The Visionary

April Hill sees new possibilities for teaching science to blind students.

By Greg Henry

Publish Date: January 30, 2014

When April Hill met Cary Supalo a few years ago, they embarked on an unlikely experiment: determining the best way to make the lab, and the possibility of scientific discovery, accessible to blind students.

During post-doctoral work from 2008–10 at Pennsylvania State University, Hill — an assistant professor of chemistry and director of forensic science at Metropolitan State University of Denver — was preparing for a teaching career when she connected with Supalo, a grad student who was developing tools to allow blind students access to chemistry labs.

“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, who joined MSU Denver in August 2010. “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.”

Hill and Supalo ran several hands-on workshops and summer science camps, largely through collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind. “She has taught me a great deal on low-tech activities that can be used with the blind,” says Supalo, who has been blind since he was 7 years old. “These were activities that were designed with the sighted student in mind, but April was innovative enough to apply this to the blind.”

Supalo, now an assistant professor in the Illinois State University chemistry department, also is founder and president of Independence Science, a company that develops adaptive technology that allows visually impaired students to conduct hands-on experiments in science classes.

Last summer, Hill and Supalo hosted a chemistry workshop at MSU Denver for students who attend the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, Colo. Lessons included the use of Talking LabQuest, a handheld computer that interfaces with sensors and probes to provide spoken results, allowing students to record and process information from their experiments.

“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,” says Hill, a strong advocate of improving access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“There is also a perception that allowing a blind student to handle chemicals is unsafe,” she adds. “This has led to the common practice in public high schools of 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 that blind student to pursue chemistry as a career.”

At times, Hill has to battle skepticism from sighted students and STEM professionals. “The immediate dismissal of a blind student’s ability — not to mention their right — to an education in science is frustrating for me,” says Hill (pictured at left with a student). “And I can only imagine how hearing [skepticism] might affect a young person with a visual impairment who has an interest in science.”

Brent Batron, director of youth programs for the Colorado Center for the Blind, appreciates Hill’s approach.

“Most of the techniques that April uses and demonstrates can easily be applied to all aspects of the regular education classroom,” Batron says. “If teachers are willing to approach teaching a blind child with an open mind, they will typically learn techniques that will improve the learning process for all of their students.”

MSU Denver chemistry Assistant Professor Thomas Vogt shares Hill’s passion.

“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.”

Supalo believes Hill’s techniques will have a huge impact on teaching all students, not just those who are unable to see.

“In many cases educators are afraid to provide this underrepresented population with a direct hands-on learning experience because of safety reasons or because they perceive a blind student cannot do it for themselves,” Supalo says. “In many cases, this is correct because the way they were raised was not conducive for them to develop the hands-on reflexes necessary for such engagements.

“If hands-on science learning is good for all students, why not for the blind?”