still in development, that will take Braille typed on carbonless copy paper (which makes an ink image of the Braille dots), scan this Braille into electronic format with a scanner, and re-convert this scanned Braille into text. This would allow blind students to hand in assignments in Braille for the professor (who knows nothing about Braille) to later grade and return. The eventual goal for this would be to have a computer act as the intermediate between professor and student; that is, the computer would translate from print-to-Braille or vice versa and serve as the interpreter for the blind student and the professor.

The Chemistry laboratory also presented several formidable challenges. The first concern of many members of the Chemistry faculty was the safety of blind students and their assistants in the laboratory. Thus, any adaptations made must account for safety and proactively prevent any possible dangerous situations from arising. To this end, it was decided that a sighted laboratory assistant, together with the technological adaptations, would be best for all involved. This situation has been proven beneficial for the blind student as well as the other students and teachers, because the blind student has the opportunity to fully explore the laboratory environment with immediate feedback from the assistant, and can learn interactively along with the other students. As far as the technological aspects of the laboratory equipment, some modifications were made to the actual equipment, allowing for knobs and buttons to be Brailled and so forth, and all of the laboratory materials were made available in Braille. Most of the readings and measurements were taken with the use of the lab assistant, who acted as the blind students "eyes" and "arms" for some of the work such as taking a reading from a dial, mixing chemicals, heating solutions, etc. Some work is currently being done in the VISIONS Lab to convey some laboratory instruments such as spectrophotometers to voice-output systems. However, the more promising area of research in the VISIONS Lab has been in the area of virtual instrumentation.

The VISIONS Lab is currently exploring, with the use of both in-house and commercial programs such as LabView, the creation of virtual experiments on the computer that would have voice-input and voice-output control interfaces. Purdue currently uses virtual instrumentation for a number of its laboratory courses, so the task is to modify the existing software.

As can be seen, the VISIONS Lab is both adapting existing technology and creating new technology to solve specific problems encountered by blind science students. We have made these advances available on the World Wide Web in the hopes that others working on similar problems will join with us in an attempt to solve some very challenging problems. It is our sincere hope that the advances developed in the VISIONS Lab will provide the impetus for blind students to begin to explore the realms of science that have been so difficult to learn for so long.

Purdue's long-range plan for the VISIONS lab is one of optimism and hope that many blind students both at Purdue and around the world will take advantage of some of the standards developed here. Together with adaptive technologists around the globe, the VISIONS Lab hopes to make the future of science education for the visually impaired a brighter one.

Schleppenbach, D. (1996). Teaching science to the visually impaired: Purdue University's Visions Lab. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 3(4).