Camp Class Teaches Blind Kids the Practical Use of Chemistry

Last year the LightHouse began a wonderful tradition, that of providing the perfect setting for Chemistry Camp, a weekend opportunity for blind and visually impaired high school students to experience accessible chemistry while having fun. In May we hosted the second annual Chemistry Camp session, in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind of California, the California Association of Blind Students and the University of California, Davis Chemistry department. Chemistry Camp facilitator and blind UC Davis chemistry graduate student Henry “Hoby” Wedler described this year’s goings on:

Really the idea behind Chemistry Camp is the scenario where the kids come in not knowing how much they can learn – maybe they know a little about chemistry but they think of it as a visual subject. We teach that there is a lot they can do without being able to see and we let them figure this out during the session. We also want to show them how doing chemistry translates to getting a real job.
Hoby Wedler helps student Jimmy Cong add baking soda, citric acid and water to a plastic bag at Chemistry Camp 2012. Jimmy is listening and feeling for the evolution of carbon dioxide gas produced when the citric acid and sodium bicarbonate react, indicating the reaction has taken place.
We had a great group this year! The class consisted of ten high school kids, ages 14 to 18; five blind mentors; three volunteers and several sighted instructors. The kids were recruited from 20 schools for the blind from all over the country. We started on the first day with active, hands-on experiments. We had the kids create chemical reactions by mixing chemicals and then had them observe the mixtures for changes. For example, the kids made esters – they combined stinky/odorous chemicals with other components in order to make pleasing fruity scents. Then we explained that what they were doing is exactly what chemists who produce fruit flavored cereal do. That afternoon we got into a discussion of acids and bases – what makes them that way, and all about pH. Now at the schools they typically teach the kids to observe color to determine when an acid or base is neutralized. Our kids did the same experiments and used their sense of smell to tell when the solutions change. For example, the smells of onion or garlic, which are acidic, become neutralized by Windex, which is a base.

In addition, Bill Gerry, a blind electrical engineer who has been working in his field for 40 years, spoke to the class. He’s a real role model; he talked to the kids about learning to advocate for yourself and how hard work makes you feel good about yourself at the end of the day.

On day two we brought in two speakers from Davis; Professor Jared Shaw, a natural products chemist, and Selina Wang, the research director at the Davis Olive Center, to continue the discussion about how the kids might use chemistry in their everyday careers. Also the UC Davis Chemistry Club performed their famous magic show where experiments are conducted in front of an audience with theatrical flair – the kids had a great time.

I think the main take-away for the kids was ‘Wow, there are people all around us getting paid for doing work just like what we did on day one.’ But the absolute best part of the weekend was seeing these blind students get together with each other and really form a group, one that got really comfortable with each other and could talk to each other about issues that blind people face. Being blind is not that big of deal; it’s a minor nuisance. And it’s so refreshing to see the kids grow and learn so much from each other both in the classroom and afterwards, during social time around the campfire.

We’re excited to learn that Hoby has a half-day presentation planned for campers in our Enchanted Hills Camp Teen Session, which takes place at the end of July. He promises to bring “lots of fun things to do; I’m trying to get some cool demos and we might also talk about chemistry in the classroom, how to think about science and advocate for oneself, and more.”

Learn More About Chemistry Camp
Chemistry Camp was featured last year in stories by Amy Standen that were broadcast on National Public Radio and Bay Area station KQED.

Read what we wrote about last year’s Chemistry Camp here.

Hoby Wedler Honored as a Champion of Change

Hoby Wedler (right) with Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to President Obama for Disability Policy at the award ceremony for the White House Champions of Change
Also in May, the White House “Champions of Change” program honored Hoby, as part of a group of fourteen people who were given the award for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for Americans with disabilities. Hoby, who is working towards his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at UC Davis, is helping to prove that blind people can master concepts in a field that is considered highly visual. “It’s a tremendous honor to have the president recognize our work,” he said. Read Hoby’s blog post about why and how he is studying chemistry and watch a White House video of the panel discussion about employment in STEM fields that Hoby (referred to by his proper first name Henry) participated in. (That particular panel discussion begins about 55 minutes in.)