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Emily Schlenker’s story

As blind students, drawing and the visual aspects of math and science are often dismissed as a waste of time or impossible. This totally disregards those students, like myself who happen to be visual learners. My brain thrives on pictures, in spite of the years of teachers and professors striving to cram me into the memorizer box that is assigned to blind learners.
Once I got away from so-called blindness experts/educators, I entered the real academic world. I am completing my pre-med requirements, and my physics professor and tutor both made it clear that if I wanted to do physics, I would be exposed to drawings one way or another.Molecular structure of dopamine

The same has been true for my more extensive studies of organic chemistry. There is a reason these subjects use drawings, and without the TactiPad, I could not learn at the pace of my classmates or do impromptu exercises/quizzes. I suffered many frustrations learning to make decent lines, rings, and free-body diagrams, but I am now drawing with confidence. I have spent 34 years of my life only handling a pen or pencil in order to sign my signature, and so the learning curve has been steep for me. However, my drawings don’t look any worse than those of my peers at this point I am proficient enough with this product to turn out very useable pictures from the descriptions my professor gives as he is drawing on the chalkboard. If I get lost or confused, I simply pass the pad to my notetaker, and I get a structure or graph that allows me to participate and answer questions along with the rest of my class. The TactiPad has been instrumental in my transformation from a fearful and anxious student who lacked the confidence to speak up in class or go to my professor in private with my questions, into a strong participant in lectures and study sessions who is often right on the money with the answers.

GraphGrid connecting the pointsYesterday we were learning to construct energy diagrams of reactions, and the instructor was explaining how to draw the activation and free energies for two products from the same reactants under different conditions. I went home still somewhat unsure what the final product should look like, as I was also focused on what was being said about this particular reaction. I did some reading on my own and produced what I thought was an accurate representation of the energy diagram which best described this situation. I went to see my prof this morning and presented my drawing. He did not tell me it was okay or adequate. He said it was excellent, and that it just needed a few labels in the form of some deltas to represent changes in free energy. I have gotten a handle on the common printed letters used in organic chemistry, but a lot of it is still Greek to me, but I will get there.

In the past, I was so ashamed of my attempts to construct mental pictures of things, that I was afraid to seek help from anyone who might be critical or dismissive if I had it wrong. This created a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, getting questions wrong, and having more anxiety the next time I needed to take a quiz or exam. After working with the TactiPad, I am now confident enough to present my pictures as visual aids for my questions or as parts of assignments.

Perhaps the most ironic thing to come out of this, is that my mental acuity and ability to do organic chemistry in my head from memory has improved exponentially. If I can draw, I can remember. I don’t know how so many of us blind students keep believing we can memorize things and understand science without ways to visualize it in our brains. Science is done in the mind. How it gets there is not as important as getting it there via one’s hands, or eyes, or both.

I would love to demonstrate some of what I have done with the TactiPad. Hearts and happy faces are alright, but this thing is life altering. Without it, I would not be preparing to take the MCAT exam next summer.


Emily Schlenker