Public Release: 

Earth science web site: A new tool for deaf students (and others)

National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research



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BOULDER--An online library of Earth-system science resources could help upgrade science education for deaf students and keep them interested, says a researcher involved with the project. The Digital Library for Earth System Education (www.dlese.org) fits the unique educational needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students because of its visual, conceptual, and interactive nature. Jennifer Mangan, a postdoctoral researcher at DLESE, will present her findings Wednesday, October 30, in a poster, "Digital libraries as a visual tool for enhancing the science education experiences of deaf and hard-of-hearing learners," at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting in Denver.

The use of the library last spring by a small group of hearing- impaired middle schoolers suggests that its Web resources may help level the learning field for deaf students and enable them to keep pace with others. The students' experience with the library provided an opportunity for a rare observation of how deaf students use the Web.

DLESE, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), describes itself as "a community-centered resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Earth." Researchers, educators, and students have contributed over 3,000 sites to the library, which users can search by topic, grade level, resource type, and other criteria.

"If you search on the Internet for 'tornadoes'," says Mangan, "you get 330,000 results that are all over the map in credibility and usefulness. If you search within DLESE, you get 17 reliable sites."

To enhance that reliability, the Lamont Earth Observatory of Columbia University is developing a peer-review system for the library's resources. Because DLESE is a community effort, other library-related services and collection development efforts are actively under way in dozens of universities, schools, and informal science education venues. The DLESE Program Center, housed at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, develops tools to support the library's infrastructure.

Last May five girls and one boy, all hearing-impaired seventh or eighth graders from Monarch Middle School in Louisville, Colorado, spent several hours at the DLESE Program Center in Boulder researching science topics via the online library. During their visit they were highly engaged. Later, at their school, they used the library voluntarily to do further research on their topics, according to Mangan, who monitored the students' visit and worked with them in the classroom. She also observed that they chose to print images more often than text.

Low academic achievement by deaf and hard of hearing K-12 students is well known to educators, says Mangan. Only a third of teachers responsible for science instruction are certified to teach science, a situation that compounds the problem for deaf students and others with disabilities. DLESE aims to give both students and teachers access to reliable, up-to-date information. For deaf students, it's an added boon that they do not need to continually refocus their attention from their lesson to their teacher or interpreter and back again, says Mangan. Without the lag time needed for interpretation, they may keep the same pace as hearing students.

"Not much research has been done on the science education of deaf students," says Mangan, whose own hearing is impaired by a hereditary condition that began when she was a senior in college. A recent study by NSF showed that students with disabilities are more likely to drop out of high school. If they do make it to college, they are just as likely as students without disabilities to major in math or science.

Deaf students fare better when instruction is interactive and participatory. For example, says Mangan, they get involved when they conduct their own research, either on the Web or elsewhere, rather than "listening" to lectures through an interpreter. It's also known that deaf students tend to learn best using visuals.

Mangan earned a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Colorado and conducts research on drought at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in addition to working at the DLESE Program Center. Losing much of her hearing during college convinced her to broaden her career as a research scientist to include science education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

"DLESE is one way I can help students with disabilities acquire the same level of science education that others take for granted," says Mangan.

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The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research is a consortium of 66 universities offering Ph.D.s in atmospheric and related sciences. UCAR manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research through NSF sponsorship.

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