2000 Conference Proceedings

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USING COMPUTERS TO MAKE SCIENCE LABS ACCESSIBLE TO STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES

Karen Milchus and John Goldthwaite
Center for Rehabilitation Technology
Georgia Tech., Atlanta, GA 30318
Phone: (404) 894-4960
FAX: (404) 894-9320
E-mail: karen.milchus@arch.gatech.edu 
E-mail: john.goldthwaite@arch.gatech.edu

USING COMPUTERS TO MAKE SCIENCE LABS ACCESSIBLE TO STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES

Karen Milchus and John Goldthwaite
Center for Rehabilitation Technology
Georgia Tech., Atlanta, GA 30318
Phone: (404) 894-4960
FAX: (404) 894-9320
E-mail: karen.milchus@arch.gatech.edu 
E-mail: john.goldthwaite@arch.gatech.edu

This hands-on computer session will demonstrate several ways that high school or college level chemistry and physics laboratory activities may be made accessible to students with physical or visual disabilities. Computer technology is becoming a more important component of high school and college science classes. Computer-controlled laboratory systems allow a person to make measurements with sensors connected to computers. Experiment simulation software may be included with textbooks. For students with a physical or visual disability, combining these science technologies with computer access technology and alternative techniques may provide them with a means to actively participate in science laboratories for the first time. This session will demonstrate some of these technology combinations and provide participants with an opportunity to complete several experiments.

Background

Participating in science laboratory activities can be difficult for students with physical or visual disabilities. Students with mobility impairments have obvious difficulties manipulating equipment such as pipettes, test tubes, gauges, and other common measuring devices. Likewise, visually impaired students have difficulty reading measurement devices such as scales, graduated cylinders, thermometers, and multimeters. By not being able to participate in science laboratories, these students are discouraged from taking science courses, limiting their postsecondary education and career options.

Approach

Many high school and college chemistry and physics instructors are developing computer-controlled labs using the relatively inexpensive interfaces and software from firms such as Vernier Software. Computer-based data acquisition devices offer a variety of sensor options to measure light, pH, temperature, force, and voltages. In addition, there are a growing number of experiment simulations that are becoming available. These simulations range from frog dissections, to studies of projectile motion, to a virtual chemistry lab. Unfortunately, most science teachers do not know about assistive technology and how to combine it with laboratory computers to make them accessible. They do not know about the alternative keyboards or screen magnification programs that might be needed for a student to be able to use the computer. Meanwhile, many special education teachers are not sufficiently familiar with software to control laboratory experiments or how to combine laboratory computers with assistive technology.

Our approach is to combine the computer-controlled lab systems and experiment simulations more commonly found in introductory labs with common alternative computer access methods so that students with disabilities can conduct experiments themselves. For example, a computer can record measurements from a temperature probe, and the readings can be magnified or spoken by a synthesizer for students with visual impairments. A student who has difficulty using his or her hands can dissect a virtual frog through voice commands. It may not be possible to make an experiment fully accessible for a particular student, but our goal is to let the students conduct as much of the experiment themselves as possible, and to enable them to make the required scientific decisions during the course of the experiment.

Workshop Description

This workshop will focus on combining assistive technology with Vernier Software's Universal Lab Interface for the IBM (a Macintosh version is also available). The access software includes keyboard access utilities (e.g., StickyKeys), on-screen keyboards with mouse emulators, voice input programs, magnification programs, and voice output programs.

The workshop will be hands-on and will encourage participants to carry out various laboratory tasks while taking on the role of a student with a visual or physical disability. Examples of both chemistry and physics laboratory topics will be covered. Experiments will include Boyle's Law (pressure-volume relationship for a gas) and Ohm's Law (the current-voltage-resistance relationship). Working in groups, one participant will take on the role of a student with low vision, and another will take on the role of a student who has limited upper extremity coordination or strength. Participants will be able to try different methods for completing an experiment, but will also be encouraged to come up with other approaches. Computer-controlled laboratory equipment, combined with computer access technology, will be used to make the measurements and record the data. Issues involved in combining assistive technology with experiment simulations will be discussed.

Not all solutions to laboratory access problems require a complex computer system. Sometimes techniques or simple assistive technology can help a student complete various tasks. For example, a ruler with tactile gradations may be all that a visually impaired student needs in order to make measurements. Some of these accommodations will also be demonstrated.

Resource Information

The experiments and accommodations developed for this project are being compiled into a resource guide. The guide is also available to the public via the Internet site Barrier Free Education: Resources for the Inclusion of Students with Disabilities into Math and Science Education -- http://barrier-free.arch.gatech.edu

Acknowledgements

This project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Additional support for the website has come from the Toyota and NEC Foundations.

References

Milchus, Karen and Goldthwaite, John (1999). Developing Accessible Laboratory Experiments. Center for Rehabilitation Technology, Atlanta, GA.

Milchus, Karen (1998). Using Computer-Controlled Laboratory Equipment to Design Accessible Experiments. Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge, CA.


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