WACO, Texas (FOX 44) – Students with blindness and low vision (BLV) have been facing barriers to the study and discipline of chemistry – often due to the long-standing inaccessibility of science labs to people with disabilities, a lack of non-visual educational materials and technologies not yet optimized for those with visual impairments.

To rectify this, a Baylor University chemist has been awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take dramatic steps to open chemistry classes and labs to students with blindness or low vision.

Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor who received the NIH grant for a first-of-its-kind early intervention project which removes barriers to laboratory work and provides tactile chemistry education materials and equipment. Combining high-tech and low-tech approaches, the project blends robotics and technology with educational materials and “lab hacks” which enables students with blindness to take part in the same roles and routines as their sighted counterparts.

The five-year grant, in partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin,  is funded through the NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program – which promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) projects for children in grades K-12.

Shaw and his collaborators are focusing their project initially on high school students by developing a pilot program for 150 TSBVI students to participate in education and curriculum and train on materials on both the school campus and within Shaw’s lab at Baylor. The pilot is expected to launch this fall, with the full program expected to begin in spring 2023 through 2027. In the future, the team hopes to scale the program to include resources for children just beginning the study of science.

For Shaw, the project is personal as well as professional. His son, Noah, was diagnosed as an infant with retinoblastoma, an aggressive pediatric eye cancer. Noah is now 14, and is thriving despite losing sight in one eye. This experience has led to a distinct thread throughout Shaw’s research.

Shaw’s research team on the NIH grant includes Baylor colleagues John Wood, Ph.D., The Robert A. Welch Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Tonya Davis, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology, along with Mona Minkara, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. Minkara is one of three blind individuals on Shaw’s team, along with Cary Supalo, Ph.D., and Hoby Wedler, Ph.D., entrepreneurs and educators who both consult on the project.