Coming full circle - from love at first sight to love at first visualization

July 21, 2022
Sarah Wegwerth

I loved organic chemistry as an undergrad because of the use of visuals and drawing to explain concepts and solve problems. I subconsciously assumed that sight was essential for learning the subject, well that is until a certain seminar in graduate school challenged my notions.  

During the end of a weekend-long seminar series, Professor Dean Tantillo of UC Davis acknowledged the group members who carried out the research in his lab, which at the time included (now Dr.) Hoby Wedler, a graduate student who had been blind since birth.

My initial reaction was, “How is that even possible?!” I suspect that was exactly the response Professor Tantillo was expecting, as he spent his remaining seminar time sharing his experiences in working with Hoby, both as an undergraduate and graduate student. After that seminar, I accepted that sight was not needed to master organic chemistry, but honestly, I did not give much more thought as to how to make material accessible. After all, students with visual impairment are a low incidence population… 

Once I finished my PhD, I stepped off the well trodden path toward a faculty position to join Alchemie’s mission of helping all students learn chemistry through innovative digital tools. Through my various roles at Alchemie, I learned about providing accessible experiences for students with visual impairments. In particular,  

  1. If you wait until a student with visual impairment requests accommodations to make material accessible, the job will be more difficult, if not near impossible to complete in a timely manner. 
  2. An accessibility-first mindset challenges you to really hone in on what is vital for learning and how to best communicate information in a variety of modalities, which results in an experience that is inherently better for everyone.
  3. Making sure content is accessible is the right thing to do but there is a lot of room for improving how material is made accessible. 

With this mindset, we started applying for grants that would enable us to apply this new philosophy of accessibility-first and design novel experiences that were more meaningful than the status quo. 

Since then we have been working hard on the Kasi project. (If you are new to Alchemie, Kasi uses multi-sensory augmented reality for accessible learning of STEM concepts.) I have now seen first-hand that vision is not required for visualization. During our studies, high school students who have little or no vision described what they were “seeing” as the Kasi system helped them understand molecular formulas and reaction balancing. Also exciting was the students’ use of the Kasi pieces as drawing tools to communicate their ideas with their sighted peers and teachers.

Now for the exciting news!

This summer my journey of understanding is coming back around to the start, and I am returning to my roots. Through a NIDILRR grant (National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research), we are adapting Kasi for college-level organic chemistry! It feels exciting and a bit redemptive for me to think about exploring the very visual concepts that first attracted me to organic chemistry, but now from an accessibility-first mindset. 

Our first goal is Kasi stereochemistry, arguably, the most visual-spatial concept of first semester organic chemistry. So while my story has come full circle it is far from over. This is just the beginning of a new journey into finding ways to create inclusive learning tools for students and their instructors to use for the subject that got me to where I am today. 

I look forward to sharing our progress in the next few months! 

Co- Author