1998 Conference Proceedings

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Scientific Visualization through Tactile Feedback
For Visually Impaired Students

Richard R. Jones

Arizona State University is a level I research institution with 44,250 students and one of the largest populations of students with disabilities in the country. Over 1600 students utilize services from Disability

Resources for Students. Such a large population of students with disabilities requires an extensive program of academic services, career counseling, tutoring, reading, large print, braille services, library and testing services. Disability Resources for Students provided over 20,000 hours of accommodations and 8,000 pages of braille for students with disabilities.

The total undergraduate population for the College of Engineering, Mathematics and the Applied Sciences at ASU is over4,300 students. Seventy six students with disabilities have selected fields of study in math, engineering or the applied sciences. The 1995 Digest of Education

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education states that 8.7 percent of undergraduate students with disabilities choose Science, Math, Engineering and Technoloy (SMET) majors. The number of students who are blind in SMET majors is not available at the present time becasue students who are blind or have a visually impairement are placed in one statistical class. The grant participants feel that the almost complete absence of students who are blind in ASU SMET majors reflects a national trend. This dearth of disability involvement is contrary to the fact that field of study has educational and professional opportunities that could be attained by students who are blind if it were possible to learn the conceptual distinctions exemplified in educational specimens.

This grant uses the Scanning Probe Microscope (SPM) and Stereolithography or Layered Manufacturing to produce models. These models are used in conjunction with educational techniques that will allow students who are blind to learn laboratory based information as easily as sighted classmates. The Scanning Probe Microscope is capable of displaying specimens on the nano level. The images produced by this process are usually displayed on a computer monitor. The images can be rotated and viewed from any angle. Layered Manufacturing takes the SPM image and produces a physical model of the specimen. The physical representation o a specimen, created with the SPM and Layered Manufacturing process, is the tool this grant uses to create instructional modules for students who are blind.

This grant is in agreement with the constructivist position summarized by Erick F. Strommen. To grasp the computer as a system, particularly as it matures, let us concentrate, on neither hardware nor software, but on an underlying process, the digitization of information. The computer, as a system, introduces a new way of representing information in our culture, a new way of encoding ideas. When complete, it will constitute a deep transition in our history, one equal in importance to the introduction of printing, quite possibly to the development of writing itself.

Layered Manufacturing provides three-dimensional models for students who are blind to use to gather information. No longer must a student have certain physical characteristics to conceptualize three dimensional models.

Specimens, used in classroom activities, can be enlarged through Layered Manufacturing process, in three dimensions, and labelled in Braille in one day. The creation of instructional models to match the instructional abilities of the student is an essential element in the transition of education from the acquisition of facts to the manipulation of ideas.

There is a caveat with the implementation of any new medium: "...new tools alone do not create educational change. The power is not in the tool but in the community that can be brought together and the collective vision that they share for redefining classroom learning." In the first stage of this grant, students who are blind were recruited from the Phoenix area to attend a series of meetings. The purpose of these meetings was to record the student's reactions to the models and their ability to use these models for instructional objectives. Their comments, over several meetings, were the basis for developing the instructional techniques being refined by the grant.

At first, students found it difficult to understand the difference between a plastic demonstration model and the models created through Layered Manufacturing. The presentation of a passive commercial instructional model is far removed from the purposed of these sophisticated models. The grant models are real-time, accurate representations of specimens. The models are specific to the lesson plan and the instructional objectives of the instructor. However, while the instructor's objectives are essential to the success of her/his lesson, developing instructional techniques to present these objectives in a tactile format is the focus of this grant.

Students were very helpful in discussing the types of information that they gathered from models and the requirements they felt were necessary for the success of the model as an instructional tool. Some of the objectives that they felt must be considered when creating a model are:

  1. The importance of an instructional preset of information about the model and the subject under discussion before starting the lesson.
  2. Orientation of the model to the user
  3. Use of textures, created with Auto-Cad software, to focus attention on specific parts or information (temperature, pH, colors, and topographical features) about the specimen. (It is important to remember that these models have no inherent color. They are created by the SPM probe "sensing" the surface and creating a topographical map by recurring taps or readings.)
  4. The production of a set of models that are not altered with textures. The purpose of these models is for students who are blind to use them as a comparison with the textured models.
  5. The use of these models to show a process by capturing sequential stages in the process. This is a crucial element for students who are blind who often receive incomplete verbal descriptions that are based on a visual image of a scientific process.
  6. The use of models in lower division classes and possible uses in upper division classes.
  7. Limitations of the models to be of any substantial benefit without a change in postsedondary instructional methodologies. The change in instrutional methodologies should allow exploration, goal setting and data analysis in unique ways that may not be identical for every student, but which should exhibit the same inductive and deductive problem solving skills.

The interesting element in objectives one, two, five and seven are their similarity to some of the instructional objectives in student centered learning and specifically in inquiry based learning. This direction in instruction certainly supports the current NSF goals and strategies for revitalizing SMET instruction in this country.

The second stage of the grant is to implement the use of SPM based models in three ASU classes to experiment with the effective presentation of tactile data in a college level classes. The classes selected are

  1. Properties of Matter (ECE 394B), a junior level course, in Chemical Engineering;
  2. Patterns in Nature (PHS 208), a sophomore level course in Physical Science for in-service and preservice teachers.
  3. Scanning Probe Microscopy (Chem 394), a junior level interdisciplinary course.

The grant is currently in the second stage. We have already created a tactile model of a phase diagrams. While a phase diagram is an abstraction. It is certainly an abstraction that would be difficult or impossible for a blind person to understand without a model. As further evidence that the use of physical models is different than standard accommodations, it should be understood that ASU could create a braille graphic to show any phase diagram required by a blind student. The braille representation of a phase diagram would be unrecognizable by a sighted instructor. The techniques to create a complex graphics would make the graphic unusable by the instructor or sighted students. The blind student would be isolated from other students as he or she examined their "special" representation of the data. If the blind student used a Layered

Manufacturing based physical model, it would appear the same as the printed diagram. The "tee" that we have developed to allow the blind student to gather data concerning composition and temperature at any place on the diagram would be useful to the sighted students as well as the students who are blind. The class would be able to communicate about the diagram and explore a physical model. The use of multiple learning styles in any lesson will benefit all student and is a major objective of current NSF efforts in increase science literacy.

The final objective of this grant is to disseminate our findings and methodologies in collaboration with other statewide educational institutions through three day workshops to be offered this summer. The final goal for the grant is for instructors to create individual lessons designed to include students who are blind in regular SMET classes through use of inquiry based learning objectives and SPM /Layered Manufacturing based models.

As this grant approaches its final stage, the interest or commitment from the academic community has been limited. Eccept for a few dedicated faculty who have worked conscientiously with the grant to develope instructional models, the general attitude of academic professionals exibits the prejudices and egocentrisms that have restricted science eduction in this country to the few who can imitate the instructor. The three day workshops that were planned for the last segment of the grant are being changed to hour long presentations to discuss the grants findings and the creation of Web based training modules for dissemination of the grant findings. The use of Internet based lessons designed to provide the findings of this grant may be an effective way to reach instructors when they wish to consider alternative teaching strategies,(see EASI).

Note: This NSF grant is through the PRISM project for Layered Manufacturing at ASU. Anshuman Razdan Ph.D. is the P.I. on the grant and director of the PRISM project. J. W. Mayer Ph.D., V. Burrows Ph.D., B. Ramamkrishna Ph.D. are contributors to the grant.


Equal Access to Software and Information, (EASI)
c/o American Association for Higher Education
One Dupont Circle, Suite 360, Washington, D.C.20036-1110
Phone: (202) 293-6440 ext: 48, http:/www.rit.edu/~easi

D. Lunney, R. C. Morrison. High technology laboratory aids for visually handicapped chemistry students. Journal Chemical Eduction , 58, 228 (1981)

Skawinski, William J., Venanzi, Carol, The use of steroliyhograpgy and computer graphics to develop three-dimensional tactile models for use by blind and visually impaired scientists. http://rit.edu/~easi/itd/idtv01n4/article6.html, 1994

Erik F. Strommen. Constructivism, technology, and the future of classroom learning.
Children's Television Workshop
Bruce Lincoln, Bank Street

College of Education, 1992, M. Riel. Building a new foundation for global communities. The Writing Notebook, page 35, January/Februrary, 1990

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