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September 30, 2002

NTID tries to learn why deaf find science difficult

From: Democrat and Chronicle, NY
Sept. 30, 2002

By Matthew Daneman
Democrat and Chronicle

(September 30, 2002) — Explain the Doppler effect. A basic high school physics concept, it is usually illustrated with an example of a train whistle or car horn seeming to rise in pitch as it gets closer and to drop in pitch as it heads away.

Now, explain the Doppler effect to a deaf student.

Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf is starting a three-year, federally funded study into how deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn science and math.

The results, said NTID professor and project director Marc Marschark, could end up changing how the nation’s 26,000 deaf college students are taught -- and even trickle down to kindergartners.

The research is funded by a $780,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. And it will dig into how well information gets passed from teachers through sign-language interpreters to students.

The study’s focus is on math and science because of their particular complexities.

A number of studies have shown that communication breakdowns between the deaf and hearing worlds result in deaf students often not receiving the same quality of education as their hearing peers. Only a quarter of deaf college students nationwide graduate.

And educators who deal with the deaf often are working in a gray area of guesswork. The assumption in sign-language-interpretation circles is that, for example, an interpreter with some biology knowledge will do a better job in a biology class, and thus those students will learn more, said research associate Patty Sapere. But there’s no proof to back that up.

“It’s something interpreters always wonder about,” said research associate Carol Convertino, who also works as a sign-language interpreter. When called in to interpret a particularly unfamiliar lecture or course, “you hope the students have the background,” she said.

There is also a feeling that deaf students can get lost when shifting their attention among the professor, the lecturer and perhaps an overhead display on one screen and even another display on the computer screens before them, said Marschark.

“Most of the time, it is not the ... technology used, but how it is being used that is most important,” said Tim Vail, 21, a computer science major from Lebanon, Pa. “If they show slides after slides quickly, then, of course, I will miss things, but so will the hearing students.”

Being able to see the interpreter is key, said Paul Thompson, a physics major from Santa Monica, Calif. “Aside from that, I usually don’t find it necessary to request the professor to accommodate to me.”

“As for the split-attention problem,” Thompson said, “I don’t think that there’s any real way around that. I myself compensate by being prepared before I come to the class, so that I can focus more on the professor’s explanation rather than the material being shown.”

Lots of variables

The three-year research project will gauge student comprehension based on variables such as interpreters’ backgrounds and experience, as well as student skills at following sign-language interpretation and their own educational backgrounds.

“Students come here with a wide variety of communication skills, from fluent ASL (American Sign Language) ... to kids who have never signed,” said Marschark. “An instructor goes into a classroom, how do they handle that?”

One part of the research project also will look at how students perform based on different teaching styles. Another will see how much students comprehend when interpreters with some science knowledge interpret a lecture on Shakespeare, and vice versa.

The participants in the study are RIT faculty members, sign-language interpreters and many of its students, both deaf and hearing.

Roughly 1,100 RIT students are deaf or hard of hearing, with 235 of them pursuing bachelor’s or master’s degrees in a science or math field.

Numerous deaf people have made indelible marks in science: John Cornforth, Charles Nicolle and Charles Sherrington all won Nobel Prizes for work in chemistry or medicine.

But the deaf also are underrepresented in math and science, with communication being a major stumbling block, said Harry Lang, a professor with NTID’s Center for Research, Teaching and Learning, and author of Silence of the Spheres: The Deaf Experience in the History of Science.

One problem is that many technical concepts or terms don’t have standard signs. Another is that while interaction in class is a major factor in keeping students engaged in the topic, classroom participation is difficult through an interpreter.

But more than communication, Lang said, the biggest hurdle to the deaf may be the beliefs of the hearing world. “The attitude that ‘science is not for a person with a disability’ makes it very hard to pursue such a career.”

Copyright 2002 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.