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Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind benefits from the VCU Rice Center

On Nov. 2, 14 students from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton visited the VCU Rice Center for a memorable weekend of experiential science. This expansion of the center's outreach program was conceived by one of VCU's biology master's students, Jaimie Gillespie, who recognized hands-on experiences would be exceptionally meaningful for these students.

After much careful planning, the students, ranging in age from 13-18, arrived at VCU and first toured the Trani Life Sciences building, including stops in the aquatics and entomology labs. They were enthusiastically welcomed by the scientists at work, and received wax myrtle specimens as take-home gifts from the newly-created Plant Society at VCU.

Once at the Rice Center, VCU graduate students, faculty and staff as well as teachers and interpreters engaged with the hearing- and visually-impaired students to ensure understanding and appreciation of all the activities. They worked with mesocosms and weather and atmospheric equipment, as well as photosynthesis, respiration and carbon cycling experiments. They also learned how to handle data. Some of the students were enthusiastic to wear waders and head into the river to do fish seining, while others headed to the labs to work on Winogradsky columns.

During the weekend, Leslie Bullock, Ph.D., along with a couple of graduate students, caught and banded birds, allowing the visiting students to get close-up looks and feels of birds such as the sharp-shinned hawk. They were able to handle and experience feathers and wings, as well as an assortment of bones, such as deer and bird bones, to appreciate differences in bone density.

At night, sighted students studied the brilliant constellations, identifying them with the help of an iPad application. A thrilling exercise for both groups of students was the calling in of owls for the blind students, and then the subsequent spotlighting of the owls for the deaf students, which continued until the batteries in the caller were exhausted!

Overall, VCU supplied 12 graduate students and three faculty/staff members, totaling 165 outreach hours for the planning and execution of this memorable weekend for the students from the Virginia School of the Deaf and the Blind. There is a strong desire to repeat the experience, and the school is seeking further funding to make this possible.