How Do You Sign ‘Pi’? New Sign-Language Terms Could Boost Scientific Literacy

Science groups across the country are working to help deaf and hard of hearing students better understand science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference this month, researchers warned that fields ranging from oceanography to quantum mechanics urgently need a consistent sign language to represent STEM concepts, both for K-12 students and professionals.

New research suggests that students who are deaf and hard of hearing benefit from a bilingual approach to instruction, including spoken English and visual languages ​​such as American Sign Language. But like other bilingual learners, Deaf students often struggle to master the academic language used in each subject area, and science can be especially difficult. For example, experts believe 80% of chemistry terms do not have an equivalent hand sign.

“Often [STEM] lexicons developed for the hearing community are not used to create sign lexicons,” said Caroline Solomon, professor of biological oceanography and director of the School of Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics and public health from Gallaudet University, an honors university. in the education of deaf or hard of hearing students. “We really need a universal design for lexicons for hearing and deaf students.”

While students rarely hear words verbally spelled outside of a spelling lesson, Alicia Wooten, an assistant professor at Gallaudet University, said students who are deaf and hard of hearing can end up relying on finger spelling. signed for many conceptual words in a typical medium. or a high school science or math class that now doesn’t have consistent hand signs. It’s easy for students to fall behind when an interpreter has to take the time to spell unfamiliar words like “sinusoidal” or “covalent bond” in the middle of a discussion.

Studies have found that even mild hearing loss is significantly linked to attention and communication problems in school, in part because students have difficulty following spoken conversations.

This can leave students’ understanding of science concepts as dependent on the fluency of their interpreters as it is on the content knowledge of their teachers.

“I mostly worked solo and communicated electronically [in my lab]so I didn’t really use [ASL] interpreters until I teach students here in high school,” said Christopher Kurz, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, and lecturer in American Sign Language. “We had an interpreter placed in the classroom [during] Calculus and algebra, and the interpreter knew none of that. So, as I quote, I should write everything on the board. And I realized that there were no standardized signs for common terms in the scientific world.

Wooten co-founded Atomic handsone of the few groups supported by the National Science Foundation, AAAS, and others to develop visual lexicons for STEM courses.

Different projects use a range of different approaches to presenting the signs. ASL aspire takes a playful approach, creating lessons that introduce students and teachers to signs and concepts through play. Dictionary of Signature Sciences uses computer avatars, while others, like the ASL STEM Forum (in the “blood” video below), bring together different versions of emerging signs among STEM professionals in the field to develop consensus on new words .

THE Quantum Science ASLdeveloped by Harvard University and the Learning Center for the Deaf have launched a YouTube channel of technical words and definitions signed by professionals, as in the math video below.

While these resources are generally free online and are exploding in variety, science professionals said that ultimately it will be up to schools to ensure their teachers and paraprofessionals help students access them.

“There are many, many different lexicons being built and that’s great, but how do we get them to teachers?” Kurz said.

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