Blind UMN chemist creates STEM curriculum for blind children

Mona Minkara is working to create a science curriculum for blind children.

Mona Minkara poses for a portrait in Kolthoff Hall on Tuesday, March 20, 2017. Minkara is the University's first blind, female, computational chemist. Her team created a STEM curriculum to integrate blind and seeing children's educations in third world countries.

Ellen Schmidt

Mona Minkara poses for a portrait in Kolthoff Hall on Tuesday, March 20, 2017. Minkara is the University’s first blind, female, computational chemist. Her team created a STEM curriculum to integrate blind and seeing children’s educations in third world countries.

Olivia Johnson

When she was 6 or 7, Mona Minkara’s eyesight began to fade.

Eventually
diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone rod dystrophy, the post-doctoral
research fellow in the University of Minnesota’s chemistry department is now
working to create a STEM curriculum for blind children in developing countries.

Minkara, is
creating the curriculum with the help of her assistants, who aide her in her
computational chemistry research. She studies surfactants — molecules with one
end that is attracted to water and another end that is not.

Minkara said she
wants the STEM curriculum to be blind-accessible and low-cost. It will be
implemented at a camp in Lebanon that has programs for both blind and sighted
children.

The camp trains
blind children in life skills and integrates them with sighted children through
sports and artistic activities. Minkara’s sister started the camp in 2009.

“We would love for
them to consider the option or possibility that maybe one day they could become
scientists,” she said of blind children.

Minkara said most
blind-accessible curricula are expensive and her team wanted to create a way to
translate visual science experiments into something blind students can
understand.

“What can we do to
open up — no pun intended — these kids’ eyes to science?” she said. “It was an
interesting process.”

The team of four
is raising money to travel to Lebanon in July so they can teach the curriculum
to camp volunteers.

Connor Venteicher,
a recent chemistry graduate, works as Minkara’s full-time access assistant and helps
her with anything pertaining to her research in computational chemistry.

Venteicher is also
helping develop the curriculum, and said he looked to elementary school science
projects to create activities for the camp, called Empowerment Through
Integrity.

“The real
challenge was getting it to be less visual than it usually is,” Venteicher
said, adding that he and other assistants put on blindfolds and tried to build
a volcano out of clay, baking soda and vinegar to see how classic science
projects could be adapted for blind children. “I was able to feel the warmth of
it when it was heating up and … felt the foam coming out the top.”

Robert Hembree, a
post-doctoral researcher in the computational chemistry lab, said the biggest
challenge was turning visual science — such as chemistry, which is based on
diagrams and experiments — into something blind children can understand. 

“Everything about
the way people approach it is visual,” he said. “You have to translate that
into … sounds, feelings, tastes, smells.”

Minkara was born
in Maryland to immigrants from Lebanon. Though her parents wanted to return to
Lebanon, they stayed in the United States with the hope of a better education
for Minkara, whose sight was quickly disappearing.

Minkara became
interested in chemistry in her elementary and high school years because she was
interested in how the world works.

“Even though I’m
blind, I’m a very visual learner,” she said. “Yeah, ironic, I know.”

Committed teachers
and a strong interest in science pushed Minkara to construct models of
molecules with her hands and trace diagrams in order to learn concepts, she
said. 

Minkara graduated
from Wellesley College in 2009 with a dual degree in chemistry and Middle
Eastern studies, received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida and took a
research position at the University a year and a half ago.

Minkara is legally
blind, with  2 percent vision in her left
eye and some light perception in her right eye.

“I think the
biggest obstacle would be to be on the receiving end of pity,” she said of her
blindness. “It inhibits learning. It inhibits believing in yourself.”