Innovative Sign Language Makes Chemistry Accessible

Alumni6 MIN READ

Tina Goudreau Collison ’98 fundamentally shifts chemistry education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students

Christina Goudreau Collison '98, professor of chemistry at the Rochester Institute of Technology, works with students during her office hours. Collison and her team were awarded the 2022 Inclusion & Diversity Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry for "pioneering and disseminating an innovative sign language lexicon.”
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Vincent Alban
April 3, 2023

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students often avoid studying the physical sciences because of the absence of technical words in sign language. That’s why Tina Goudreau Collison ’98 started using hand signs when teaching organic chemistry. 

Sometimes, she inadvertently made an inappropriate gesture.

“I’d have the first row of deaf students in fits and laughter,” said the affable professor of chemistry at Rochester Institute of Technology, a leader in STEM education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

They’re not laughing anymore. Today, those students have access to hundreds of standardized, deaf-sanctioned hand signs relating to organic chemistry. Developed by Collison and her team, the unique lexicon gives students the tools they need to succeed. 

It’s part of the Colby graduate’s broad efforts to bring equity to chemistry education. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students have previously underperformed in organic chemistry not because of capability but because of access, said Collison, a leading researcher in the field.

Professor of Chemistry Christina Goudreau Collison ’98 demonstrates hand signs that she uses in her organic chemistry classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Shown here (from top left clockwise) are a bromination transition state (top face), a substitution bond, a steric hindrance, a catalyst, a Diels Alder transition state (Endo), an electron donating, an extraction, and a tetrahedral version 2.

For her groundbreaking work, the Royal Society of Chemistry recently awarded Collison’s team its 2022 Inclusion & Diversity Prize “for pioneering and disseminating an innovative sign language lexicon.” The team’s efforts were recognized at the annual awards ceremony in London.

That lexicon is making a measurable difference. In a recent study, Collison documented a “remarkable increase in performance” by deaf and hard-of-hearing students in an organic chemistry course. Because organic chemistry is required in many programs, students who master it can go on to become doctors, dentists, veterinarians, or scientists in a range of fields where they’re desperately needed.

Committed to undergraduate research

As a first-gen high schooler from Manchester, N.H., Collison was drawn to Colby because of its focus on undergraduate research. She eschewed a large research institution in favor of a small college where faculty interacted with her at her level.

Tina Goudreau Collison is a leading researcher in the field of chemistry education who, together with a team, developed more than 300 standardized, deaf-sanctioned hand signs relating to organic chemistry.

She first encountered organic chemistry during her second year as a Colby pre-med student. She loved its three-dimensional thinking, and her teacher, Brad Mundy, made it fun and engaging.

Mundy, the Miselis Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, became a mentor and remains a friend. They conducted research together and chatted about his career at Colby. She was struck by his comments about working with 18- to 22-year-olds, who kept him young and in touch with what was happening, she said. “I thought he had a pretty good life.”

Collison has found her own good life in Rochester, N.Y., one of the country’s deaf-friendly communities. She continues Mundy’s legacy by working predominantly with undergrads at RIT, where she’s taught since earning her doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Rochester in 2004.

Today, Collison runs her own research group at RIT. She’s an organic synthetic chemist who builds molecules with potential uses in biomedicine. Her research often moves slowly, she said, in part because of her commitment to giving students the type of hands-on training she experienced at Colby.

Her shift to chemistry education research started in 2012 by investigating new ways to teach organic chemistry in the laboratory. A few years later, she turned her attention to her imperfect hand signs, which, her colleagues noted, were unlike anyone else’s. 

She understood that she was onto something.

Say it with signs

The lexicon Collison helped develop was the result of an intentional collaboration among herself, a former student turned colleague, deaf and hard-of-hearing students,  and interpreters. She dubbed the project SLICE, Sign Language Incorporation in Chemistry Education.  

Collison was adamant that the deaf and hard of hearing students play the largest role in sign development.

“It had to come from the Deaf community,” she said. “I’m hearing, and I shouldn’t be the one creating their language.”

The team started by refining the transition-state signs Collison already used and then identified other organic chemistry terms to convert to signs. They drew from established signs in disciplines such as physics, searched YouTube for ideas, and engaged in sometimes-heated debates until they agreed on each sign. 

The signs they developed are descriptive, incorporating movement to represent molecular bonding or chemical reactions, for example. Some use certain hand shapes to represent the dimensionality of organic chemistry concepts.

In the end, they created a lexicon of more than 300 signs pertaining to organic chemistry. It is now part of ASLCore, a critical, deaf-centric repository of vocabulary words supported by RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. ASLCore is one of the exceptional resources the institute provides to its 1,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, who typically comprise 2 or 3 percent of the more than 150 students in Collison’s courses. 

“The more we can teach these signs to all students, it makes working together a little bit easier,” said Tina Goudreau Collison. “We’ve broken down a few barriers between the deaf and the hearing students.”

Collison emphasized how crucial it is to properly train the sign language interpreters who work in tandem with her in the classroom and lab. Prior to each lecture, they identify vocabulary words that the interpreter in turn learns using the ASLCore repository. By class time, the interpreter can keep pace with Collison by using hand signs, which eliminates the need for cumbersome fingerspelling.

Collison plans to create a similar lexicon for both general chemistry and biochemistry. She recently submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund this effort.

She’s also studying the signs’ role in long-term memory retention. And, she wants to test what she observes anecdotally—that hearing students benefit, too. She foresees applications for those on the autism spectrum, ESL speakers, international students, and any undergraduate she teaches.

“The more we can teach these signs to all students, it makes working together a little bit easier,” said Collison. “We’ve broken down a few barriers between the deaf and the hearing students.”