Blind ISU Professor Teaches Chemistry


“He picks up on voices really well,” Winfield said. “He explains things really well.”

Before Supalo attended college, he hated chemistry.

“I wasn’t allowed to touch anything in high school,” he said. But that didn’t stop his thirst for knowledge.

“I just love learning. Learning is my passion,” he said. And science was one of the things he wanted to learn.

“Understanding science to me was being smart,” he said. “I wanted people to think I am smart because I wasn’t going to be a baseball star or football star.”

He started as a business administration major at DeKalb’s Northern Illinois University, later transferring to Purdue University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and communications. Along the way, he added majors in computer science, engineering and liberal arts. He has a master’s degree and a doctorate from Penn State.

Supalo’s journey through several majors was not a case of indecision. It was fueled by a desire to know about different subjects – acquiring a broad knowledge he uses to adapt various devices to help himself and others with visual impairments.

One device is the Talking LabQuest.

“If you are a Star Trek fan, this is like a tri-corder for the blind,” he said.

It is essentially a lightweight, handheld computer into which different probes can be attached to perform functions, such as measuring temperature, pH levels, conductivity or force. In addition to relaying what is recorded by the sensor probes, it makes graphs and data tables. A synthesized voice reads the information aloud.

His primary research focus is on chemistry education and making chemistry and other sciences more accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.

“We’re not making these blind kids enjoy science,” Supalo said. “The overall perception is that they cannot do what they need to do. That’s where I come in.”

At ISU, he is working to create more lab projects that are hands-on for all learners.

Not everything has to be high-tech. The website for his business, Independence Science, includes low-cost ways to create tactile adaptations for the visually impaired, such as making “skeletons” from Q-tip cotton swabs glued on paper.

He thinks more should be done to encourage visually-impaired students to enter the high-demand fields of science and technology.

“They are lifelong problem-solvers,” he said. “And that’s the essence of what a scientist does.”

Supalo considers himself well networked, with connections in the technology, science, education and blind communities.

Bauer agreed, saying, “He will give us a national presence in the education of the blind.”

Noting Supalo is still getting settled in, Bauer said, “I certainly expect big things from him.”

“I think he’s going to bring a lot of notoriety to ISU chemistry,” he said. “Check back in a couple of years.”

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Posted by on May 1st, 2013 and filed under American Street Guide. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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