Biochemist introduces technologies for blind students

Last Wednesday, Cary Supalo, a blind biochemist, introduced a group of students and teachers to the tools he is developing to help visually impaired students succeed in chemistry.

Supalo, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1999 and is currently a member of the National Federation of the Blind, said many blind students feel they suffer from a lack of opportunity. He questioned whether or not the “passive approach” many teachers currently take toward blind students in the classroom would encourage anyone to pursue a career in science.

He recalled a time during high school when he was extremely excited to take calculus but found out his high school was unwilling to support him. He remembered telling a teacher, “I am always going to be limited in what I achieve.”

“That’s how I truly felt in high school,” he said.

As a result, Supalo is determined to “foster a more hands-on experience” for blind students in the chemistry lab. He feels the key to making students passionate about a particular subject is to give them the confidence to do the work by themselves.

He noted that blind students like to be in front of the class so they are less distracted by noises some students would consider insignificant, such as “the infamous candy wrapper.” In addition, students should read the lab before class so they can “predict what they think is going to happen.”

Supalo discussed several technological developments to assist blind students in the classroom.

He introduced a program called JAWS (Job Access with Speech), designed to convert computer text into audible speech. Supalo and his colleagues managed to make JAWS compatible with the various lab probes created by Vernier Technologies. Thanks to Supalo and his team, more than 125 probes are now able to convert text to speech.

Supalo discussed the Submersible Audible Light Sensor, or SALS. This device consists of a submersible sensor attached to a control box, which contains a speaker. The SALS allows blind students to recognize when a combination of chemicals yields a new result. Since the student is unable to see the reaction, the SALS produces a certain pitch when it is submerged in liquid. When two chemicals combine, a completely different pitch is produced due to the change in light content, indicating to the student a change has taken place in real time. Supalo demonstrated the SALS to the audience, and it was clear that many people were impressed with the technology.

Another device showcased at the lecture was the Color Analysis Laboratory Sensor, or CALS. Like the SALS, this device consists of a probe connected to a control box. The CALS identifies the values of red, green, blue and white to tell the student the color of a specific solid or liquid. The CALS can identify certain shades of colors, such as “light red” (pink) or “dark blue” (navy). It currently has a 95 percent success rate, and Supalo is working to make it even more accurate.

In addition to the SALS and CALS, Supalo also mentioned a new stopwatch for blind students he helped develop. It is the only one of its kind that allows for accuracy up to one hundredth of a second.

Supalo told the audiences these devices could be used in a variety of modified experiments for blind students, such as a “freezing point depression” lab.

Supalo concluded that above all else, he wanted to “maintain a high expectation for blind students.”

“It is important to educate blind students so they feel that they really can do this stuff,” he said.

Eva Scott, a teacher in the visually impaired program at the College, thought Supalo’s presentation was “awesome.”

“He’s right that there are so many blind students that are easily discouraged, and I think this is opening a lot of doors,” she said.