Improving inclusivity for researchers and students

Research in STEM fields has led to breakthroughs in new technologies and innovations to assist people with disabilities. For disabled scientists, however, there remain barriers to carrying out their research.

Visual impairments in particular are a challenge when working in fields that traditionally rely on visualization of graphical data, images or physical structures. How can you do the science if you can’t see what you’re studying?

Researchers funded by NSF have been working to change that by developing ways to take advantage of the other senses.

 Credit: Marcelo Melo and Rafael C. Bernardi, Beckman Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Touching molecules

Henry “Hoby” Wedler is blind and has been since birth. When he joined Dean Tantillo’s lab at the University of California, Davis, the two brainstormed new and better ways for Wedler to pursue his experimental chemistry studies. With supplemental funding from NSF, the lab purchased a 3D printer and developed 3D models of chemistry molecules. These single-piece models, complete with accurate bond length and angles, are unlike the simple ball-and-stick models common in undergraduate chemistry classrooms.

The design process provided Wedler with exposure to computational chemistry and allowed him to study the structure-function relationship of molecules independently by using touch.

Later, Wedler founded a consulting company, Senspoint Design, that helps client companies explore all the senses their products could stimulate — how something looks, feels, tastes, sounds or smells. He also supports accessible summer camps for visually impaired children, leads blind wine tastings around the world, and gives lectures on accessibility and sensory literacy. For him, it’s all about making the most of those other senses.

Credit: Benjah-bmm27 (Public domain)

Tasting molecules

Bryan Shaw has taken the idea of a traditional chemical model a step further. A professor at Baylor University, Shaw has developed and patented molecular models that are edible. These candy-like molecules are made in silicone molds and flavored on their edges. Visually impaired students can manipulate the model in their mouth –- an incredibly sensitive part of the body – and learn the unique shape of the molecule. Shaw’s NSF-funded work is motivated by his son Noah, who lost an eye to cancer as an infant.

Noah now serves as taste-tester for the molecules. Even though he is only 12 years old, he can identify all the molecular mouth models perfectly, using just his lips, tongue and taste buds!

Credit: Rick’s Photography/

Feeling math

With support from NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences and Division of Undergraduate Education, the American Institute of Mathematics has developed a new tool for translating math textbooks into Braille. Producing Braille textbooks is typically a time-intensive and costly process, especially for STEM subjects, where equations, graphs and diagrams are common throughout the text. Visual effects such as font size, color and shading are particularly difficult to convey through the uniformly sized alphabet of Braille.

Screen readers for online books are a handy alternative for blind students, but when you have to carefully study a complex equation or review a graph, listening to someone else read or describe it isn’t terribly helpful. Students might be slowed down in their coursework if they don’t have something to go back and re-read. In fact, Martha Siegel, a professor at Towson University, was inspired to find a solution to these problems after meeting a blind student who had to wait six months to receive an accessible statistics textbook for a required course.

To develop a streamlined method that reduces the time and cost to produce Braille math textbooks, Siegel and a team of collaborators have combined existing translation systems with new software tools specifically designed to handle math formulas and diagrams. The ultimate goal is to make Braille textbooks inexpensive and widely available.

Credit: Nicolle R. Fuller/NSF

Hearing space

Traditionally a highly visual field, astronomy has challenges to overcome when it comes to accessibility. However, it may surprise you to learn that a lot of modern astronomical data isn’t actually collected in the visual range of light. Much data is now collected in other wavelengths, such as radio or infrared. Researchers transform the data using false-color gradients to give us many of the gorgeous pictures of galaxies that we’re used to seeing (including the first ever picture of a black hole).

But there is no reason these “images” can’t be converted into something textured to touch — like a Braille “picture” or a sound clip with frequency variation for “brighter” parts of the image. In fact, when gravitational waves were first detected in 2015, the resulting signature was a chirp you could hear!

NSF’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings is supporting improvements in astronomy accessibility by funding teachers and their students – blind, visually impaired, and sighted — to develop code that converts astronomical data into formats appropriate for blind and visually impaired students.

With the full participation of all kinds of scientists, NSF and its awardees are paving the way for the STEM workforce of the future.