Dr. Mona Minkara and her team at the University of Minnesota recently created a STEM curriculum to be utilized by a blind camp in Lebanon.
Dr. Mona Minkara is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Chemistry. Her goal is to one day obtain a faculty position that would give her the opportunity to teach and do research.
She is also passionate about bringing STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, to those who would not have the opportunities otherwise.
Her team including John Hamill and Connor Venteicher, built a STEM curriculum for a camp in Lebanon ran by a non-profit called empowerment through Integration.
Dr. Mona Minkara lost most of her sight at age 7 and now has less than 2 percent of vision in only one eye. Through her educational journey she has been very appreciative of those who helped her along the way and is committed to helping others.
Join us as she talks about her passion and the STEP program and how we can make changes in the low expectations that stand in our way.
You can find out more about Dr. Mona Minkara on the web at www.MonaMinkara.com
You can also find out about all her techniques and devices that she employed along her
educational and science journey. www.MonaMinkara.com/scientist-tools/
See Transcription below.
A Passion for Science, Dr. Mona Minkara Changes Lives with STEM Curriculum. (Transcription provided)
[Soft Piano Music]
Welcome the Blind Abilities. I’m Jeff Thompson.
Dr. Mona Minkara:
I think sometimes we are so limited about what we believe our abilities are. And what society tells us our abilities are.
If people just truly followed their passions, and others didn’t stop and stand in their way, I think-
I think we would have a better world to live in.
A passion for STEM. Dr. Mona Minkara
All the kids, both sighted and blind, do all the activities was a blindfold;
so that everyone could understand and recognize the fact that this is possible, without sight.
I myself don’t know many other blind scientists, and I want to see that to be- to change. I want that to change.
I want to see more blind scientists. I think that we could solve problems, and think about problems completely differently.
STEM. Science Technology Engineering Mathematics
That doctor had told my mom that it wasn’t worth spending a penny on my education, because I was gonna be blind anyways.
But, as my life went on to prove, it wasn’t I who had limited vision, but he!
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We wanted the materials to be low-cost, so that it was affordable. So we had them build a record player completely just out of paper, tape, and a pin; and it worked.
Dr. Mona Minkara, and her team at the University of Minnesota, put together a STEM curriculum that was implemented in a camp in Lebanon.
Dr. Mona Minkara passion started when she was young, and gives credit to her parents;
and even more she now wants to help others access the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Dr. Mona Minkara:
Hi my name is Mona Minkara, and I am here to talk about STEM. What is Stem?
Well STEM stands for: Science Technology Engineering and Math. And it basically is an area-
a very neglected area, when it comes to the blind community. So I had the awesome pleasure and privilege to work with ETI:
Empowerment Through Integration, this past summer, where I got to go to a two-week camp, with kids that were both sighted and blind.
And I got to implement a STEM curriculum, that was completely blind accessible;
that was designed by myself, John Hamill, Connor Venteicher, and Dr. Robert Henry
As the team was developing their STEM curriculum, I got a chance to meet up with them,
talk to them about their excitement, and to meet John and Connor.
We’re here today that myself, John, and Connor because we are working on developing a stem curriculum, that is accessible to the blind.
Completely accessible. But also low-cost, so that individuals living in Lebanon,
living in other developing countries, have the ability to experience STEM. There’s a lot of these blind individuals,
a lot of these blind kids, they’re encouraged to not even pursue the idea of even studying STEM; because it’s too visual.
My name is John Hamill, I’m currently a senior at the University of Minnesota studying classics.
I’m Dr. Mona Minkara’s technical writer access assistant. We are trying to raise societal awareness to our nonprofit organization,
and I personally believe that now more ever we are indebted to a servitude of favor,
for the people from each corner of the world; and of each level of ability.
And this begins with the offering of an educational service that is more inclusive to all, and to those who do not have the privilege and the power to speak up for themselves.
My name is Connor Venteicher and I graduated from the University of Minnesota, with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
And I am currently working for Dr. Mona Minkara, as her main access assistant through her computational chemistry research.
The three of us, we have already created the STEM curriculum and have gone through and tested it, and everything is looking great.
And this upcoming summer is camp Rafiki, that is happening.
And we were invited to come and make sure that our curriculum is performed correctly,
and all the volunteers know what they’re doing. Mainly because this is the very first time that the STEM has actually been added as part of the curriculum.
Camps in the past have only been life-skills for the blind kids, and then integrating them with sighted kids,
by performing other activities such as soccer. Sara Minkara, Dr. Mona Minkara sister, and the other members of ETI,
want us to come and personally make sure that the curriculum we wrote will be implemented correctly.
[Swooshing Transition sound]
And it was phenomenal. I got to implement the curriculum. I got to see these kids interact.
I actually had all the kids, both sighted and blind, do all the activities was a blindfold;
so that everyone could understand, and recognize the fact that this is possible without sight.
And we had activities from growing radishes, to making their own candy, to making their own old-timey record player;
just out of low cost materials. That was another kind of dimension that we had to work with. We wanted the curriculum to be Blind-accessible,
empower these children, but also we wanted the materials to be low cost, so that it was affordable.
So we had them build a record player completely just out of paper, tape, and a pin; and it worked.
And it blew their minds. [laughs] Like it was phenomenal. Like even the adults, that came to visit, were just like fascinate.
We introduced them to “oobleck,” which is a non-newtonian fluid.
We introduced them to making once stethoscope, so they went around and be able to hear their own heartbeats.
We had them, you know, the classic volcano experiment; making their own bouncy balls.
It was all there’s a lot of great activities. And everyone did them without any sight.
I think it’s great, that you brought a lot of creativity to the project. And it’s something that I would like to see more of.
Yeah, I agree. And also, like the children had to learn. Like at one point, they were like
“how do I know that this is enough?” Or “how do I know this is mixed?”
And they had to come up with their own solutions, that didn’t require sight, to figure it out-
Oh like: use a fork, and feel around. Or you know, use one hand and put your finger in the cup, so that you can tell if you’re reaching the brim or not.
You know, like, the kids also had to learn thinking about the task at hand differently; and that was really good.
Can you tell us a little bit about the camp? A little bit about Sara, and Empowerment Through Interaction?
Yes, my sister, Sara Minkara, has basically established this organization called Empowerment Through Integration [ETI];
in which, the goal is to empower, through integration- As the title states.
And what she does is there’s a summer camp, in which the first couple weeks is just blind kids alone, and they learn life skills.
Then, the second half of the camp they take these blind children, and then they also have sighted kids that come in.
And the idea is that these kids learn to work together. And part of it was the STEM aspect.
There were STEM, there is music, there was art, there’s sports… Yeah.
Now when it comes to stem you actually are a chemist.
Yes I am, and so I really enjoyed working on this project. Because I myself don’t know many other blind scientists,
and I want to see that to be- to change. I want that to change. I want to see more blind scientists.
I think that we could solve problems, and think about problems completely differently.
That is part of my way that I can do that.
So when did you get the ‘bug’ to go into science? I mean, like, you are STEM.
Well, [Laughs] I don’t know if I am STEM. That’s like really grandiose.
But I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, and I just started to pursue that when I started undergrad, at Wellesley.
And so that was my first flavor of it, doing research; got my PhD at the University of Florida.
Had great support there. And now I’m a post-doc here at the University of Minnesota, working for Ilja Siepmann,
who is an amazing advisor, and I very glad to be here.
It was through Dr. Mona Minkara’s educational career that she developed a desire to help others, as others helped her along the way.
And in this 2009 graduation speech you can hear her passion, and her commitment to helping others.
Dr. Mona Minkara:
We all remember where we came from and how we got here today.
[Hold for applause and laughs]
So now let me tell you my story. Apparently I’m gonna be one of the first legally-blind students to graduate with a science degree.
[Crowd cheers] And I’m not telling you this to be boastful; but trust me, when I tell you it wasn’t always expected for me.
When I was seven I was diagnosed with macular degeneration, and cone rod dystrophy.
Doctors predicted that be completely blind. Currently I have no vision in my right eye, but I do have some vision in my left eye.
During a trip- during a summer trip to Lebanon; my mom and my uncle [Inaudible],
took me to one of the most prestigious eye doctors in Beirut. I remember that day so clearly.
My mom came out and she was crying, and my uncle told her “That he’d go to the ends of the world to help us out.”
Now it wasn’t until later that I had found out that that doctor had told my mom
that it wasn’t worth spending a penny on my education; because I was gonna be blind anyways.
But as my life went on to prove it wasn’t I who had limited vision, but he!
I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by individuals who have believed in me; first and foremost, my parents.
My parents gave up their dreams of going back to Lebanon, so I can stay here and become educated.
My mom would, My mom would say up all night going through projects with me.
And my dad would literally wake up, at the crack of the dawns, to go through math and physics questions with me.
But the list doesn’t stop there. There have been many individuals who have been instrumental to my success.
As I await my diploma, I fully realize that I would not have been able to make it onto this stage today
if it wasn’t for the help of many individuals who have aided me every single step of the way.
From my fellow classmates who would read to me on a daily basis. To my professors who would regularly meet with me,
and go over concepts and were willing to adjust their teaching techniques. I was never alone in my journey.
If it weren’t for these individuals: family, friends, faculty, staff, and even strangers along the way,
who took time out of their lives, and ambitions; I would not have been able to graduate with all of you today.
The kindness and generosity have inspired me to strive to help others.
On a daily basis what kind of tools do you use to access your material today?
Okay I’m a theoretical computational chemist so I don’t actually work with any chemicals. I just theorizing about chemical problems.
And I use computers. I have voice-over on my computer. But I also work with people.. that are my access assistants.
And that’s how I do my job.
So, you used an iPhone?
Yes, I definitely use an iPhone, and it talks.
I use an iPad, and it talks.
And my computer talks; like everything I have talks, it’s a pretty- I live a very boisterous environment. With my talking equipment, yeah.
So when your phone goes off, everything goes off?
Yeah everything goes off, everything talks, like.. yes. Never a silent moment.
What recommendations would you have for a student who is transitioning from high school, to college; looking into the science fields?
Well a blind student? Or just a student in general?
Someone who’s blind, with the blind perspective, I guess.
[Soft piano music fades in]
I, if their passion lies there, go for it. Just follow your passion; whomever you are.
Like, it’s been unfortunately ingrained in us, I think, in the blind community, that science is not our thing;
because it’s so visual and… but as my adviser told me: Because you’re behind you think differently about problems.
And I feel like you think outside the box, and you’ll solve problems that no one else has solve.
That is what I believe we can contribute to the world. I think sometimes we are so limited about what we believe our abilities are,
and what society tells us our abilities are.
If people just truly followed their passions, and others didn’t stop, and stand in their way,
I think we would have a better world to live in. And I know that sounds cheesy.. but..
Well, it’s the truth sometimes
Yeah, I mean.. I…
So Mona, how can people get a hold of you, and your website?
Yes, so I I have a website just monaminkara.com/
That’s M-O-N-A-M-I-N-K-A-R-A dot com. There’s a contact page;
but also if you guys are interested in learning more about the tools I’ve used to get here. I have a page on my website:
under monaminkara.com/BlindScientistTools there’s a page with every conceivable possible, like, tool that I’ve used so far.
And there’s just ideas out there for anyone else who wants to know like;
How did I do my classes? How do I go to conferences? You know, using Plato for visualizing in proteins..
It’s all there and if anybody wants to contact me yeah like I said just on my website is all my information
Plato’s affordable. A lot of people should be able to use that.
Yeah, and also we actually have here proteins modeled with pipe cleaners.
Jeff: Oh really? So they can actually- you can actually..?
Mona: Yeah, I can feel them. [Jeff: ..Feel them, yeah]
Yeah because somebody actually took the time, actually was John Hamill,
who took the time to take the pipe cleaners and twist them around, to match up with the shape of the protein.
Jeff: So science… affordable. Good.
Mona: Yes. [laughs]
Jeff: Thank you, so much.
Mona: Thank you
It was really great to talk to Dr. Mona Minkara, again. You can find her other podcast, I’ll put the link in the show notes.
It’s really something to see her and her team talk about developing the STEM curriculum, bring it to Lebanon, and implement it.
And see it have such a positive impact, not only on the blind students, but also the sighted students as well.
Congratulations Dr. Mona Minkara, and your team, and what you’re doing for the blindness community;
in realizing the potential, and creating opportunities for others.
If you’re considering transition into college, and have an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics;
be sure to contact your state services, and see what they can do for you.
And you can find more podcasts with the blindness perspective, especially in the college and STEM programs.
Be sure to check the categories out on the web, or in the Blind Abilities app.
A big thanks to Chi Chow for your wonderful music that’s LChiChow on Twitter.
And as always thank you very much for listening we hope you enjoyed and until next time but
When we share what we see through each other’s eyes,
we can then begin to bridge the gap between the real expectations and the reality of Blind Abilities.
For more podcasts with the blindness perspective: Check us out on the web at www.BlindAbilites.com
On Twitter @BlindAbilities
Download our app from the App store: Blind abilities, that’s two words.
Or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for listening