“A first-of-its-kind tactile learning device” has been developed by chemistry professors at Baylor University “to make science accessible to students with blindness or low vision.” The device offers the possibility of transferring scientific data or images for sighted students into “functional, thorough formats for students with blindness.” This latest research study, from Bryan F. Shaw, PhD, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor, was published in the journal Science Advances. Dr. Shaw‘s growing research focus on science accessibility is inspired by the experiences of his 15 year-old son, Noah, who “is thriving despite losing one eye” to cancer and having limited vision in the other. This research focused on developing a codex, or book, using lithophane, “an ancient art form,” to convert images in scientific textbooks into tactile formats for students with vision loss. In collaboration with John L. Wood, PhD, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Baylor, the study documents experiences from students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). Dr. Shaw explained that “’This is the first example that we know of in which blind high school students are able to visualize nanoscopic and microscopic imagery with tactile sensing at the exact same resolution as their sighted peers.’” The research, which involved TSBVI students, showed that students with blindness or low vision could “accurately describe, recall, and distinguish data and imagery at an average accuracy of 88 percent—comparable to sighted peers.” Tactile visualization, occurring alongside laboratory training, synthesis, and mentoring by chemists who are blind, also resulted in “increased student interest and sense of belonging in science.”
Addressing Barriers to the Study of Chemistry by Individuals with Vision Loss
This research shows promise for overcoming the longstanding barriers to the study of chemistry faced by students with vision loss, due to the inaccessibility of science labs to people with disabilities, a dearth of non-visual educational materials, and technologies not yet addressing the needs of those with visual impairments. Dr. Shaw’s laboratory has been focusing on devising techniques to “eradicate those barriers for students with blindness and other disabilities in the future.”
Tactile Sensing Through the Ancient Medium of Lithophanes: Students with Vision Loss “Won’t Be Missing Out on Anything”
Students involved in the study described above visualized the data through the use of lithophanes, thin engravings made from translucent materials that were likely devised in China “as early the seventh century” and made popular in Europe in the 1800s. These engravings are now 3-D printed with “raised imagery suitable for tactile learning.” Study findings suggest that “beginning students can visualize, comprehend, and discern high-resolution nanoscopic or microscopic images as well as a sighted person.” The use of lithophanes, Dr. Shaw explained, “’make the high-resolution, serious data 100 percent accessible to students with blindness. They won’t be missing out on anything.’”
For more information, visit the Baylor University Media and Public Relations webpage announcing that Baylor Professor’s Tactile Lithophane Development Makes Hard Scientific Data Available to Students with Blindness. To read the complete research article on the study, visit the Science Advances webpage on Universal pictures: A lithophane codex helps teenagers with blindness visualize nanoscopic systems.