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This paper is an overview of the Signing Science project (cf. http://signsci.terc.edu)-which is an adaptation of the Kids Network standards-based science curriculum. The project partners include TERC, Inc., Vcom3D, Inc. and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Signing Science has adapted the web-based materials and activities using Vcom3D's SigningAvatar(tm) technology, which uses 3D animated characters to provide sign language access to digital media. The software tools that were used to adapt the web pages are described below. This project is in its third year. The formative pilot evaluation results are discussed below.
What is The Kids Network?
The Kids Network: Leveraging Learning project is an award winning series of twelve science thematic units. These twelve units align with multiple National Science Education Standards (NSES) as well as the Standards for the English Language Arts (SELA). Each of the twelve units follow a similar plan. First, the students gather information and analyze their data. Then, they use web-based forms to send letters to a unit specific database. Next, the class will query the database for information on other areas of the country that interest them. Then, they use their information in downloaded mapping and graphing tools to compare with specific data from the unit website. Finally, the students are given opportunities to study people and data from a location other than their own. The hands-on investigations, online inquiries, data and communication activities, and final activities are described in a carefully designed Teacher's Guide for each unit.
The Need of Adapations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
Reports advocate the engagement of learners in "hands-on, minds-on" experiences that lead to in-depth understanding of fundamental ideas of science content and process which can expand and develop over a lifetime (TIMMS 1996, NAEP 1996, NSF 1999). Regrettably, quality science materials designed to engage students in experiences that result in mastery of standards-based learning outcomes are often inaccessible to students who are Deaf and whose first language is sign language. This project provides an unprecedented opportunity to begin bridging the gap between theory and practice and offer all students, whose primary mode of communication is sign, access to the opportunities and experiences that are the heart of good science teaching and learning. Findings from research demonstrate that individuals who are Deaf are significantly underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering (Burgstahler 1994). Studies also show that, historically, it has been difficult for these individuals to gain entry into courses in schools of higher education that lead to such careers (Caccamise and Lang 1996). A factor contributing to this disparity is that the average student who is Deaf leaves high school with a reading level for English text that is below the fourth grade.
Compounding this problem is the recent and growing practice of delivering curriculum and software online. These text-based instructional materials- both written and voiced- provide a vast array of content information, problem solving strategies, and help information that offer opportunities to probe questions, share and compare data, and test ideas. Yet, access to these materials presupposes the ability to understand written or spoken English, putting many opportunities for science learning out of reach of a large number of students are Deaf. However, findings from one study point the way to making these materials more accessible. Wilson and Hyde (1997) discovered when students who are Deaf have access to signed English pictures in association with printed test, their reading comprehension is significantly enhanced. Therefore, offering online science materials to students who are Deaf in sign language has the potential to increase the efficacy of these instructional materials in promoting standards-based teaching and increasing the extent to which students master specified learning outcomes.
How the Web-based Materials were Adapted
For this project, several adaptations and accommodations were made. First, the PC-based Signing Avatar(tm) technology was used to give students who are Deaf or hard of hearing access in a pop up browser window to variants of American Sign Language (ASL). By using the 3-D characters, the students who are Deaf are engaged in active learning. In fact, evaluation data shows evidence of improved reading comprehension. In one evaluation, comprehension scores of young learners reading below grade level increased from 17% to 67% after using them. In a separate evaluation, scores increased from 40% to 80% (Sims 2000).
The sign language animations were created with the Sign Smith(tm) Studio Authoring Tool, which is a commercial product available from Vcom3D, inc. Studio will allow individuals to rapidly create SigningAvatar(tm) scripts for creating sign-enabled content. Studio provides the user with the ability to either import text from another document or to directly type in English sentences. Studio automatically transliterates imported English text into English-like ASL.
If the goal of the signed content is grammatical ASL, the Studio provides an interface to edit the transliteration. The interface layout is designed to be non-linear, meaning that you can insert, copy, move, paste and delete the content at any point. The Studio offers many powerful features to easily change facial expression, eye gaze, role shifting and speech. Studio contains over 12,000 English words and over 2,000 signs.
The Sign Smith(tm) Builder software tool, now under development, will be an add-on to the currently-available Studio. The Builder will allow users of Studio to "spatially inflect" signs such as pronouns and verbs (verbs in ASL use space to indicate the subject and object). This same tool may also be used to create new signs--no longer requiring high-end 3D graphics software or experienced animators. This tool will also support the transfer of the technology to other foreign sign languages.
In addition to these adaptations, pictures, photographs and charts have also been added to the online units to better describe and explain the key concepts. Key concepts are explained in print and sign language in a special glossary section accessible when the student clicks on the highlighted word or concept. Also, the students are given an alternative form of the pre-designed test to demonstrate their understanding of the information.
Pilot Evaluation Results
Through pilot evaluation questionnaires, interviews and teacher observations, the results support that the addition of signing improves the student's attitudes toward science. Specifically the addition of signing allowed the student opportunities to work without frustration; investigate a topic with confidence; and work more like hearing peers.
The results also indicate that the addition of signing improves science teaching by providing the teacher opportunities to focus on clarifying questions; double-checking the accuracy of their signs for use in teaching beyond the unit; move more quickly and do more than interpret the site; use the correct sign for the concept being introduced rather than "invent" signs. In summary, the Signing adds value for students. One teacher commented that, "Kids are amazed that the Avatar is there to help them. They can learn new vocabulary, develop reading skills - and ALL INDEPENDENTLY! Deaf kids NEVER get that chance" [the use of all capital letters is the teacher's]. Another teacher has said that, "a deaf child's greatest challenge is language. With the addition of signing, access to important content becomes more equal. It is material all students deserve and need to know."
In essence, to prepare students in the elementary and middle grades who are deaf or hard of hearing for rigorous science study in high school can expand over a lifetime and might lead to careers in science and engineering, they need greater access to same learning opportunities provided for hearing students. The Signing Science project provides a model and source of best-practices on how to support science education for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students.
Burgstahler, S. (1994). Increasing the Representation of People with Disabilities in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, in Journal of Information Technology and Disability, vol. 24 (4).
Caccamise, F. and Lang, H. (1996). Signs for Science and Mathematics: A Resource Book for Teachers and Students, National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
National Assessment of Education Progress. (1996). Digest of Educational Statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.
National Science Foundation. (1999). Preparing our children: Math and science education in national interest. Washington, DC: National Science Task Force on Mathematics and Science Achievement.
Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) International Study Center. (1996). Science Achievement in the Middle School. Massachusetts: Boston College.
Sims, E. (2000). SigningAvatars, Final Report for SBIR Phase II Project, Contract # ED-98-0045, U.S. Department of Education.
Wilson, T. and Hyde, M. (1997). The Use of Signed English Pictures to Facilitate Reading Comprehension by Deaf Students. American Annals of the Deaf, 142, 333-341.
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