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Education & Outreach

Seeing and Speaking in the Field

SIdebar: Geology signs for the deaf Print exclusive

This summer, a group of high school students stood before a wall of red and gold rocks in Utah’s Moab Valley, striped with different formations and cracked by faults. Orange field notebooks at the ready, they leaned in toward the rocks, measuring the orientations of the fault planes with their compasses and drawing diagrams. But instead of the typical chatter of an average geology field trip, the group was silent — but they were communicating, rapidly and often, in American Sign Language (ASL).

Michele Cooke, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, uses American Sign Language to talk to Colin Whited, a high school student at the Indiana School for the Deaf, about a fault, while in the Moab desert in Utah. Photo by Theresa Huckleberry.

The deaf students and their teachers had traveled to the Utah desert to get their first taste of structural geology under the tutelage of Michele Cooke, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and her team of geologists, both hearing and deaf. Cooke put together the program under the auspices of the CAREER Program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to bring geology to an underserved community.

Cooke, who has been hard of hearing since her early childhood, invited six high schools for the deaf to send one or two students apiece and their teachers to Utah for one week of field work. She also invited several hearing and deaf professional geologists to join the field party, from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and various universities. She ended up with 20 high school students, six teachers, two interpreters, and about a half-dozen geologists to teach them in the Moab desert.

Cooke says that she was drawn to geology partly because she was good at imagining 3-D structures. She acquired ASL as a second language when she was in graduate school at Stanford University. Teaching science to deaf children as a volunteer at a high school across the San Francisco Bay, she saw the “tremendous range of abilities and communication challenges” for deaf children, depending on when they acquired their language skills, either spoken or signed. The experience led Cooke to want to teach geology “hands-on in a deaf learning environment,” but she did not get the opportunity until she moved to Massachusetts.

Mary Ellsworth, an earth systems teacher at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, based at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., contacted Cooke several years ago to ask her to take part in a geology classroom activity for her high school students. That call eventually led to a sandbox exercise, where teachers and their students built the same kinds of trays that structural geologists use to mimic fault systems in the lab. The program was the original focus of the NSF grant that would eventually take Cooke and students from across the country to Utah.

Their subject would be the Moab Fault, and Cooke recruited John Solum, a Mendenhall research fellow at USGS in Menlo Park, Calif., who specializes in the fault and knew the best outcrops to show the group. Teaching deaf students “was brand new to me,” he says, and in the first couple hours after meeting the students, it was “intimidating as well.” But “a lot more direct communication” took place immediately than Solum thought possible, particularly because he knew no sign language at the time (he says that he now knows the ASL alphabet). “In the field, the easiest way we have of communicating is with drawing,” he says, which is true of all geologists.

“Language gets in the way when you’re teaching” any kind of geology, Cooke says, “especially the scientific jargon.” But with ASL, signers can get past the technical language and straight to the physical concepts, she says.

The field exercises, such as measuring the orientation planes of a fault known as strike and dip, brought out visual-spatial abilities in the deaf students that perfectly fit studying structural geology, Cooke says. “ASL users tend to be very good at pattern recognition observations,” she says, and structural geologists are the same way.

After being a teaching assistant for a structural geology class at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he is a graduate student, Scotty Salamoff wrote in an e-mail that “being in the field with high-schoolers was a different experience” because of their openness to abstract ideas, even though they had less exposure to chemistry and physics than college students. Although he himself is deaf and uses ASL, Salamoff wrote that “teaching geology to deaf or hard-of-hearing kids was a surprising experience,” as they seemed to have “the ability to visualize easier than hearing kids do.”

David Corina of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an e-mail that “deaf children who have been exposed to sign language from an early age do show some enhancements in visuo-spatial abilities, but it is not across the board.” Some studies show, for example, that they can more easily rotate objects mentally and remember spatial locations better, but not necessarily remember images better.

Although not much research has been conducted on ASL users’ spatial perceptions, “I can imagine that an ASL speaker has a great sense of 3-D space within an arm’s length,” says John Middlebrooks, a researcher at the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. An ASL speaker physically forms words, making hand and arm gestures “within a set space” about a meter from the eyes, he says; at that distance, stereoscopic vision comes into play, which gives visual cues to depth.

“ASL can be used in different ways, like body language, variety of signs, [and] facial expressions,” wrote Chanc Vogel, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Richland Center, Wisc., who is deaf. His own experiences as a geology professional have led him to make up signs (see sidebar) to speak using the vocabulary his co-workers use. Vogel, who is not involved with Cooke’s project, describes ASL as being as different from English as English is from Spanish, and each deaf person’s acquisition of any of those languages might happen very differently.

Signs also may vary from place to place, as spoken accents do. Cooke’s field crew had to learn some words in each others’ dialects, as well as make new signs (such as for “fault”: signing “f” with one index finger while sliding flattened hands past each other), she says, alongside learning the new geology concepts.

The students said that they were surprised that “communication was not the issue. It was just a matter of everybody [being] willing to put effort into it,” says Ellsworth of the Model Secondary School for the Deaf. “Different cultural exchanges were going on at different levels.” The hearing geologists were willing to learn signs, just as the students, who had yet to take earth sciences, were learning about scientific work and field work.

The field experience was “so totally unique,” Ellsworth says. “Even in a hearing program, it would be a unique opportunity to do that.” Many of the students (and Ellsworth herself) had never seen the Southwest and were “bowled over” by the geology there.

“I got a good picture with the sandbox [experiments], but never have I really thought about it in terms of size and depth of the faults in real life,” wrote Mary D’Angelo, a student from the Model Secondary School for the Deaf who went on the trip, in an e-mail. “I would prefer to be a geologist because I enjoy doing my work outdoors,” which was “the most significant thing” she learned on the trip, in addition to helping to collect samples for a real study. D’Angelo also says that she now better appreciates the multidisciplinary nature of geology. “I didn’t really think how much geology impacts us until I saw it for myself.”

Naomi Lubick

Blog of the Utah Trip
Sandbox experiment at Indiana School for the Deaf
Michele Cooke's GSA abstract

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