Instructor Leyf Starling explains an activity during the Visually Impaired and Blind STEM Camp, held on NCSSM's campus for the first time this year.


Visually Impaired Students attend STEM Camp at NCSSM

The week before the July 4 holiday, NCSSM played host to a unique group of students: visually impaired high schoolers who were on campus for a weeklong STEM camp.

The Visually Impaired and Blind STEM Camp—which is in its third year but is new to the school—is the brainchild of three people: Leyf Starling, an engineering instructor who has taught at NCSSM; Diane Brauner, a seasoned orientation mobility specialist; and Ed Summers, a computer scientist at SAS who is himself visually impaired.

Together, the three created a safe, facilitated space where visually impaired 10th and 11th graders can immerse themselves in STEM topics.

To be admitted, the students are required to write an essay, be at or above grade level, and be independently mobile. All are mostly or fully paid for using funds from their home states. This year, eight students participated in the camp: five from North Carolina, two from New York, and one from Virginia.

“We’re getting them to understand what engineers do and how it can be so much fun—both creative and innovative,” said Starling.

Each day of camp was tailored toward that end, with a diverse range of activities. The students worked on Makey Makey invention kits and visited the Duke Eye Center and the Canine Cognition Lab.

Wednesday was a particularly interesting day: the group visited Summers’ accessibility lab at SAS to observe an accessible graphing accelerator, which uses sound to convey the information contained in graphs. It’s a unique product that has been tested on visually impaired adults, but the SAS programmers are hoping to introduce it in secondary schools and allowed the campers to interact with it.

On Thursday, the students learned about circuits with the goal of making a small car drive at least three meters. The class seemed typical, but had a few modifications.

“This is a breadboard,” said Starling, referring to the small unit before each student and shown on the overhead projector. Around the edges of the class, several teachers hovered, waiting to help out if needed.

“It’s a long rectangle with small holes,” she said. “There’s a plus and a minus on there: the outermost row is plusses, and just next to that is minuses.” Many of the students bowed their heads low to look closely at the breadboards; a few had earbuds in to listen to screen readers translate the text on their computers’ screen into speech.

Brauner, who was also on hand in the classroom, explained how the class was tailored to visually impaired teens. “We pick our activities carefully; they’re mainstream, but we do them in smaller groups so the kids can be hands-on. If you noticed, Leyf is giving careful directions, and we do tactile activities that they can touch and feel. And we use a lot of technology.”

Working in teams, the students began figuring out the breadboards, touching wires to a battery pack so that a small light lit up. “Did you do that?” Victor Gaspar, 15, asked his partner.

“Yeah—I’m touching positive to this side and negative to that side,” said Mohamed Deumah, 14.

“You made it light up! Isn’t that the most rewarding feeling?” said Starling from the front of the class.

The two boys agreed that the camp had been a great experience. “I like science, but engineering’s pretty fun too,” said Deumah, who is from Yonkers, NY.

“Yeah, because it makes you think about how to improve things,” said Gaspar, a resident of Burlington, NC.

Later on in the day, the students would be researching topics for their capstone projects, which they would present on Friday, their final day. But the camp isn’t just about academic learning. It’s also about beginning a transition to college, which can be a little tricky for visually impaired students.

“It’s about how do you get around the campus, and what’s it like to be hanging around with people at 10:00 at night?” explained Starling. The camp was formerly held at NC State University, but she said that NCSSM’s residential counselors had been incredibly helpful. “We collaborate closely with the residential staff. There are a lot of safety issues, but we’re really trying to reinforce independence and self-advocacy skills.”

NCSSM’s Summer Accelerator was occurring simultaneously on campus, and the visually impaired campers were largely able to participate in the same evening activities as the other campers: a trip to the UNC planetarium, a walk to Locopops, a movie.

For the students, it’s worth it. And for the organizers, too. Last year, Kahmile Whitby—a camper from Virginia who returned this year—told Starling, “I’ve never been in a place with other blind students, never been able to talk about my challenges and felt so safe.”

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Starling.