CORVALLIS - Patricia Walsh, a sophomore at Oregon State University, is a former high school track star, accomplished skier, has a natural aptitude for math, is majoring in history and hopes to teach elementary school when she graduates. On one level she's a pretty typical college student. None of those accomplishments, however, came easily for Walsh. She's also blind.
Faced with a demanding course regimen that includes mathematics and physics, Walsh has turned to an innovative program at OSU called the Science Access Project that may ultimately hold the key to her college graduation and successful career. It combines developing technology and cooperative teachers to make it possible for Walsh to succeed in a surprisingly broad and challenging curriculum.
"When I first came to OSU I took 18 credits as a freshman, and I had no idea what I was getting into," Walsh said. "At times the work was overwhelming. Approaches I had used in high school, such as a person in class telling me what was on the blackboard, just wouldn't work for college math and sciences."
Fortunately, Walsh was able to tap into new technologies and programs being developed by OSU's John Gardner, himself an internationally recognized physicist who lost his eyesight in mid-career and has since developed several new approaches to help blind scholars pursue their interests in math and science, which are largely precluded to them by conventional Braille or old technologies.
"We're trying to make OSU a very friendly place for people with disabilities of all types, but there's always more work to do," Gardner said. "We have a vision that math and science should be just as accessible to the blind as to anyone else, and we're creating the technologies to make that happen. Before we're done, these systems will help not only blind students but many other people."
One of the tools Walsh uses which was created by Gardner's research is the "Tiger printer," a graphic embosser that creates raised images and allows her tactile access to maps, graphs and other mathematic or scientific materials. In other courses, Walsh has used a "triangle" computer software program that helps blind students read and write mathematics and science. A graphing calculator can play an audible tone that allows blind people to conceptually understand the image. And much of this work continues to use an improved form of Braille called "Dots Plus" that Gardner invented, which makes more complicated mathematical and scientific symbols readable in raised graphic form.
"The tiger printer gives me control of my education," Walsh said. "A professor can create material useful for the entire class, e-mail me a copy and I can print the same material directly to the tiger printer. In biology classes I could print labs, pie charts, bar charts and other means of organizing data."
For Walsh, all of these new technologies may mean the difference between success and failure in college, even though she has never thought of her life in terms of limitations.
Walsh has never had normal eyesight, but lost what little vision she had at the age of 14 as a result of a brain tumor and some complications with medications. She went to high school in Ontario, Canada, where she ran 400- and 800-meter races and won "All Ontario" honors for a 13.1-second time in the 100 meter race.
"Here at OSU, I still like to do tandem bicycling with my friends, and we do a lot of hiking," Walsh said. "And I still enjoy both cross country and downhill skiing - although I have gone over a couple of cliffs while ski racing."
Now pursuing an undergraduate degree in history, Walsh said she eventually hopes to teach elementary school. She doesn't anticipate too many problems. "I've already done some student teaching," Walsh said. "It's so much fun working with the young kids. It's a challenge doing a job like that while being blind, but no more than most other jobs I've ever done. The good thing about teaching the younger children is when they're doing something they're not supposed to do they give themselves away by giggling."
Walsh said her OSU professors have been extremely supportive of her education and, by using the new technologies, have to make only minimal changes in their standard approach to the class so that she can access materials via e-mail, raised graphics or other forms.
"My math professor had never taught a blind student before," Walsh said. "He was able to create the lecture notes for the entire class in tiger font, and could then e-mail me the materials. For him it didn't require any extra training or preparation. And another student helped me out by transcribing class notes to a word document, so I could have a Braille copy of notes within the same afternoon. Math and science classes that I formerly found intimidating I can now approach with confidence."
According to Gardner, that same combination of new technologies, cooperative educators, helpful friends and the emerging capabilities of the Internet should be able in the near future to make a vast array of information available to people - those with disabilities and those without - in the formats, places and times that work best for them as an individual. Many people learn best in differing ways, he said - some by seeing, some by hearing, some by reading, some by building, touching or interacting.
"Our vision of education in the future is that everyone should be able to learn in the ways that work best for them," Gardner said. "Sometimes that will help people with disabilities, and in other ways it will help almost everyone."
For now, it's helping Patricia Walsh. And someday soon new these learning technologies - and a devoted new young educator - may help the giggling second graders she hopes to teach.