What started with a chat around a field trip campfire led master’s student Emily Quinn Smyth to build a bridge between the worlds of science and Auslan – Australian sign language. Her work has also inspired Lecturer Yvonne Davila to think further about integrating inclusive design into the Faculty of Science’s learning and teaching.
Emily Quinn Smyth
I’ve grown up being aware of disadvantage. I was born profoundly deaf and have had cochlear implants since I was two, so I’ve been involved in the listening world on a different level since then. It’s a part of my culture, and it’s thanks to technology that I’m able to access the hearing world.
My brother has Down syndrome, so he has a whole range of issues that impact him. But it wasn’t until I started working as an ambassador for the U@Uni HSC Tutorial Scheme – it’s a mentoring and tutoring program that helps improve students’ chances of getting into university – that I saw the whole range of diverse factors that come into play for some people who are studying.
My eureka moment came when I was an undergraduate studying a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences and Bachelor of Arts in International Studies. I was undertaking the fieldwork subject Alpine and Lowland Ecology. In this subject you’re required to conduct a project using something that inspired you from the excursion. We were around a campfire talking about how to be better communicators in science. I was like, "What happens for people who speak or use Auslan? How do they get involved in the world of science?" My teacher and I didn’t know. And I wanted to find out.
My research found there is a big gap in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths for people who are deaf and hearing impaired. I contacted The Deaf Society and they put me in touch with Linda Finucane, an Auslan interpreter. If there were going to be new signs generated, it would have to be Auslan users themselves who create them.
For the class assignment I handed in a report on this subject along with an explanatory video. The video integrated the need to have more Auslan signs, but also talked about environmental topics like climate change and differences in alpine environments. Linda provided the Auslan interpretations for what I said. Yet, it took time to explain the concepts due to the lack of Auslan signs for scientific words. Words like ‘biodiversity’ had to be fingerspelled and slowly broken down.
It is my dream that one day I can work with native Auslan users to introduce signs for these words, allowing more deaf people like me to become involved in the fascinating world of science.
My work caught the attention of the UTS learning.futures team and was featured on their blog – Futures. I’m now in discussion with Yvonne, a learning designer in the Faculty of Science, about how university and subject content can be made more accessible. This is the first time I've worked with Yvonne on this particular project, however, I worked with her as a teaching associate last Autumn session in the Biodiversity Conservation subject. Yvonne is very approachable and passionate about creating positive and inclusive learning environments. She is a fantastic mentor and has been showing me what is possible for women in science.
I’ve been invited to do the closing address for the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) symposium next month, which is very cool! All these opportunities are opening up, and they’re steps towards where I want to go – integrating my passions for environmental science and diversity in academia. While I think we need to increase women’s involvement in all areas of science, we also need to open people’s eyes to the different situations and paths we all come from.
The first time Emily and I crossed paths she was one of my students in the third-year subject Biodiversity Conservation. She emailed me at the end to say she really enjoyed my topic and assessment task. As a learning designer and a lecturer it’s great to receive this feedback and know that my students appreciate my efforts! Earlier this year, Emily was working with me as a teaching associate in the same subject.
She’s so personable and friendly in her role as a teaching associate. Since Emily had been a student in my class previously, she knew exactly where the stumbling blocks might be for current students. She did very well in not giving away the answer, but instead helped the students work their way through the task. It was great to have Emily teaching in my class and I’m excited to be working with her on another project.
I have a really strong interest in inclusive design and in developing new resources that cater to all our students. My role involves supporting academics in developing their curriculum, to come up with innovative ways of bringing technology into their subjects, and to champion learning.futures.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to Emily about her project was to hear about her experiences as a science student and discuss how we can implement inclusive design in more ways in the science faculty. My main projects focus on developing students’ academic and professional communication skills. Addressing students’ learning needs is one of the first things I consider when designing and creating learning activities. Emily’s work really highlighted to me that there is more work to do to share scientific findings to a broader audience.
We think technology connects a lot of people but it can sometimes be a barrier if we're not thinking about it from the perspective of those with accessibility requirements.
Many academics are unaware that some students with vision or hearing impairments are unable to access some material online. This leaves it up to the student to find a workaround. UTS is committed to creating an inclusive environment for all people and there are lots of things academics can do to present their material so that it’s accessible to everyone from the start.
For example, science uses a lot of technical terms and jargon so one easy thing academics can do is ensure the subtitles and closed caption transcripts that go with their subject’s online welcome videos are correct. We can also supply how-to guides to lecturers to ensure lecture notes are fully accessible and can be read by screen reader programs.
Emily is so passionate about science and education – what an ambassador for women in science! The future is safe with her.