This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II project will produce technology to provide students with print disabilities (i.e., blindness, low vision, and learning disabilities that inhibit processing of text), who are commonly relegated to being passive observers in science classrooms, with the ability to directly participate in scientific data collection and analysis. Science education involves the collection, manipulation, and examination of data, most of which is in visually based textual form, which is problematic for students with print disabilities. The project objectives involve the development of non-visually-based technology for the collection and manipulation of data. The LabQuest, a popular scientific data-collection device used in many mainstream classrooms, is currently not accessible by students with print disabilities because it is operated through a text-rich, visual touch-screen menu. The objectives of Phase II focus on making all features of the LabQuest accessible to students with print disabilities through fully incorporating text-to-speech software (resulting in an enhanced version of the Talking LabQuest developed during Phase I), non-visual collection and manipulation of data, the development of software interfaces between the Talking LabQuest and peripheral devices such as Braille note-takers (non-visually-based computerized devices frequently used by individuals with visual impairments for storing and manipulating data) and embossers for producing tactile graphs. All features, functions, and interfaces developed will be field tested by individuals with print disabilities for ease of operability. Based on Phase I successes, it is anticipated that individuals with print disabilities will be able to independently operate the proposed technology.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project concerns the inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and professions of a population that has typically been disenfranchised from these fields. Persons with print disabilities are underrepresented in postsecondary studies and careers in STEM fields. Behavioral research suggests that self-belief in one's capacity to independently function in a particular field is an important determining factor in whether one chooses that field as a career path, and that hands-on experiences contribute to one's self-belief regarding the capacity to independently function. Data from Phase I of this SBIR project are consistent with behavioral science research; specifically, it was demonstrated that the technology can be independently operated by students who are blind or visually impaired to collect and manipulate data. Phase I findings also indicated that these hands-on science experiences were associated with increased beliefs in students? capacity to independently function in science activities, increased inclination to consider postsecondary studies and careers in STEM, and improved academic outcomes. These data suggest that wide commercial availability of the proposed enhanced technology will help increase the representation of individuals with print disabilities in STEM studies and professions. Persons with print disabilities will be able to work independently in science classrooms and laboratories, and will be able to choose educational and career paths based on aptitude and interest. Additionally, because individuals with disabilities are frequently unemployed or underemployed and receive government assistance, their increased entry into STEM fields may reduce taxpayer burden.