UNIVERSITY PARK – In high school, chemistry wasn’t something that interested Cary Supalo. In fact, he hated it. As a blind student, he wasn’t allowed to conduct any experiments — his lab partner did the work, then reported the results to Supalo.
His attitude toward the science changed in college. Fulfilling a chemistry general education requirement at Purdue University, Supalo met some graduate students who spent a lot more time with him in the lab, sparking his interest in chemistry.
Today, Supalo is a Penn State student working on his doctorate in chemistry education and is developing tools to replicate that extra help he got in the lab so that other visually impaired high school students will have a better appreciation for the sciences.
Supalo’s latest project, funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research in Disabilities Education program, was given to his adviser, Tom Mallouk, DuPont professor of materials chemistry and physics. It is called “Independent Laboratory Access for Blind and Low Vision Students in Mainstream High School Science Classrooms.”
“There’s a big difference working one-on-one with someone who will explain the concepts to you,” Supalo said. “It was great being able to talk about chemistry and get answers. Chemistry gives you the potential to discover something new that can change the world.”
Mallouk, who is sighted, understands. “Most chemists are fascinated by the results of an experiment but find it much less fun if someone does it and tells them what happened,” he said. “So that’s how we started out on this project — developing new tools, taking lab procedures, modifying them slightly and making them more accessible all while working with high school students.”
Supalo completed his undergraduate degree with a double major in chemistry and communications because he thought “a scientist should be able to communicate.” He then came to Penn State in August 1999 to get his Ph.D in inorganic chemistry. When he began his doctoral degree program he ended up taking a different route than he originally intended.
“Cary was doing a research project but as a blind grad student he was having difficulty — research labs aren’t really designed for blind people to work independently,” said Mallouk. “A lot of chemistry is visual. It took him awhile to finish his master’s degree, and we thought it would be a more useful thing if his Ph.D research involved developing enabling tools for blind people.”
Mallouk and Supalo’s first grant from the NSF also was for $300,000 and was awarded in 2004. It allowed them to work with students from the Indiana School for the Blind, testing software with a computerized voice that narrates each step of the experiment and instruments that essentially do the same, which they developed with Rodney Kreuter in the chemistry department’s electronics shop at Penn State. The focus of that work was to improve the way blind students participate in the chemistry laboratory. The work they did with the first grant was a success. However, Supalo said 75 percent of blind students are mainstreamed in public classrooms and he felt the tools he, Mallouk and Kreuter created could have a greater impact on more students. Also, new tools were needed to enable a broader range of experiments, and to extend the project to physics and other laboratory sciences.
Supalo is well connected in the national community of blind people, Mallouk explained. He received e-mails from parents and teachers of students in public schools who were interested in their work. Thus came the idea of the second project — to mainstream the tools and instruct willing teachers on how to use them through several online training modules. The goal is to make the tools available as widely as possible, by posting the programs online for free use and by making inexpensive instruments.
“There’s a real push to get people with disabilities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions,” said Supalo.
He explained that people with disabilities have spent their lives problem-solving challenges to adapt to their surroundings. He thinks the skills they’ve developed to do so will enhance a career in one of the STEM fields.
In addition to helping students who are blind, Supalo said the instruments will even help sighted students in lecture settings because everyone can hear the experiment being described, regardless of whether or not their seats will allow them to see what their professor may be doing.
Supalo will spend his next three years visiting the schools that are implementing the instruments in the classroom, collecting feedback from students and teachers, sending newsletters and encouraging online interaction between the students and teachers using the instruments.