A Sense for Science: Cal Poly chemistry camp caters to the visually impaired

As a blind student of biophysics years ago at UC Berkeley, Cal Poly chemistry lecturer Dennis Fantin relied on assistants to describe his laboratory results.

He hoped that one day, such work would be easier for blind students and researchers.

This week, Fantin is making that happen by showing nine visually impaired students how to use their senses of sound, taste, feel and smell in chemistry labs.

The students learned how to feel the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats extracted from Oreo cookies and potato chips.

They built a magnesium-copper battery with a buzzer that sounds to indicate they've completed an electrical circuit.

And they learned how to taste the differences between weak acids and bases such as vinegar, lemon, baking soda and Tums antacid tablets and measure their acidity. "There are a lot of people here just like me," 16-year-old Truman Jefferson said. "It shows that just because you have an eye disorder doesn't mean you need to mope around all day."

Jefferson has retinitis pigmentosa, which causes deterioration of vision over time. The student at James Logan High School in Union City in the Bay Area said math and science are his favorite subjects.

Jefferson first noticed his eyesight was worsening in middle school while playing basketball. Since then, he's shifted much of his energy to reading and studying.

He still has some vision, but he's learning how to read Braille and memorizing bus routes in the Bay Area to prepare for blindness later in life.

"I want to have a job that I love doing," Jefferson said. "By learning chemistry, it's preparing me to help solve people's problems. When I get old and retire, I want to be able to look back on my accomplishments."

Fantin hopes his first "Access Chemistry" camp at Cal Poly will catch on at other schools and become an annual event.

"I want students with visual impairments to entertain the idea of taking classes in the sciences and not to shy away thinking that there are too many barriers," he said.

The science instructor designed the camp's lessons based on techniques he developed and that he learned from other teachers.

On Monday, a group of students measured the density of water and aluminum. They used a measuring tool that suctions specific amounts of water based on the number of hand clicks.

"My intention is to convey techniques to (the visually impaired) that are easier for them than they were for me," Fantin said.

He plans to publish the results of this inaugural camp in a scientific journal. From those writings, he hopes instructors elsewhere will design their own curriculum for similar lessons.

This summer's inaugural camp-- which costs $300 per participant and lasts eight days -- had enough interest for a waiting list. Youngsters in the camp were mostly from California, with two others traveling from Minnesota and New Jersey.

Students sleep in the university dorms and are supervised by Cal Poly science students.

Besides studying science, the group has participated in activities such as kayaking in Morro Bay, playing games on the campus lawn and sharing meals on campus.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the students," counselor Amber Gallagher said. "There has been a lot of enthusiasm from the start."