Special Education What the Research Says

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

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 09, 2023 3 min read
Second graders Drayden Ayers, left, and Breeanna Runde work with Megan Johannsen, a teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Dubuque, Iowa on Sept. 25, 2015.
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Scientific groups around the country are working to help deaf and hard-of-hearing students better envision science, technology, engineering, and math concepts.

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

Emerging research suggests that deaf and hard-of-hearing students benefit from a bilingual approach to instruction, including both spoken English and visual hand languages such as American Sign Language. But like other bilingual learners, deaf students often struggle to master the academic language used in each domain, and science can be particularly challenging. For example, experts estimate 80 percent of chemistry terms do not have an equivalent hand sign.

“Often [STEM] lexicons developed for the hearing community aren’t used to create sign lexicons,” said Caroline Solomon, a professor of biological oceanography and director of the School of Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health at Gallaudet University, a college which specializes in educating students who are deaf or hard of hearing. “We really need universal design for lexicons for both hearing and deaf students.”

While hearing students rarely verbally spell out words outside of a spelling lesson, Alicia Wooten, an assistant professor at Gallaudet University, said deaf and hard-of-hearing students may end up relying on signed finger-spelling for many conceptual words in a typical middle or high school science or math class which do not now have consistent hand signs. It’s easy for students to fall behind when an interpreter has to take time to spell out unfamiliar words like “s-i-n-u-s-o-i-d-a-l” or “c-o-v-a-l-e-n-t 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 scientific concepts dependent as much on the fluency of their interpreters as on their teachers’ content knowledge.

“I mostly worked solo and communicated electronically [in my lab], so I didn’t really use [ASL] interpreters until I taught students here in high school,” said Christopher Kurz, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, and an American Sign Language speaker. “We had an interpreter placed in the classroom [during] Calculus and Algebra, and the interpreter didn’t really know anything about all of that. So as I would cite, I’d have to write everything on the board. And I realized that there were not any standardized signs for common terms in the scientific world.”

Wooten co-founded Atomic Hands, one of a handful of groups backed by the National Science Foundation, the AAAS, and other groups to develop visual lexicons for STEM classes.

Different projects use an array of different approaches to presenting signs. ASL Aspire takes a gamified approach, creating lessons which introduce students and teachers to signs and concepts in the course of a game. The Signing Science Dictionary uses computer avatars, while others, like the ASL STEM Forum (in the “blood” video below), crowdsource different versions of emerging signs among STEM professionals in the field to develop a consensus for new words.

The Quantum Science ASL, developed by Harvard University and the Learning Center for the Deaf launched a YouTube channel of professionally signed technical words and definitions, as in the math video below.

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

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


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