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Bunsen Burners & Chemical Reactions
by Susan Povinelli
Reprinted in Future Reflections from the Vigilant,
a publication of the NFB of Virginia

From the Editor: Susan Povinelli is an engineer and is often asked how to do engineering or scientific work. Susan has often shared her experiences with Federationists in the Braille Monitor and in Kernel Books. Susan and her lawyer husband Larry are the parents of two elementary-school-age daughters. This is what she says about taking chemistry:

It was a typical night at my home. I was in the middle of a reading lesson with my younger daughter when the phone rang. I paused for a moment to listen to my talking caller ID announce the caller. If it had been an unknown number, we would have continued reading, but it was not.

It was Debbie Prost, who has taught blind children in the Portsmouth, Virginia, public schools for over twenty years. She was calling to solicit my help in developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for one of her blind high school students who was scheduled to take chemistry in the fall. Debbie was getting a lot of resistance from the chemistry teacher, who believed that the blind student could not participate safely in the lab. The teacher was afraid that the student would burn herself on the bunsen burner or chemicals. Debbie Prost was adamant that the student should participate fully in the lab.

When Debbie first asked me how to modify the laboratory so that the student could be an active participant, I drew a blank. It had been many years since I was near a chemistry lab. However, as we talked, I realized that chemistry is no different from cooking. The basic concept of chemistry is to measure and mix chemicals in precise amounts, then apply heat or ice to cause a reaction. The same principle applies to cooking, but instead of chemicals you use food and spices.

Is working on a bunsen burner any more dangerous or difficult than working on a gas stove with an open flame? No! It is a matter of learning the proper technique of placing the pot or beaker on the burner. I suggested that the student practice placing a beaker on an unlit burner. This would allow her to get the proper orientation without spilling chemicals or burning herself. I also suggested that Debbie have a bunsen burner cover made. Such a cover would allow the student some protection from the open flame and would ensure that she would not accidentally knock the beaker over.

Since glass beakers do not have handles, it is difficult to grab them with a pot holder. I suggested making a wire handle out of a coat hanger to attach to the beaker. The student could then lift the beaker by the handle using a pot holder and keeping her hand away from the flame.

The other issue Debbie needed to address was measuring. How could the student measure liquid accurately? The sighted student pours the liquid into a long test tube up to a line marked on the tube. This method was not practical for the blind student since she was unable to feel the line on the test tube or use her fingers to determine the right amount of liquid because she could get chemical burns from the solution.

I can remember the grief I went through measuring liquid medicine for my children. Pouring it into a measuring spoon would not work because it was impossible to get an accurate reading. Then I remembered another Federationist who used a syringe with a notched line in the plunger to indicate the amount. The same technique could be used to measure chemicals. The student could suck up the liquid with the syringe and then push the plunger down to the required level. Measuring dry material would be no problem since the student could find containers of the correct size and pass a plastic knife across the top to level the dry material the way Mom taught us to measure flour when baking cookies.

The student would need the help of her lab partner to tell her when a solution changes color or describe the physical appearance of a chemical reaction. With slight modification there is every reason to think the blind student can be an active participant on the lab team. She can take notes using Braille, measure the chemicals using the techniques outlined here, and use a talking or Braille timer to time the reactions. She will not only learn chemistry but also gain the skills needed to be a team player and experience working in a sighted world. Her classmates will learn that blind students can work to meet the same science requirements they face.

Note: Since Susan submitted this article, Debbie Prost reports to the NFB Vigilant that the IEP for the high school student contains the requirement that the student enroll in the chemistry lab and earn her grade along with her peers. Once again our collective wisdom has paved the way for a blind person to participate equally. This time it is a blind student who has the chance to discover whether she has the interest and aptitude to study chemistry. Chalk up one more reason for the National Federation of the Blind.

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