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New Mexico State University

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New Mexico State University researchers making math more accessible to blind students

Researchers at New Mexico State University want more blind students to learn higher mathematics and, as a first step, they want to help mathematics teachers and teachers of Braille work more closely together, said Christopher Weaver, a graduate student in mathematics and coordinator of the Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS) program.

nd the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped will sponsor two seminars this year on teaching mathematics to the blind, the first at New Mexico State on Saturday, Feb. 9, and the second at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped in Alamogordo in May.

The Feb. 9 seminar will be held in the university's Science Hall Room 107. There will be introductory presentations, open to the public, from 10 a.m. to noon. These will be followed in the afternoon by sessions intended for teachers only.

Speakers will include Abraham Nemeth, inventor of the standard North American system for writing complex mathematical formulae in Braille, and Shakir Manshad, an assistant professor in the college studies division of Dona Ana Branch Community College, who is developing an audio program for supplementing mathematical instruction for the blind, Weaver said.

Braille, the dot writing system used by the blind, contains symbols for numbers and allows users to write simple, in-line computations. However, without augmentation it cannot represent the more complex operations central to higher mathematics. One result of this was that blind students were told for years that they could not pursue careers in higher mathematics, Weaver said.

Several researchers have sought to develop methods of representing complex equations to the blind, and Nemeth's method is one of the simplest and most flexible. It has been widely taught in the United States since 1952, he said.

"His code is relatively simple for a Braille reader to follow and is context independent, so it can be used in connection with any mathematical discipline. This means any student can use it and you don't have to teach Braille teachers all branches of math for them to be able to teach it," Weaver said.

But mathematics education for the blind still can be improved, he added.

"In general, although there are some notable exceptions, we've found that mathematics teachers really don't know Braille and that Braille teachers often are not familiar with higher mathematical concepts. What happens is that mathematics teachers teach content and Braille teachers teach the notation, with no overlap. Even when Braille teachers know the Nemeth code they may teach it by rote. The principles behind it, that make it easy to understand and applicable, may not be taught," he said.

As a result of the disconnection between mathematics and Braille teachers, blind students often wind up with a disjointed sense of mathematics and relatively few blind people enter professions that require knowledge of higher mathematics, Weaver said.

"We'd like mathematics to be as accessible to blind students as it is to sighted students. This involves several facets, but the first step is that they must learn to read mathematics long before they get to a university," he said.

"The purpose of our program is to give Braille and math teachers an understanding of the Nemeth code's structure and a way of speaking about math that conveys the equations in a manner consistent with the Nemeth code. We'd like the teachers to be more conversant with each other and with their students," Weaver said.

The Feb. 9 seminar will include a discussion of the concepts behind the Nemeth code, as well as training in what Nemeth calls "math speak," a vocabulary that mathematics teachers can use when describing an equation so that students familiar with the Nemeth code can immediately understand what it looks like, he said.

Jack King
Feb 4, 2002