Ashley Nashleanas didn’t have a model or rule book to follow while growing up blind in the small northwest Iowa town of Hinton. Braille helped her to read textbooks in school, but graphics in math and science lessons were often just — missing.
She adapted by turning graphics into something she could feel or hear. She talked to the teacher, had the teacher press hard on the paper to create a raised-line image, or used tools such as Wikki Stix (hand-knitting yarn covered with wax) to recreate the graphics.
“My philosophy was always to turn it from a nuisance into something that could be worked with, which is what I did with the tools I had,” she said.
Despite those challenges, Nashleanas went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in chemistry from Iowa State University. Today, she’s a doctoral student in educational psychology at Iowa State.
“She has never seen anything. Period. So just how in the world did she do it?” asked Gary Phye, one of Nashleanas’ two major professors in the ISU School of Education. “Ashley is a diamond in the rough. We’ve got somebody who’s bright and articulate and who has accomplished it, to give us some insight into where we might want to go further in this research area.”
National research on teaching high school math
Nashleanas is taking her personal experiences and launching what has the potential to be groundbreaking research.
Working with Phye and co-major professor Anne Foegen, her dissertation will explore how high school math teachers nationwide accommodate students with blindness and low vision when using graphics in their teaching.
“I decided to start with high-school level math courses, which is where the motivation either starts or stops,” Nashleanas said.
Very little research currently exists in this area.
“There’s nothing out there that gives educators a feel for what they have to be able to provide the visually impaired student,” Phye said. “From a theory perspective, there’s no model out there for how students like Ashley learn to do this stuff. It’s totally barren ground out there right now.”
Nashleanas can provide anecdotal data of how she did it, which provides a foundation. She then plans to conduct both quantitative research with an initial survey of about 60 to 80 high school teachers nationwide, and qualitative research involving classroom observations and interviews with students who have visual impairments and their teachers.
Broader implications for STEM education
The research has the potential of making a significant difference nationwide in how students with blindness and low vision learn subjects such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry — and all areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
“Graphs are not only relevant in mathematics courses,” Nashleanas said. “They’re also relevant in the understanding of sciences, as well, and other disciplines.”
Phye said studying this at the high school level is key because graphing and the ability to interpret graphs are introduced during ninth-grade algebra. Instead of teachers figuring out on their own how to accommodate students with visual impairment, Nashleanas’ research could help show them the way.
Foegen, who specializes in teaching special education, said she usually works with students who have academic disabilities. But she said
“There are no academic issues at all,” Foegen said. “It’s all about accessibility and being able to get to the information needed for learning. It has been a phenomenal learning experience for me and I continue to marvel at Ashley’s persistence, drive, and determination.”
Paralympic swimmer in Greece
Aside from Nashleanas’ academic success, she is also an award-winning swimmer. She competed in the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, Greece and is the national record-holder in the 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter backstroke, and 200-meter butterfly.
She credits her parents, Troy and Kelly, with her determination and drive. Dad is a sales manager who sells Budweiser through L&L Distributing Co. in Sioux City, while Mom is a business owner who teaches health and fitness classes to senior citizens at nursing homes.
“His philosophy as well as my mom’s was if you’re going to be here on this earth, give it 100 percent with everything you do and take chances,” Nashleanas said.
Nashleanas is aiming for a future where she can combine her talents with her passion. One career path she envisions would be working with publishing companies to design and structure materials to be more accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired.
“If there’s a way for me to speak, write, and do research on behalf of students with blindness and low vision, I would jump at that opportunity,” she said. “Educational psychology as well as the physical science background I’ve had, I feel, gives me the opportunity to do just that.”