Materials Science & Nanoengineering

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Rice researchers convey science concepts to people with visual impairments

Targeting an underserved population, Ringe Group researchers are creating science learning modules tailored to people with blindness or low vision (BLV). The group is collaborating with the Lighthouse of Houston, a nonprofit education and service center that assists BLV individuals, to teach basic science concepts through short learning activities in a fun and informal environment.

“Because science is traditionally taught in a very visual way, many BLV individuals haven’t participated in science education since school and have very few opportunities to stay current in the subject,” said Emilie Ringe, an assistant professor in materials science and nanoengineering and team leader of the Ringe Group. “My team aims to not only create educational science modules for people with visual impairments, but to also provide templates for organizations and educators to implement sessions and events on their own and increase the continuing education resources available to the BLV community.”

Of the 6.7 million Americans who are visually impaired, 63 percent are unemployed and 59 percent have not pursued a secondary education. Ringe and her team had to find ways to reach and engage audiences with a variety of backgrounds, including age, sightedness and education. To ensure the effectiveness of each science module, the researchers gathered feedback from a series of preliminary events conducted with blindfolded volunteers and BLV individuals.

“While a Ph.D. student in Chicago, I was involved with the Blind Services Association and ran with a BLV individual as his guide once a week,” Ringe said. “When I got to Rice and had resources and a team at my disposal, I wanted to make a bigger impact for a larger audience and realized I could do so with science.”

The first science outreach event the team hosted for 20 BLV adults featured four modules that utilized tactile and auditory approaches to convey four basic science concepts: the metric system, material strength and deformation, transparency of materials and the electromagnetic spectrum. Each module was performed with one demonstrator and one participant to maximize learning.

“While we had a diverse participant group, they all shared an innate quality in wanting to learn something new,” Ringe said. “They really enjoyed the modules because they were so unique. They haven’t had access to anything like this before.”

Ringe and her team will host the second annual event featuring the original modules and five new modules in May.

“Our goal is to continue to roll out new modules, host at least one annual event and put forward an ever-increasing resource that stays fresh,” Ringe said. “If participants become excited about joining the scientific community from our work, I would be absolutely thrilled.”

The Ringe Group’s findings are published in the Journal of Chemical Education. 


 — Kendall Schoemann, Rice University Public Affairs