Tag cloud for accessibility in the form of a thought balloon

Image via Creative Commons from Flickr user Jil Wright.

Along with requiring a fair amount of intellectual power, a lot of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) material is often presented visually. This includes graphs, tables, diagrams, and math equations. Because of this visual nature, finding ways to teach STEM subjects to students with visual impairments is a challenge to STEM faculty.

To help Penn State STEM faculty and support staff meet these challenges, Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, World Campus, and the Eberly College of Science are holding the STEM Accessibility Mini Symposium. The STEM Symposium will be held Oct. 31 from 9:00 a.m. to noon at 508 Rider Building and those interested can register at http://accessibility.psu.edu/stemsymposium.

The event will feature several presenters with real-life, practical experience working to make STEM education accessible for the vision impaired. One presenter, Michael Brooks, assistant manager of accessibility and usability, will present on using MathType to produce MathML in online course platforms.

Brooks’ work is more on the technical side of STEM accessibility, and he views STEM accessibility as offering opportunities and not just challenges for higher education. In his opinion, technology makes it easier for visually impaired students to pick up STEM charts, graphs, equations, etc. than it is to learn braille. “I think that a person starts to use accessibility technology and gets used to that technology, learning how to use the technology has a lower learning curve than braille,” he said.

That advantage comes with a caveat, Brooks said. “The biggest challenge is spreading the knowledge about accessibility technology so that things in online STEM education are formatted and coded properly for the Web,” he said. “That way all types of technology can actually access the information the student needs for learning.”

Making equations accessible

Another person who will present on mathematics accessibility at the STEM Symposium is Stanley Smith, associate professor of mathematics and director of online instruction for the Department of Mathematics. As a mathematician who has experience working with vision-impaired math students, he will focus on mathematical equations. “I will focus on writing mathematical material in an ADA or 508 compliant format,” Smith said. “I will show the participants how to upload the material right into ANGEL and utilize it.”

To make math equations accessible in an online course, Smith uses two tools. One is LaTeX, a free software that is often used to create accessible mathematical equation content. He then integrates MathJax, an open source JavaScript display engine for mathematics that works in all browsers. “MathJax actually renders the LaTeX equation into a screen-reader readable equation,” he said. “It also, as a bonus, displays the equation very nicely on an HTML page so it has benefits for all students.”

Smith stresses that many tools for STEM accessibility are like MathJax, they provide benefits for all students. “One other tool that has excited me, in particular, is Piazza, which is a discussion bulletin board that allows you to write mathematical equations quite easily,” he said. “It’s all written, so you’re typing basically everything for the equation. You can link videos and the like, but from our course structure perspective, you can write everything.

“So, whether you are a hearing-impaired or a sight-impaired student, you should have the technology to be able to not only read or hear or get that information, but you can also write any information you want. So, that’s fairly exciting. And, at the same time, I know more residential groups are starting to use it for students to communicate and it helps everybody. It’s an example of the developers of a tool not just serving one group. They looked at how they can best serve the entire learning community.”

While both Smith and Brooks are presenting on mathematics-related accessibility, the event will feature discussions of other types of complex visual information that is common in STEM subjects, according to Anita Colyer Graham, manager of accessibility and special projects with World Campus and one of the STEM Symposium’s organizers. “There will be discussions about engineering graphics and related subjects,” Graham said. “It won’t be just mathematics, it will be broader than that with talk about, for example, how to come up with a description in words for something that is a very complex visual element in a course and make it accessible.”

Increasing need for accessibility in STEM

Graham said that faculty are encountering more students with disability issues. “If there’s a motivator for faculty to take accessibility more seriously, it would be to tell them that the number of students with disability issues will increase in higher education as our service members are returning and entering the educational arena,” she said. “One of the reasons why people go into the armed forces is to get support and funding for education.”

“I don’t think the full impact of it has been felt yet in the number of people who are hitting the system with all sorts of accessibility needs,” Graham added.

Graham said that faculty need to be prepared to act fast to meet the needs of visually disabled students, especially around add/drop time. She noted that a faculty member might believe he or she is prepared fully to teach the semester, but suddenly has a visually impaired student in their course. “A good first step is to attend the STEM Symposium to get ideas on what to do and to prepare so you can ensure that everyone in your class gets the best learning experience possible,” she said.

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