Estuary reserves extend science education to deaf and hard-of-hearing students

Until recently, educators of the Deaf had limited resources for teaching about ecology. Not only were materials scarce, but American Sign Language (ASL) did not have a shared vocabulary for many ecological terms, including “estuary” and “watershed.” If members of the Deaf community wanted to discuss these concepts, they would generally fingerspell terms like “e-s-t-u-a-r-y” or “w-a-t-e-r-s-h-e-d,” a barrier that forced native ASL speakers to think in another language, English.

Attendees of a Teachers on the Estuary workshop at Waquoit Bay Reserve demonstrate the new American Sign Language sign for "estuary." The sign represents mixing between the river and the sea.

Attendees of a Teachers on the Estuary workshop at Waquoit Bay Reserve demonstrate the new American Sign Language sign for "estuary." The sign represents mixing between the river and the sea. (Image credit: James Rassman/Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)

To expand opportunities for STEM learning in New England’s Deaf community, NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System created a new partnership to help educators of the Deaf teach their students about estuaries. The members of this partnership — many of whom were deaf themselves — included subject matter experts and educators from the Center for Research and Training at The Learning Center of the Deaf, Boston University, and three national estuarine research reserves: Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay. They aimed to create new ASL terms and also place those terms in context through hands-on activities and experiences out on the estuary.

Together, the collaborators developed instructional modules about estuaries and watersheds that incorporate new ASL terms. Deaf scientists developed the ASL terms following linguistic principles in which the signs communicate information about the concepts they represent. For example, estuaries are places where rivers meet with the ocean or large lakes. “The new estuary sign symbolizes the movement and mixing of two bodies of water,” explained Mandy Houghton, a scientist at the Center for Research and Training who is deaf. “Both hands approach each other from opposite directions, and moving fingers represent the flow of water.” Instructional videos were made available through ASL Clear offsite link, an online STEM app.

After the team created the ASL materials, it was time to share them with teachers and students. “We trained several cohorts of educators from Boston University’s Deaf Education program and five schools for the Deaf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine,” said Joan Muller, education coordinator at the Waquoit Bay Reserve. At Teachers on the Estuary workshops, educators and interpreters learned new signs, experienced the estuary, and piloted hands-on activities they could bring back to their students. “The ASL Clear materials were received enthusiastically by all participants because the signs themselves help to explain the scientific concepts,” said Muller. Equipped with these tools, educators returned to their classrooms to immerse their students in watershed-focused lessons, which will culminate in field trips to research reserves in spring 2019. 

Coining new ASL terms provides no guarantee that they will permanently enter the ASL lexicon. “In any language, new words are introduced, adopted, and rejected over time,” acknowledged Muller. But the team was hopeful that the signs, instructional videos, and workshops were a significant first step toward reducing this barrier to science learning for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Barbara Spiecker, another scientist on the project who is also deaf, said, “Educators will leave our workshops feeling confident and successful by learning the ecology-related signs and supplementing the language with content knowledge via hands-on activities and field trips.”

This story was originally published in the Fiscal Year 2018 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.

*Note - September 23, 2021: This article has been updated. According to the National Center on Disability and Journalism offsite link, the word “deaf” should be lowercased when referring to a hearing loss condition but capitalized when referring to the Deaf community.