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Ashleigh Gonzales with 3-D tactile science boards

Blind STEM student helps others learn in 3-D

By

Skip Derra

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When Ashleigh Gonzales decided to major in molecular bioscience and biotechnology, a highly visual major, some wondered if the blind woman had bitten off more than she could chew.

She proved her doubters wrong.

Gonzales, who received her undergraduate degree in 2013, is graduating with a master's in biology and society. Along the way she not only has found that her love of biology far outweighs her sight limitations, but she also found ASU professors who helped her succeed.

“The faculty were really supporting and helpful,” Gonzales said. “They helped me direct myself in a way that I actually wanted to be going, rather than just floating along to get a degree.”

One key mentor was Debra Page Baluch, an associate research scientist in the School of Life Sciences.

“I’m a first-generation college student, so I was kind of getting into a new world all by myself,” Gonzales said. “She showed me how to get through the college system and make the best of it by getting me to attend conferences and representing my research.”

One research project was the development of 3-D tactile boards that visually impaired people could use to help them understand science and math. Much of how a student learns microbiology is through sight. Gonzales had to rely on verbal descriptions to get through some of her coursework. She developed 3-D tactile boards with Leanne Harris as part of a research project to help the visually impaired. Gonzales tested them during her master’s work.

One study compared the performance of people who used the boards to those who didn’t. They found that those who used only the regular materials tested at 60 percent and those who used the tactile boards tested at 85 percent.

Gonzales expects to eventually refine the tactile boards, but now she is turning her attention to her first job. She will teach math, science and technology at the Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired.