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How do you teach science to students with visual impairments?

By October 13, 2010June 14th, 20165 Comments

Imagine a big ball of rock and ice hurtling through space that grows a tail as it approaches the sun. Can you picture that?

Well, maybe not. You might wonder, what kind of tail? Is it long like a monkey’s, curled like a pig’s, or bobbed like a poodle’s?

Well, none of those, I might tell you. It’s more like a jet condensation trail, only a little wider and not as long—relatively speaking, that is.

But what if you’d never actually seen a con trail—or a monkey or poodle tail for that matter. We could go on like this forever, playing a sort of 20 questions game, each of us becoming more exasperated.

Obviously, if I could just show you the image of a comet, you would quickly understand what I’m describing. That’s the challenge science teachers face, though, when trying to help students with visual impairments grasp difficult science concepts: They can’t rely on simple images from textbooks. They must help students use manipulative and tactile tools to “see” what they’re learning.

For the past three years, McREL has been working with Edinboro University, Tactile Learning Adventures, and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind to develop an intervention to help teachers create tactile graphics and written descriptions for visually impaired students.

The project, titled ACE (for Adapted Curriculum Enhancements) and funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, has created and studied the effectiveness of materials and lessons designed to help grades 6–12 mainstream teachers adapt lessons for students with visual impairments.

So how do you help a student with visual impairments visualize a comet? Here’s a hint: it involves a Styrofoam ball, some ribbons, and a hair dryer.

View this lesson and download other free lessons and materials from the ACE website at

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Larissa says:

    This is something that teachers need to think about and we don’t alwyas think about. When I was in school there was agirl in my class that was visualy impaired. She had a special machine that she would pit her papes under so she could read what they said. But not all students have vission and as teachers we have to come up with creative ways to express what something may look like with using touch.

  • Denise Cheek says:

    As a teacher with a visually impaired student, I think that this is a valid concern. Although he can see some, my student still has difficulty focusing on smaller details and requires large print. Not only is there an issue with models and other visual aids, but also with written support materials. Because of the vision, he has a difficult time reading the text. I create notes and graphic organizers in larger fonts so that he can follow along.
    I truly wish that there were more resources available as it relates to text books. I will definitely keep this in mind when it comes time to consider new books for adoption.

  • Nichole Villarreal says:

    I think that this is a great way and form to get ideal for students with visual impairment. Not only do you say why it’s important but give ways to help improve teaching to these students. I know that if i were a student unable to see I would want my teacher to try other methods for visual aids.

  • Jennifer Barras says:

    What about students in the lower elementary grades? (Pre-K through 5th)

  • Donna says:

    As a teacher of a visually impaired student I know it is difficult to understand the students perspective and to cater to all of their needs.
    Do you know if there are any of these collaborative groups setup in Australia?

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