WADE-ing in Waquoit Bay

May 31, 2022

What’s in a word? A lot, if the word is “watershed” or any other concept from the field of coastal science. The need for words that convey complex concepts can be a challenge for deaf and hard of hearing students who rely on American Sign Language (ASL). American Sign Language does not have signs for many scientific concepts, which means bilingual users will have to borrow English words (via fingerspelling) to convey the concepts.

“Words alone are not adequate in communicating specialized topics like estuaries and watersheds,” says Dr. Barbara Spiecker, currently a Postdoctoral scholar at University of California, Santa Barbara, who served on the planning committee for all aspects of the project including the team of Deaf STEM professionals who created the new conceptual ASL signs and taught at the TOTE workshops. “You can put together a string of words but they may be meaningless without thoughtful delivery of these words and some knowledge of the topic.” For the most recent workshop for the pre-service teachers in the BU graduate program, Spiecker presented a virtual seminar before they came to the Reserve so they would have a sound grounding in the signs and concepts.

Education programs at the Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay Reserves are working to build ASL’s coastal science vocabulary—and create new learning opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing students—through the Watershed Stewardship in Action: Deaf Students on the Estuary project (WADE).

“Science is often left behind in deaf education, which places a lot of emphasis on language,” says Joan Muller, project lead and education coordinator at the Waquoit Bay Reserve. “This project is helping to address that gap and the need for field-based training for teachers. Ultimately, we hope to impact how many deaf children decide to work in the sciences.”

The WADE team collaborated with the Center for Research and Training at the Learning Center for the Deaf and a team of  deaf scientists to develop 50 new ASL signs for key watershed and estuarine concepts. To help disseminate the signs, they created companion video modules and customized field experiences for deaf students using the new signs at the three Reserves. They also piloted the signs at Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE) workshops.

“This project with the NERRS has made an incredible impact on Boston University’s Deaf Education Program,” says Dr. Todd Czubek, professor of Deaf Education at Boston University, a WADE partner who participated in the workshops with his graduate students and was on the project’s initial planning team. “Our students loved every second of the experience and came away with practical strategies to make ideas about STEM and stewardship accessible to deaf children. We’re thrilled to contribute to the inventory of resources that the team has generated!”

“Our project addressed this holistically by going beyond just creating new signs and disseminating them,” says Spiecker. “We created a unique opportunity for the participants to build their knowledge base through a hands-on field experience and integrate their experience with language. Through this project, the participants became better science communicators by critically examining their understanding of scientific topics and carefully constructing and delivering these topics using the new signs.”

WADE was funded by a NERRS Science Collaborative transfer grant. In order to keep the project going after the completion of the original grant, Boston University (BU) and the Waquoit Bay Reserve each contributed resources to hold a workshop for pre-service teachers in Deaf Education at BU.  BU  contributed interpreters and staff for the professional development  this spring, while the NERRS contributed staff capacity and TOTE funding from NOAA.

“Our initial goal was for teachers and students to learn more about estuaries and watersheds and with this, to become better stewards.” says Muller. “Even though the grant is done, we hope that our work with graduate students and others will inspire them to incorporate more estuarine concepts into their future lesson plans.”

The group also learned about Wampanoag traditions, lifestyle, and history over the weekend.

Participants hold a magnifier box with specimens inside.

NERRA is proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act—the legislation that led to the creation of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesWADE-ing in Waquoit Bay