November Community Game Changer
MSU Denver’s April Hill makes science accessible to blind students
By Greg Henry
April Hill has been a faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver for just three years, but she’s already made a lasting impact.
Hill, an assistant professor of chemistry and director of forensic science, brought to the University a passion to help visually impaired students gain hands-on knowledge of science and to improve access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.
While doing post-doctoral work at Pennsylvania State University, she met Cary Supalo, a graduate student at the time, who was developing tools to give blind students a richer experience in the chemistry lab.
“Dr. Supalo was the first blind scientist I’d met, and I had honestly never had a reason to wonder how a blind person might complete a chemistry lab experiment,” says Hill, 33. “As someone who was planning to go into education, I realized that I could very well have a blind student in a course one day and it would be my responsibility to teach him or her science, including the important aspect of experimentation.”
A curriculum Hill helped create drew skepticism from sighted students.
“The immediate dismissal of a blind student’s ability — not to mention their right — to an education in science is frustrating for me,” Hill says. “And I can only imagine how hearing [skepticism] might affect a young person with a visual impairment who has an interest in science.”
She and Supalo ran several hands-on workshops and summer science camps, largely through collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind. Since joining MSU Denver in 2010, she has put on chemistry workshops for students who attend the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton.
The use of adaptive technology helps even the playing field for visually impaired students. Vernier Software and Technology has worked closely with Independence Science (based at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and founded by Supalo) to develop the Talking LabQuest. Through Talking LabQuest students access tools like text-to-speech software and probes for measuring pH, temperature, conductivity, etc.
“There are a lot of schools for the visually impaired that do a good job of providing hands-on science experiments for their students, but they are limited by a lack of technology,” Hill says. “There is also a perception that allowing a blind student to handle chemicals is unsafe. This has led to the common practice in public high schools of simply pairing a blind student with a sighted partner who does all of the actual experimentation and simply provides a running commentary for the blind student. This is not an effective way to teach chemistry, and it is certainly not a good way to inspire a blind student to pursue chemistry as a career.”
Thomas Vogt, an assistant professor of chemistry at MSU Denver, shares Hill’s passion and introduced her to the Colorado Center for the Blind and its science fairs in the spring and fall.
“Using plastic baggies, the students mix chemicals that we provide to produce simple polymers which they can touch and handle after the reaction is completed.” Vogt says. “We have shown that blind students can do wet chemistry. It is exciting to see the excitement of the students.”
Content provided By Metropolitan State University of Denver