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Graduate student whips up a sweet recipe to teach children about visual disabilities

March 4, 2020
Elizabeth Hipskind explains her Styrofoam eyeball model to William Penrod.
So crafty: Elizabeth Hipskind explains her Styrofoam eyeball model to William Penrod, an associate professor in Visual Disabilities program of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education.

Elizabeth Hipskind stood in front of a room full of TVIs – teachers of the visually impaired – wearing an apron and prepared with a plastic tub of moist baby-wipes.

Hipskind had come to the February conference of the Illinois Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired in Naperville to explain her crafty ways to create affordable models of the eyeball that are accessible to children with visual impairments.

But one of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education graduate student’s methods proved a little messy and a whole lot sticky – not a surprise, though, considering that the result is technically edible.

“The heart of this project is really advocacy, and the idea that children have a right to know what their visual impairments are,” says Hipskind, who also holds her B.S.Ed. in Special Education from NIU.

As a student whose tuition is funded by NIU’s federal grant, “I’m required to complete GA hours, so I came to my supervisor and said, ‘I’m going to do a project on advocacy where I explain visual impairments to children who have them.’ He said, ‘Let’s make models’ – and I said, ‘Out of candy!’ He said, ‘No,’ ” she adds.

“I said, ‘I can do it!’ He said, ‘OK, but you have to make one out of something else, too.’ So that was kind of where the idea came from for Charlie, the edible eye model, and the Styrofoam one.”

Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman
Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman

She was one of eight M.S.Ed. students in the Visual Disabilities program who presented during the two-day “2020 Vision: Your Dedication in Focus” conference, some along with NIU faculty members Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman.

Other student-led research presentations included topics such as feminine hygiene and teenage girls with visual impairments, kettlebell exercises adapted for persons who are visually disabled, studying Russian, and innovative and affordable options for adapting geographic materials for students with blindness.

Two NIU graduate students also presented on “What I Wish I Knew My First Year,” offering advice, stories, strategies and tools.

The Styrofoam eye
The Styrofoam eye

“They were standing in front of their future employers. It’s really a big step for our students to share with professional colleagues what they work on while in our program, and the interests they brought into our program and expanded on,” says Kelly, an associate professor.

“We know that’s valued here at NIU. We know that NIU is encouraging this collaboration, and that we partner with our students and mentor them throughout the process,” she adds. “We’re not just doing this a little bit – we’re doing it extensively – and we’re glad that we’re able to do it. A lot of them will be turning these into publications, becoming authors in the field.”

NIU also was represented at the conference by associate professor William Penrod, who led a breakout session on an international survey conducted in 2019 on orientation and mobility (O&M).

Penrod described results of the replication study, originally conducted in 1983 and deployed last year by himself and others. Data include demographics, competencies, perceived strengths and weaknesses of O&M personnel preparation programs, caseload issues and issues regarding the transportation of students to training sites.

Meanwhile, Hipskind’s Valentine’s Day audience of teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) saw – and felt – her eyeball models.

Elizabeth Hipskind
Elizabeth Hipskind

For children with visual disabilities, she says, that sense of touch is the important part.

“We’re teaching kids to own their visual impairments, and you can’t own something you can’t explain,” she says.

“A child will go to the eye doctor, and the eye doctor may say, ‘You have a retinal detachment.’ Those are two lovely words. It might mean something to me. It might mean something to their TVI. It might mean something to their parents. It definitely means something to the doctor,” she adds.

“It doesn’t mean anything to the child. The human eye is super-complicated. How do you explain that to a child? This is giving them to language and the skills to say, ‘Oh, I understand this because I built it. Because I touched it. Because I experienced it.’ ”

Charlie – her candy model – contains melting white chocolate, Airhead Extreme candies, fruit rollups, pudding, gummies, fudge-stripe cookies, Twizzlers, royal icing, Nerds Rope, edible glitter spray and more.

The non-edible version begins with a hollow Styrofoam ball and includes tissue paper, glitter, sequins, balloons, pipe cleaners, clay, coffee straws, lace, craft foam, cheesecloth and wiggly eyes.

Held together with hot glue and straight pins, it does allow for easy dismantling and rebuilding and, at $30 for supplies found at craft stores, it’s a bargain compared to manufactured models available for sale at prices between $80 and $150.

Unfortunately, Charlie doesn’t offer that same flexibility, but he’s more fun to make and only costs $15 after a trip to the supermarket.

“The edible eye comes with a specific lesson plan – this is how it aligns to state standards, mostly Next Gen Science – and for each grade bracket: primary, intermediate, middle, high school,” Hipskind says. “It’s a good thing to do right before winter break when the kids are squirrely and you’re not getting any braille done anyway.”

Charlie, the edible eyeball model

Meanwhile, the building process itself is a strong teacher – “It’s a lot more meaningful when the children are cutting the pieces. The children are placing them personally. The children are really making a memory,” she says – for children with visual disabilities as well as those without.

“When we start to think about people with disabilities, we help everybody,” says Hipskind, who has built her models as classroom activities. “There were little third-graders in my class who were asking brilliant questions because they never thought about what it would be like if they were blind, because it’s not their experience.”

And although she doesn’t recommend actually eating Charlie and all of his competing flavors, that doesn’t mean the candy components can’t offer sweet learning.

“When you get to the end, feed them the leftovers,” she says. “Say, ‘Oh, you worked so hard. We used a fudge-striped cookie in this project. Do you remember what that part was called?’ ‘Oh, it was called the iris.’ ‘Good job! You can have a cookie!’ ”