By Don Campbell

Dr. Ronald Soong has always enjoyed tinkering with electronics. He not only builds devices in his spare time, but also volunteers as a basic electronics instructor.

It’s definitely a hobby and something I’m really passionate about,” says Soong, who is the senior nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) scientist and NMR manager at the University of Toronto (U of T) Scarborough.

So maybe it’s only fitting that after setting out to build an assistive device to help students with disabilities perform laboratory experiments more independently, he would end up with a series of prototypes that can inject a precise amount of liquid, and read and record data. There’s even one that has a talking thermometer.

“I want to make science more accessible to students,” says Soong. “If a student with a disability wants to do an experiment, it should be a positive experience and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can perform it or not.”

An evolving project

Soong was initially interested in creating a device that could transfer substances without human error affecting the data, but soon realized that it might be of use to students with disabilities. He then reached out to Tina Doyle, Director of AccessAbility Services at U of T Scarborough, to see how a potential prototype could meet students’ needs. Before long, he was looking to develop machines with text-to-speech capabilities.

“I was impressed by Ron’s commitment, but I was really amazed at how quickly he was able to build and test the prototype,” says Doyle, who also connected Soong to Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, Head of Research and Chief Accessibility Officer at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), who consulted on the project. Students with disabilities are not well represented in the sciences, says Doyle, who has helped author a study on the need for accessible science laboratories. “We know that people with disabilities are often discouraged from the sciences at a young age, but the lab environment can be safe and accommodating. You just need to develop ways to enable participation,” she says.

Opening up

The prototypes developed by Soong use open-source technology. One has a talking thermometer and can record data onto an external chip. Another can transfer a solution into a beaker using an arm that is connected to an external controller, such as a smartphone. And while many comparable devices with text-to-speech capabilities on the market cost upward of $2,000, Soong’s machines can be made for around $150.

Soong says many high schools may only have one assistive device, or none at all, due to the high cost of such technology. He hopes that by lowering the cost, he can make science more accessible to students with disabilities. In the meantime, he will showcase his devices at the upcoming Toronto District School Board’s “Eureka” conference. He also plans to make them available through an open-source platform so that others can build on or add to the designs.

Don Campbell is a media relations officer at U of T Scarborough. Before that he was a reporter with various news outlets and a personal assistant to John Draper, founder of Together We Rock!, a business dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive communities.