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Observations Regarding STEM Education for Deaf Students

By Sarah A. Wagner

Observations of STEM Education for Deaf Students

On July 22, 2010, Caldwell Dyson answered frequently asked questions on the International Space Station (ISS) in American Sign Language (ASL). She noted that although the ISS has experienced many languages throughout its life, ASL, despite being said to be the fourth most commonly used language in the United States, has never been used on board (Dunbar 1.) This brought about an idea that has been circulating for quite some time: Why does there seem to be a significant lack of people from the Deaf/HH World in STEM? How is the education so different that it causes this visible decline?

In Caldwell’s video, she tells how she became friends with someone who was Deaf in college. She would tutor her in chemistry in exchange for learning vocabulary in ASL; she was taking an ASL class at the time. It is difficult to watch an interpreter, the teacher, the lesson, and take notes all at once. Studying a field that advances so rapidly, her friend also found herself learning newly made signs, and passing on these signs to Caldwell. (Ibid. 2) The rigorous, nonstop game of catch-up made for an exhausting course load.

Many others in the STEM field have found the same problem. In Deaf Cognition: Foundations and Outcomes, it reads how intense multi-tasking in the classroom is commonplace. Another reason why learning may be more difficult in this setting is suggested: “One way to account for the finding that DHH students learn less than hearing peers in science classes involves the fact that most Deaf students are now educated via ‘mediated instruction’.” (Marschark, M. 8). Mediated instruction (specifically PMI, peer-mediated instruction) is an approach to teaching that encourages fellow students to tutor one another, taking advantage of positive peer pressure. This method does actually seems to work for many, as we can see with Caldwell and her friend in college. However, it reads more to say, “The literature on DHH students’ mediated instruction/learning through sign language interpreting, in contrast, has given little attention to education outcomes.” (Ibid. 8). In saying this, it implies that perhaps factors that make one a good interpreter have been more bias towards only intuition and tradition.

However, let it not be said that there have been no efforts towards a smoother learning environment. C-Print, a real-time captioning system, allows for clearer communication during class. Recently, it was made possible to carry a portable version on a smartphone. “Students stated that the small size, greater portability, and easily read display of the mobile benefitted them in laboratory settings.” (Diversity in Deaf Education page 462 para 2.) An interpreter is not actually necessary in this situation; a captioner can be used instead. This suggests a solution to one of the possible problems stated before.

Specifically, there are advantages to using ASL in the practical settings of scientific observation. Due to the nature of sign languages, they can be used in situations where sound is distorted. For instance, it is not uncommon for American Sign Language to be used during scuba diving to ‘chat’ with other divers. Similarly, in outer space sound cannot travel at all! With the production of newer, less bulky suits for astronauts and cosmonauts, it is likely that languages like American Sign Language will become a pathway for communication. In the field of astronomy, there is an even ground between the Deaf and the hearing; one does not need anything but intellect to explore deeper into the vast scope of the universe.

Overall, it is to be noted that although there are not a complete lack of effort towards better STEM education for the Deaf, but there is still a great need for improvements to the system in order to help students reach for their goals. As stated on NASA’s website,

"Ultimately, this isn't really about me learning or knowing ASL," stated Caldwell Dyson. "This story should be an avenue for Deaf students -- from children in kindergarten to college undergraduates to doctoral candidates -- to see themselves belonging to this amazing thing called NASA and participating in scientific research and space exploration."

Whether or not one is interested in scientific research specifically, regardless, it can be deduced that education at the higher levels propose solvable problems to the Deaf. Action is being taken to solve these obstacles; however, having students just as active as the school leaders can lead to a better understanding of STEM as a unified body.



Dunbar, B. (n.d.). Astronaut Caldwell Dyson Sends Sign Language Message From Space Station. Retrieved May 1, 2017, from

Marschark, M., & Hauser, P. C. (2008). Deaf cognition: Foundations and outcomes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marschark, M., Lampropoulou, V., & Skordilis, E. K. (2016). Diversity in deaf education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





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