How Can a Student with Visual Impairments Participate in a Science Fair?
Science Fairs are typically held in the spring at many schools. Once the school year starts, it is time to pick topics and carry out experiments. Imagine that you have a student with a visual impairment in your class. How can that student possibly participate? What kind of projects could that student even try? In fact, a science fair is the perfect hands on opportunity for a student with a visual impairment to participate in science! With a few adaptations, carrying out and the presenting the project offers the same challenges and rewards as it does for every student.
Every student benefits from the chance to ask a scientific question and find the answer to that question! The skills involved cross every area of the curriculum: conducting research, designing an experiment, collecting data, creating graphs, writing reports, creating a visual display, and giving an oral report. Over the past five years our students have asked questions such as "What bones are used to throw a baseball?"; "Will consuming one can of a diet cola increase your heart rate?"; "What causes the pipes of an organ to vibrate?". These and others are questions any student might ask and that any students can research.
Keeping Notebooks or Logs
Science Fair participants keep notebooks or logs. Frequently the requirement is a paper bound composition style notebook for collecting data. That may also be a method for a student with low vision. If allowed, the student who does not use print can keep all his or her information of a file in a computer or Braille note taker. But if a print, day to day record needs to be witnessed and signed by the teacher, then a reasonable accommodation would be for the information to be printed out on a daily basis, witnessed, and then kept in a notebook. Another adaptation would be for the student to use a Braille writer for note taking. For a Braille user, this is the equivalent of a paper and pencil record.
Researching the Topic
The first step in creating a science fair project is researching the topic. Most students are skilled in searching the internet. A student with a visual impairment may use a screen reading software such as JAWS to do so or a low vision student may use software that enlarges the print. If the student's research requires use of scholarly journals or books, not accessible on line, then a volunteer reader is helpful. After the topic has been selected and researched, then the problem needs to be identified. The problem is stated as a question. The hypothesis is phrased as a statement. Other project work is best summarized as a statement of purpose such as, "The purpose of this project is to design a paper airplane that will fly 50 feet before landing."
Designing the Experiment
The next step is designing the experiment. During this step, the student with a visual impairment should identify any adapted equipment needed, and request assistance in obtaining the adaptation. For example, most data in today's science classrooms and labs is collected using data collection technology. These probes connect to a laptop or desk top computer, to collect temperature readings, salinity, pH, and many other forms of quantitative data. This data collection technology is accessible through screen reading software, such as JAWS.
Conducting the Experiment
Now it is time to conduct the experiment. As for all students, students with a visual impairment benefit for organized materials and equipment. Constructing charts and graphs happen during the experimental stage. Student with visual impairments can construct chart and graphs on their computers, or make tactile charts and graphs of the information. Students make both quantitative and qualitative observations. Again data collection probes attached to a computer can make many of the quantitative observations, including things such as color changes and turbidity. For students lacking access to the computer equipment, a partner can assist in observations requiring vision. However, observations involving sound and smell can be gathered by most students. In fact, computer equipment also exists to gather information about sound, wave length, distance, and almost any data that could be generated during an experiment. And all of this can be made compatible with JAWS.
Analyzing the Data
Once the experiments are concluded, the data is analyzed. Now it is time to write a paper and present a display board. The skill expected in writing the paper will vary depending on each student's current skills. And even if a student has no useful vision, every student can be involved in every aspect of preparing a visual and, even better a multisensory display for the science fair. The display board should include an attention grabbing title, as well as the details of the experiment, photos, graphs and charts. The photos can be taken during the course of the experimentation by the student or by a helper. One way for a student with a visual impairment to understand the set up of the tri fold board is to fold a piece of stiff paper into the proportions of the tri fold. The student can indicate by marking or with stickers where on the larger board various items should be placed. Most students with very little assistance can apply the items to the board. Models that can actually be handled are a nice addition to any science display. For example arm bones made of a durable plastic could be a part of the project mentioned earlier about throwing a baseball.
With planning, organization, and adaptations every student can participate in the science fair. A variety of topics reflecting the student's interests are possible. Working on the project gives students a chance to use skills learned, not only in science, but also in Social studies, English, Math, and even Art! A Science Fair project also provides opportunities for collaboration, to use public speaking skills, and prepares students for meeting of real life deadlines! A Science Fair project may even open doors to possible future careers.
Adapting Science for Students with Visual Impairments: A Handbook for the Classroom Teacher and Teacher of the Visually Impaired. American Printing House for the Blind, 2006.
Martin-Meyers, Karen, MaryEllen Stephen and Mary Young. Student Guide: How to Do a Science Fair Project. Massachusetts State Science Fair, Inc. 2006.
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