Blind children are often not given an opportunity to get involved with STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) subjects. Nemeth code is not often introduced, and main streamed students simply don’t get access to biology, physics, and chemistry in the same way their sighted peers do. Youth Slam, run by the National Federation for the Blind’s National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) is stepping in to change all of that.
It is an academy program built by an organization that strongly believes in the idea of ‘by the blind, for the blind’, which in the case of science courses seems to be what is needed. One hundred Blind and visually impaired students from across the country gather at Towson University in Maryland for a week of science courses and camp activities. For some it might very well be the first opportunity they’ve had to meet other blind and visually impaired youth and adults.
The entire curriculum is designed so that students have complete control over what they study. There is one morning slot that they choose as their track course, which they have consistently every day, and the rest of the time is filled choosing from over 20 different topics. In an interview, Natalie Shaheen explained, “[Students] are exposed to five STEM disciplines.” Additionally, the syllabus is designed in a way that no sight is required to be fully engaged in classwork.
“We have a very student centered approach. Students engage in activities based on light teacher instruction. It is not, ‘Sit and listen to me talk about these pictures.’” During courses, students reach out and touch science in ways that are not possible in mainstream education. In the astronomy course, there are 3D models and tactile images to help students to understand how the universe is put together. While a class on oceanic sciences provides the opportunity for students to put their hands on marine life.
Piecing together a national level academy is not an easy task. “It’s a lot of moving parts—that’s the most challenging thing,” Shaheen disclosed, “There is a lot of detail.” There are 80 adults involved in making the week go smoothly. They act as mentors, teachers, and helpers for the program. Management also needs to keep track of arrangements for over twenty individual classes, ensuring that materials, lab equipment, and anything else that might be needed is provided to instructors and students.
Along with more conventionally offered classes, NCBYS also offers computer coding to attendees. Software, like Scratch which was developed at MIT, that are typically used in classrooms to teach coding fundamentals, are not accessible to blind children. Scratch allows sighted kids to play with blocks on the screen, and depending on the order of these blocks, they can make animated characters move around. “The problem is that it is 110% inaccessible to screen readers.”
Computer programming has become a more popular subject to study by blind college students, because it is a surprisingly accessible career path. The inaccessibility of early coding programs means that blind children are being left out of this potentially fulfilling career. There have been steps by the Microsoft research team in the UK to create better tools for teaching coding fundamentals to blind and visually impaired kids. However, for now, NCBYS will test out the Apple version of Scratch which is available on iOS devices. According to Shaheen, it is an alternative app that is accessible to VoiceOver and braille—at least to an extent.
Youth Slam is helping to shatter barriers put up against blind and visually impaired kids, preventing them from entering STEM fields. Though it does not make attempts at pushing students towards going into the fields it presents, it does offer a unique opportunity for access, mentoring, and networking. It points participants in the right direction, so that if they do choose to enter a STEM field, they have a clearer path to success.
Shaheen hopes that as time goes on Youth Slam will be an experience more children will be able to participate in. Without being able to meet adults who have personally gone on to be successful in STEM fields, students are not able to make decisions about the future, “It’s up to the kids to make an informed choice, we just want them to be able to make an informed choice.”
If you know a child who would be interested in participating, Youth Slam is accepting applications through May 7th. This year it will run from July 23rd to the 29th. Visit the NCBYS website to find the application and learn more about the academy.
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