sealPurdue News
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February 1996

Chemistry lab sets sights on aiding visually impaired students

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When Colleen Wunderlich, a straight-A student from Arlington, Ill., decided to pursue a medical degree, her high-school advisers warned her about the difficulties she might face completing college courses in chemistry and biology.

The counselors were concerned about the lack of support available to help blind students, like Wunderlich, in laboratory courses that depend heavily on sight to identify and learn new structures and concepts.

Her determination to pursue premed studies at Purdue University helped spark a grass-roots effort there to improve science education for visually impaired students nationwide.

As part of that effort, researchers at Purdue have developed a first-of-its-kind Braille system for chemistry designed to smooth the way for learning -- and teaching -- complex concepts in science.

Additional tools are in the works, including a speech synthesizer that "reads" complex chemical and mathematical equations and a software program that translates Braille documents into standard English text. Prototype programs may be available later this year.

"Our long-term goal is to create a learning environment for visually impaired students such that any instructor, regardless of training, will be able to teach science using adaptive technology," says chemistry Professor Fred Lytle.

Information on the new technologies and copies of the software are being made available through the World Wide Web at <http://www.chem.purdue.edu/facilities/sightlab/index.html>.

"We want to make this information available to as many people as possible, so that other institutions can set up similar programs to help students who are blind or have low vision," Lytle says.

Completed last summer and put into use last fall, the VISIONS Lab -- for Visually Impaired Students Initiative on Science -- includes the first software program capable of translating chemical equations and symbols into a standard six-dot Braille code. The program, developed by Lytle and doctoral student David Schleppenbach, of Quincy, Ill., allows students and instructors to communicate scientific information that previously was difficult to translate.

The program is being used with existing technologies -- including a computer workstation equipped with a Braille keyboard and screen -- to make the information accessible to students.

"Traditionally, visually impaired students have had to rely on interpreters because there simply were no symbols in the Braille vocabulary to represent basic chemistry reactions or structures," Lytle says. "With direct access to the information, students gain a tremendous amount of independence and can reinforce their learning."

The new Braille code and translating software also benefit educators, allowing them to translate class notes, assignments and exams into Braille with little effort. Lytle and Schleppenbach now are developing a software program to convert Braille documents into English text.

"If this proves fruitful, grading of exams and other student documents no longer will need to be done through an interpreter," Lytle says.

Another tool under development, a speech synthesizer that "reads" complex chemical and mathematical equations, could benefit students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, he adds.

The VISIONS Lab started as a grass-roots effort two years ago, when Purdue's student services office asked Schleppenbach, who was familiar with Braille, to tutor Wunderlich in chemistry. Schleppenbach's wife is legally blind, and her efforts to obtain a degree in science were thwarted by the lack of accessibility to information.

Vowing that he would not let that happen again in Wunderlich's case, Schleppenbach worked in his spare time to translate classroom materials into Braille throughout her freshman year.

Last spring, Cary Supalo of Bolingbrook, Ill., asked Schleppenbach for help in translating his coursework in calculus. Supalo, who is also blind, started premed studies after Wunderlich.

Schleppenbach proposed that Purdue hire a science coordinator for visually impaired students. He also asked the chemistry faculty to help establish a dedicated laboratory for visually impaired science students.

"Initially, my idea was fairly simple," he says. "I suggested that they provide customized computer equipment that could be used by the students to complete their own work, and that also could be used to translate classroom materials into Braille."

The new computer facility was quickly established, but it soon became apparent that many of the symbols and formulas in chemistry could not be translated. So Schleppenbach went back to the faculty, seeking ways to make the lessons more accessible.

"It turned out to be a rather provocative request, forcing everyone to recognize the limitations that these students faced," Lytle says. "At one point, the question was posed as to whether it was even possible for visually impaired students to pursue studies in science, and that was the turning point, the point at which we rallied together to see that it could and would happen."

Lytle, who had no experience with Braille, began working on his own time to develop a systematic way to convert chemical equations, symbols and formulas into a standard six-dot Braille. The new symbols, designed around the standards established by Abraham Nemeth, who developed a Braille code for mathematics, were combined with current Braille symbols to develop a software program to translate equations into Braille.

Lytle's efforts were backed by Purdue in the form of funding for computer equipment and office space. A number of faculty members, teaching assistants and technical staff contributed their own time and expertise.

"One of the things that made this project so incredible was the support we got from all levels -- from the president of the university to the graduate students and teaching assistants," Lytle says. "This is a great example of what can happen when everyone pulls together."

The new software is being used to translate course materials for Wunderlich and Supalo in subjects including chemistry, biology, mathematics and psychology.

In addition, the laboratory is being used as a springboard to develop new tools to help visually impaired students. Schleppenbach is working on a project to use stereo sound to help visually impaired students understand the position of elements in a compound or matrix. The work is an extension of programs currently offered by Recordings for the Blind Inc.

Lytle also is working to develop tutorials to show people who are not familiar with Braille or mathematical equations how to type in the equations.

"It's a series of lessons that a secretary or typist can use to learn how to type equations in the appropriate format," Lytle says. "Because our software makes it easy to go from print to Braille, this would eliminate the need to find typists or assistants with special knowledge."

Sources: Fred Lytle, (765) 494-5261;Internet, lytle@chem.purdue.edu
David Schleppenbach, (765) 496-2856; Internet, engage@sage.cc.purdue.edu
Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; Internet, susan_gaidos@purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu


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