Blind Teens Tap Into Senses At Chemistry Camp Enchanted Hills, a camp in Northern California, offers blind students an opportunity to study science through smell and touch. The leader of the camp says chemistry is something you do with your brain, not your eyes. "Nobody can see atoms," he says.

Blind Teens Tap Into Senses At Chemistry Camp

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: School is out and many kids are at summer camp, including camps that focus on a particular subject, such as math or computers. And when Northern California camp, the subject is chemistry. Only here, the students have something else in common beyond an interest in science. They are all blind or visually impaired.

From member station KQED, Amy Standen reports that it's also a rare chance for these kids to compare notes on what it's like to be blind in the sighted world.

AMY STANDEN: Mary Church is 17 years old, and in tears. She says she's surprised the other campers haven't started calling her crybaby.

MARY CHURCH: I have broken down about school this weekend so many times.

STANDEN: Mary is one of a half-dozen students from across California who have come to a camp called Enchanted Hills, about 40 miles north of Napa. The site is owned by Lighthouse for the Blind, a San Francisco non-profit. And the National Federation of the Blind is one of the sponsors.

For Mary, it's one of the very few times in her life that she's ever spent surrounded by other blind people.

CHURCH: They just talk about anything and, like, interests in stuff instead of how I'm just so different and how I'm just so amazing.

STANDEN: Blind students hear a lot of stories about how inspirational they are. But Mary wants something else, the opportunity to learn the same things that other sighted students learn and the tools to make that possible. And that is the point of chemistry camp.

HOBY WEDLER: Now that everyone's got a chance to feel those, I want to talk about functional groups.

STANDEN: Hoby Wedler leads the camp. He's a Ph.D. student in chemistry at University of California, Davis. Hoby says in high school, his teacher told him that because he's blind, chemistry wasn't something he could pursue. Without sight, how would he know when chemical reactions were taking place? But then he realized that a lot of lab experiments can be done through touch or smell.

WEDLER: Each group member a few whiffs and notice the smell changing.

STANDEN: Seated at one of the tables is a sophomore from Santa Rosa named Jimmy Cong. Jimmy holds a fan behind a test tube, so that its fumes drift toward him.

JIMMY CONG: It smells like weak garlic.

WEDLER: Yes, really, really weak.

STANDEN: Like Mary, Jimmy's also the only visually impaired student at his high school. But it doesn't seem to faze him. He's the kind of blind person who thinks it's funny when he realizes that he's been talking to an empty chair. And academically, he's a bit of an overachiever.

CONG: Honors biology, honors English and honors world history.

STANDEN: Jimmy's probably exactly the kind of kid that lawmakers had in mind back in 1975, when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA, as the law is known, says that disabled kids should be able to go to the same public schools as other kids. And Jimmy's really at ease in the classroom, even a bit of a ham.

CONG: Smash, smash. Oh, there. Got it.

STANDEN: But mainstreaming hasn't worked out for everyone. For instance, Mary. School is a constant struggle for her. Textbooks aren't available in Braille when she needs them. And when people try to help her, sometimes their efforts end up making her feel even more isolated. Like her advanced biology teacher.

CHURCH: He wants to give extra credit to the students who work with me.



STANDEN: It's gotten to the point where Mary isn't sure if she wants to go back to school for her senior year at all.

CHURCH: I just want someone to come down from, like, heaven or something and make the decision for me. Just tell me where I should go next.

STANDEN: This issue of passivity, of giving up, is a very real threat for blind people, a group where unemployment hovers near 70 percent. And so chemistry camp isn't just about getting a boost in science. It's about learning to pick your battles.


STANDEN: Away from the other students, Mary sits next to Jimmy Cong, who's strumming a guitar. He wants to give her some advice.

CONG: Not trying to sound like a jerk, you know, but it's just, you just got to deal with it. I don't really know what to say. I mean, it's just hard. I don't know.

STANDEN: She says she knows, but she's learning.

CHURCH: You can't take all of everything people say to heart, because sometimes people don't really mean what they say. It's just, unfortunately, it's just the way the world works.

STANDEN: It's a hard lesson for anyone, blind or sighted.


STANDEN: Back in the classroom, the students are going through a lesson about how acids and bases interact.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, how many squirts do you think it's going to take her before we're going to smell anything?

STANDEN: Mary's been pretty quiet until now, but she's figured out this one out in her head.

CHURCH: Probably 10, I don't know.

STANDEN: Ten squirts later, the unmistakable smell of onion.

CHURCH: Oh, I smell it now.

STANDEN: Mary's right.

CHURCH: Yeah, definitely. Ten is the magic number.

STANDEN: Later, home from camp, Mary says she's feeling better about school, more confident. She says she'll definitely make it to graduation. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.


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