Tulane University Geologist, Nicole Gasparini and her undergraduate and graduate students brought visually impaired students from Louisiana Lighthouse a learning experience of a lifetime. Part of a $230,600 National Science Foundation Grant, Gasparini and her students were awarded, the goal is to study how soil is produced in different environments.
In the project proposal, Gasparini included service-learning, which is an academic requirement for all Tulane students. The idea was to help create a unique learning experience for special needs children so they could experience different types of soil and typography.
“The depth of soil is likely closely linked to the soil production rate and how rivers erode,” she said. “How rivers and soils interact has practical consequences for river infrastructure and human impacts on landscapes such as deforestation or forest fires.”
The first service-learning class, where students apply classroom knowledge to assist community organizations or address societal problems, was spent working with young visually impaired students and encouraging them to feel and touch models of volcanoes, waves, and other natural phenomena. The activities included whipped cream, wet sand, and play dough.
Alongside Gaspirini, four of her students at Tulane University participated in this exciting project; George Pratt, Kristina Leggas, Jenni Riggen, and Haily MacDonald.
“The students were worried about being able to hold the attention of the kids,” said Gasparini. “But the kids absolutely loved the experience.”
“This was my first experience teaching in a classroom setting, but I really enjoyed teaching the kids and also learning from them.” said Tulane senior George Pratt
The project included 3-D printing at the Scot Ackerman Makerspace at Tulane in order to create synthetic landscapes so the children could experience simulated volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes.
One of the projects, lead by Kristina Leggas, centered around surface waves. She created this experience by incorporating sand and water to create a wave tank, and then invited the children to feel the different materials so they could understand how waves move over different types of soils and surfaces.
“I just had to use different prompts and focus on the sensation of touch instead sight,” said Leggas, a junior majoring in environmental science. “Watching them get excited about science made it all worth it.”
The volcano activity, led by George Pratt, a senior majoring in geology and anthropology, encouraged the young students to examine volcanic rock samples and prompted a conversation about how they were formed. He also made a model of a volcano for the kids by using stacked laser-cut plywood. Then, he taught them how lava flows by having them mold homemade play dough along the sides.
“If there was one thing that was challenging, it was conveying information in a way that visually impaired kids could understand. But they asked a lot of questions, and I could tell they were having a good time.”
Gaspirini spearheaded the earthquake activity by utilizing graham crackers and Cool Whip. In a tweet following their service based learning class, Gaspirini tweeted “’I almost started crying when one of the kids said, ‘I wish I could stay here all day.’”
Overall, the project was a massive success.
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