Reimagining science education for visually impaired students

Feelin’ DNA aims to inspire the visually impaired community by providing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers with 3-D models so they can incorporate them into their classrooms.

The founder of the student-run organization, Rachael Hamm ’18 (a biology major and chemistry/medical anthropology minor), came up with the idea through an assignment for Kelly Hogan’s genetics class. Students were supposed to create something that could be used in a hands-on science museum using the BeAM makerspaces on campus. Hogan is an associate STEM teaching professor of biology, QEP director and assistant dean of instructional innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences.

A 2-D model of the heart. (photo by Kristen Chavez)
A 2-D model of the heart. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

“My idea was to make something that visually impaired students could use that was tactile,” said Hamm.

So far, Feelin’ DNA has created a 2-D projection of a heart labeled with Braille and 3-D models of a bacteriophage (a virus that infects and replicates within a bacterium) and DNA.

Hamm’s teammates came from diverse academic backgrounds: Emma Astrike-Davis ’18 (public health), Amaya Martinez ’17 (biology and Hispanic studies minor), Elliot Krause ’18 (biomedical engineering and entrepreneurship) and Joanna Cao ‘19 (biomedical engineering).

“Right now we know that most of the students don’t have access to accessible materials,” Hamm said.

According to the National Science Foundation, less than 8 percent of visually impaired students pursue a career in the STEM fields.

Lack of access to user-friendly materials could be a barrier, said Kevin Currin, a biostatistics graduate student who is visually impaired. He recently joined the project to advise the team on what makes a good model. “It’s always good for people to have as many opportunities as they can to have equal access to those careers,” he said.

Soon Hamm realized that what began as a class assignment could actually become a project with a lasting impact beyond UNC.

The team has made connections with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, the DIAGRAM Center (a Benetech global literacy initiative supported by the Department of Education), and outside consulting firms. A grant from the APPLES Service-Learning Program’s Robert E. Bryan Fellowship has given the team some seed funding and helped with professional development. A biomedical engineering class taught by Kenny Donnelly is helping with the development of code for designing new models.

A 3-D DNA model. (photo by Kristen Chavez)
A 3-D DNA model. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

The Feelin’ DNA team has also attended conferences to meet with teachers of visually impaired students to share the models and get feedback in preparation for sessions they will teach at the annual Youth Slam, a weeklong summer camp sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.

They hope to start a pilot program with North Carolina teachers this summer. Teachers and individuals will be able to directly download the 3-D files from Feelin’ DNA’s website to print on their own.

Hogan has been amazed with the direction Hamm and the others have taken with the project.

“What I love about this project is that we started by reimagining science education and now these students have taken this to a new level … so I think it aligns so nicely with the idea that we at UNC are reimagining arts and sciences for the public good,” Hogan said.

Hamm echoed that thought – the group is now applying for nonprofit status, and she hopes Feelin’ DNA will become a sustainable organization at UNC.

“It went from this assignment to a whole project that we’re all so passionate about,” she said.

Story and video by Kristen Chavez, College of Arts & Sciences