Tech Time-Out #3 Accessing Labs: Engineering Camp 2016

During the NC State Engineering VIB Camp, high school students successfully completed hands-on activities in real-life NCSU STEM labs. Campers with visual impairments and blindness (VIB) worked along side NCSU professors and student teams in their labs.  During the summer, each of these particular lab teams were a combination of current NCSU undergrad and graduate students, a high school teacher, and a supervising professor.   In the Biomechanics Lab, Dr. Kate Saul’s research applies mechanical engineering techniques to improve treatment outcomes for neuromusculoskeletal disorders. 

Student using iPhone and Join.Me app to view PointPoint in NCSU Lab.

Campers viewing table with bones and models depicting bones, muscles and joints.Campers learned about the research through a PowerPoint discussion and video, then broke into three groups for hands-on activities.  One activity demonstrated how the muscular system works using real bones along with models to show how the bones, muscles and joints work together.  Other activities included attaching sensors to arm muscles to measure the energy output; and, stimulating the muscles using small amounts of electric current. 

Student making a power fist with electrodes recording his muscle energy.

Camper receiving physical instruction on how to use the eye-dropper tool before independently creating a slide under the sterile hood.In the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) labs, Dr. Brendan O’Connor’s research focuses on the development of low-cost, high efficiency flexible organic solar cells.  In these two labs, students had the opportunity to prepare slides in a sterile environment and then learn more about the tools and processes involved with this type of research. 

In the Computer Science Lab, Dr. Tifffany Barnes’ team did a hands-on activity that helped explain the theory behind computer code; these students also facilitated a lively discussion about their passion for computer science and their experiences about being in the computer science department.

How can a student with visual impairments or blindness (VIB) successfully complete hands-on lab experiments?  Here are some of the modifications used in the labs during the engineering camp:

  • Screen sharing app (Join.Me) to view the PowerPoint presentation on individual camper smart phones or tablets

Camper using iPhone and Join.Me to view PowerPoint presentation in NCSU lab.

  • Real objects and simulated models (Examples: real bones and models of joints)
  • Lab materials placed on tables for easy access of materials and to encourage students to examine and tactual explore

Students exploring joint models made of styrofoam balls, foam board, pins and rubbers bands.

  • Modified tools that used sounds to represent visual data (Example: Voltmeter with buzzes and lights to indicate muscle energy)

Camper doing push ups to create muscle energy; voltmeter uses buzzes and lights to indicate energy levels.

  • Explore tools prior to using (Example: Glass slides)

Students visually and tactually exploring glass slides before experiment.

  • Guided individual instruction (Example: Learning to use eye-dropper tool before creating slide and tweezers to carry and move slides)

Student receiving physical instruction on how to hold and use the eye dropper tool prior to creating a slide under the hood.

  • Detailed verbal description of tools and materials that cannot be physically explored (Example: Hood, "glove box")

Large free standing sealed lab workspace with thick rubber gloves extending out from the front of the box.  Researcher accesses items in the box by putting his hands and arms into thick rubber gloves.

  • Students are divided into groups so that every student can do the activity from start to finish independently.  Rotating between stations keeps students activity involved with less down time.

Two campers with smiling and pained expressions as their arm muscles are stimulated through electrodes.

The same basic accessibility accommodations apply in K-12 education as well as on the college level.  The following are suggestions for mainstream educators to incorporate into their labs:


Unfortunately, in mainstream classroom labs, students with VIB are often on the sidelines and are not expected and/or not allowed to do the hands-on portions of the lab.  Especially in K-12 labs, students are working with non-hazardous materials and the experiment procedures are typically “safe” for everyone.  Students with VIB should be actively involved throughout the entire activity.

Set-up for Success

  •  Pre-learning:Camper using tweezers to move glass slide with hand-under-hand assistance.
    • Schedule a time for the student to explore and learn about the tools that will be used in the lab
    • Teach the student how to use the tools – initially in a non-sterile environment using non-hazardous materials.  (Example: Practice creating slides using the long-handled eye-dropper with water at a desk or sink instead of under the sterile hood.)
    • Provide written instructions ahead of time.  If demonstrating through a video, make sure that the video describes each step and what is happening during each step.
  • Only if needed, use hand-under-hand; in some instances, hand-over-hand guidance may be appropriate.
  • When providing instructions, model what you are doing.  In some cases, the professor may model the steps directly with the student who is VIB, or another student may model while the professor explains.
  • Gloves: keep in mind that students with VIB often rely heavily on touch and that rubber gloves can interfere with the sense of touch.  When previewing tools and procedures, consider initially handling the tools without gloves.  Some students will need to practice putting on these gloves!  (Hint: Be sure that the gloves are the right size for the student!)
  • Divide the class into small groups of 2 or 3 people if possible.  This will encourage each person to be actively involved.
  • Encourage each student to do the activity independently – from start to finish.  (Remember, the student with VIB will miss many important details if he/she is expected to “watch” another student performing a step of the procedure.  Ideally, the student with VIB should do the entire activity himself/herself.)

Student Responsibility

  • Advocate, Advocate!  Both with the teacher/professor and with peers.
    • Ask to pre-view tools, procedures and the written description of the activity
    • Ask for hands-on guidance, modeling, clarification
    • Learn to ask guiding questions in order to receive good verbal descriptions!
  • Expect to be actively involved and be a team player!
  • Be creative – can you magnify, use lighting, ask for detailed descriptions, touch, use modified tools, etc. in order to make the activity more accessible?
  • Ask detailed questions – peers and educators may forget to describe or may not know how to provide good descriptions
  • Kindly remind teachers/professors to post or send PowerPoint presentations, instructions and other pertinent materials ahead of time

Teacher/Professor Responsibilities

  • Teacher of the visually impaired training a professor on how to use Speak Screen and VoiceOver on the iPhone.Be open to learning about accessibility and be creative in coming up with accommodations/alternative ways of doing things!
  • Consider class arrangement:  if possible, have uncluttered work space
    • Students with VIB may need additional work space,
    • Students with VIB may need containers to separate/organize materials
  • Students with some vision may need color contrast.  (Example: Viewing a clear liquid on a glass slide sitting on a white counter will be challenging to see. Try placing the slide on a black placemat.)
  • Students with VIB may benefit from special lighting and magnification devices
  • Students with VIB may need modified equipment
  • If possible, use equipment that provides auditory feedback and/or haptic feedback
  • For students with low vision, model the activity under a document camera and display the activity on the screen.  Use a screen sharing app so that the student can view the screen on his device and can zoom/magnify as needed
  • Be sure to clearly describe in detail what is being done and the reactions that occur
  • Provide the student with accessible written materials ahead of time
  • Schedule a time for the student to do pre-learning with yourself, possibly with the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (K-12); or with a qualified lab assistant/TA (College level).

Pinterest collage of accessing labs

Read more about: Assistive Technology, STEM