Candy-like Models Could Make Science More Accessible to visually Impaired Students

Amy Lyer May 29, 2021

About 36 million people are blind, including 1 million children. In addition, 216 million people have moderate to severe visual impairments. However, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education continues to rely on three-dimensional images for education. Most of these images are inaccessible to blind students.

A groundbreaking study by Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University, aims to use small, candy-like models to make science more accessible to the blind or visually impaired.

The Baylor-led study, published May 28 in the journal Science Advances, uses millimeter-sized gelatin models – similar to gummy bears – to enhance the visualization of protein molecules through oral stereognosis or the visualization of 3D shapes via the tongue and lips.

The aim of the study was to create smaller, more practical tactile models from 3D images that represent protein molecules. The protein molecules were chosen because their structures are among the most numerous, complex and high-resolution 3D images presented in the STEM training.

Your tongue is your finest tactile sensor – about twice as sensitive as your fingertips – but it’s also a hydrostat, similar to an octopus arm. It may wobble in grooves your fingers won’t touch, but no one really uses their tongue or lips in tactile learning. We thought of making very small, high-resolution 3D models and visualizing them with the mouth.

Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Baylor University

The study included a total of 396 participants – 31 fourth and fifth graders and 365 college students. The mouth, hands, and eyesight were tested to identify specific structures. All students were blindfolded during the oral and manual tactile model exam.

Each participant had three minutes to assess or visualize the structure of a study protein with their fingertips, followed by one minute with a test protein. After the four minutes, they were asked if the test protein was the same or a different model than the original study protein. The entire process was repeated with the mouth to recognize the shape instead of the fingers.

Students recognized structures with their mouths with an accuracy of 85.59%, similar to visual recognition using computer animation. The tests included identical edible gelatin models and non-edible 3D printed models. Gelatin models were correctly identified at rates comparable to the inedible models.

“You can visualize the shapes of these tiny objects just as accurately with your mouth as you can with your eyes. That was actually surprising,” Shaw said.

The models, which can be used for students with or without visual impairment, provide an inexpensive, portable, and convenient way to make 3D images more accessible. The study methods aren’t limited to molecular models of protein structures – oral visualization could be done with any 3D model, Shaw said.

While gelatin models were the only edible models tested, Shaw’s team created high-resolution models from other edible materials, including toffee and chocolate. Certain surface features of the models, such as a protein pattern with positive and negative surface charge, could be represented in the model using different designs.

“This methodology could be applied to images and models of anything, like cells, organelles, 3D surfaces in math, or 3D artwork – any 3D rendering. It is not limited to STEM, it is also useful for the humanities, “said Katelyn Baumer, PhD candidate and lead author of the study.

Shaw’s lab sees oral visualization through tiny models as a useful addition to the multisensory learning tools available to students, especially those with exceptional visual needs. Models like the one in this study can make STEM more accessible to students with blindness or low vision.

“Students with blindness are systematically banned from chemistry and much of STEM. Just take a look around our labs and you can see why –
there’s braille on the elevator button to the lab and braille on the lab door. Here’s the one Accessibility Baylor is the perfect place to make STEM more accessible. Baylor could become a haven for people with disabilities to learn STEM, “Shaw said.

Shaw isn’t new to high-profile research related to visual impairment. He has received recognition for his work on the White Eye Detector app. Shaw and Greg Hamerly, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Computer Science at Baylor, created the mobile app to help parents screen for pediatric eye diseases. Shaw’s inspiration for the app came after his son Noah was diagnosed with retinoblastoma at the age of four months.

Baumer, KM, et al. (2021) Visualization of 3D images through the mouth with candy-like models. Scientific advances.

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