Biology Professor's Calling: Teach Deaf Students They Can Do Anything

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Caroline Solomon is a professor of biology at Gallaudet University, the renowned school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. (NPR)
Caroline Solomon is a professor of biology at Gallaudet University, the renowned school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. (NPR)

Correction: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we identify Caroline Solomon as an associate professor at Gallaudet. She is a full professor. We also say she won the 2013 Teacher of the Year award. It's actually the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award.

To get a really good sense of why Caroline Solomon is a great teacher, you have to go into the field with her. On this particular morning, that means a boat on the Anacostia River.

We're about 4 miles from the campus of Gallaudet University, where Solomon is a professor of biology. She and a student — Anna McCall — are heading in a small boat to take water samples.

The Anacostia is no more than 8 miles long, but it meanders through and around Washington, D.C., past a naval yard, a golf course and I-95, the busiest interstate highway on the Eastern Seaboard.

For months now, Solomon and her students have been dropping probes testing for oxygen, salinity and chlorophyll. It's data that help gauge the river's health, which is not very good right now, Solomon says.

"I know what's in this river," she says, laughing. Her voice is audible as she speaks with us, but she communicates with students in sign language.

Anna McCall, a biology student at Gallaudet, collects water samples from the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
Anna McCall, a biology student at Gallaudet, collects water samples from the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

Here on the river, Solomon's passion for the environment and her gifts as a teacher are on full display. She dips in a thermometer while McCall fills pre-labeled bottles with water samples.

They work in tandem, the only sound the low hum of the boat's motor.

To McCall, who was born deaf, Solomon is more than a role model. She's a great teacher, tough but fair. A missionary with a scientist's zeal.

"When I was growing up, I never really considered a career in science," McCall signs. "But after meeting a couple of famous deaf scientists, especially Dr. Solomon, I just developed a fascination with the field."

McCall says if it weren't for Solomon, she couldn't imagine doing this kind of work.

Solomon leads a biology lab discussion with students.
Solomon leads a biology lab discussion with students.

Solomon grew up in Delaware, the only deaf person in her family. She became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis when she was 15 months old.

In school, she was always good in math and science, but her interest in the environment didn't blossom until she was a teenager.

"When I was in high school, my dad was a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy," Solomon says. "We rented a house right on a creek. We weren't able to swim in the creek because it was just too polluted."

Solomon, who went on to win 13 gold medals in swimming in the Deaflympics, says she never forgot that polluted creek in her backyard. A career in science and environmental studies became her calling.

But she also found another calling: "How can I influence other deaf and hard-of-hearing students?"

Solomon gives a student advice on a lab presentation.
Solomon gives a student advice on a lab presentation.

It was a question rooted in Solomon's own experience as a college student. First as an undergraduate at Harvard, then as a graduate student at the University of Washington and University of Maryland, where she earned her Ph.D. in biology. These were schools where she was usually the only deaf person in class.

"I know how very important it is to be a role model and to have role models," says Solomon, especially those who've defied the odds. It's how she sees herself and how she wants her students to see her.

Here's how she introduces herself to new students: "My name is Dr. Solomon and I got my bachelor's from Harvard."

The students, she says, are dumbfounded by that. "Then I say, 'If I can do it, you can do it.' "

Training the next generation of biologists who happen to be deaf has become Solomon's mission, and for that she has earned high praise at Gallaudet, including the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award. Not because she's an especially gifted teacher, she says, but because she has learned how to get her students to focus on what they're capable of, not what they're limited by.

Solomon ends her biology lab with all hands in.
Solomon ends her biology lab with all hands in.

"One thing about deaf people is, very often they're isolated," she explains. "They're not part of their family conversations at the dinner table or they're mainstreamed in a public school all by themselves as the only deaf person."

As a teacher, "You just have to work to change that perspective they have about themselves. Because once you believe you can do anything, the opportunities are just everywhere."

Solomon's classes are infused with this kind of encouragement. Watching her teach is fascinating — like watching several classrooms at once. She's at the front of the class, lecturing.

Tucked in a corner, an interpreter repeats verbatim what Solomon is saying. And, in some classes, the interpreter speaks into a microphone that converts the spoken word into text for students to read on a screen.

Some of her students are profoundly deaf. Others are hard of hearing. A few wear hearing aides. Then there are those who can hear, but communicate in sign language.

After 15 years in the classroom, Solomon says she can't imagine doing anything else. "I just love teaching. I just love it so much."
After 15 years in the classroom, Solomon says she can't imagine doing anything else. "I just love teaching. I just love it so much."

Solomon paces up and down, prodding and coaxing students. She has been known to stand on her desk to make sure they understand.

"Our students are so very visual," she says. "You have to think about everything in a visual way. For example, the immune system is very complicated. It's not an easy concept to get across."

To make it simple, Solomon once lined up all the chairs in her room and told students that the chairs represented the skin.

"I put a hat or a mask on one student and said, 'You are the pathogen.' "

In other words, the student playing the pathogen or disease-carrying bacterium had to try to break through the row of chairs, or skin. Solomon then got another group of students to act as the antibodies and antigens to destroy the pathogen.

It was fun, says Solomon. But more important, the students got it.

"I wish someone would have taught me like this when I was in college," she says. "Often, faculty are so focused on teaching from their own perspective, they're not thinking about the student side of things: What students are thinking, what they are looking for in an excellent teacher."

After 15 years, Solomon says her students are looking for a teacher who's relentless in helping them succeed. And by all accounts, that's what she does so well.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's meet a remarkable teacher. Caroline Solomon is an associate professor of biology at Gallaudet University. That's a world-renowned school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing here in Washington, D.C. Claudio Sanchez of NPR's Ed Team has the latest in our series of 50 Great Teachers.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: About 4 miles from the Gallaudet campus, the Anacostia River meanders through and around Washington, D.C., past a naval yard, golf course and the busiest interstate on the Atlantic coast. This is where Caroline Solomon's passion for the environment and her gifts as a teacher are on full display.

CAROLINE SOLOMON: OK. Find the probe. This is a probe.

SANCHEZ: Today, Solomon and one of her students, Anna McCall, are on the river dropping probes. They communicate silently, using only their hands and fingers, pausing only to fill one plastic bottle after another with muddy water samples. They're testing for oxygen, salinity and chlorophyll. It's necessary for photosynthesis, which is important to the river's health. Right now, though, you'd be crazy to swim in the Anacostia, Solomon warns us. She knows what's in it.

SOLOMON: I know what's in the river (laughter).

SANCHEZ: Solomon's sense of humor is just one of many qualities that has endeared her to her students. To McCall, Solomon is more than a role model. She's a great teacher, tough but fair, a missionary with a scientist's zeal. McCall speaks in sign language, so the voice you hear is that of Elissa Nadworny, our producer.

ANNA MCCALL: (Through interpreter) When I was growing up, I never really considered a career in science. But after meeting a couple of pretty famous deaf scientists, especially Dr. Solomon, I just developed a fascination with the field. So, yeah, I can do this.

SANCHEZ: If it wasn't for Solomon, McCall says, she could not imagine doing this kind of work. So what is it about Solomon that so inspires others? What's her story? After negotiating some ground rules about how we would tape her in our studios - she was reluctant at first - Solomon agreed. With an interpreter at her side, she spoke about growing up as the only deaf person in her family, losing her hearing at 15 months of age...

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) I became sick with spinal meningitis.

SANCHEZ: ...And why she became an environmental scientist.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) Well, when I was in high school, my dad was a visiting professor at the Naval Academy, and we rented a house that was right on a creek. And - I don't know - there were, like, two or three summers where we weren't allowed to swim in the creek because it was just too polluted.

SANCHEZ: Solomon, who went on to win 13 gold medals in swimming in the Deaf Olympics, says she never forgot that polluted creek in her backyard. A career in science and environmental studies beckoned. Teaching, though, helped her find another calling, another purpose in life.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) How can I influence other deaf and hard-of-hearing students?

SANCHEZ: It's a question rooted in Solomon's own experience as an undergraduate at Harvard, a graduate student at the University of Washington and the University of Maryland, where she received her Ph.D., schools where she was usually the only deaf person in class.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) Well, one thing, I know how very important it is to be a role model and to have role models. You know, even growing up, what I needed was role models.

SANCHEZ: Especially those who defied the odds. It's how Solomon sees herself and how she wants her students to see her. So here's how she introduces herself to new students.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) My name is Dr. Solomon, and I say I got my bachelor's from Harvard. And you see the students absolutely dumbfounded by that. And I say, if I could do it, you could do it.

SANCHEZ: Training the next generation of biologists who happen to be deaf has become Solomon's mission. And for that, she's earned high praise at Gallaudet, including 2013 Teacher of the Year, not because she's an especially gifted teacher, says Solomon, but because she gets her students to focus on what they're capable of, not what they're limited by.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) I mean, one thing about deaf people is very often, they're isolated. They're not part of their family conversations at the dinner table, or they're mainstreamed in a public school all by themselves as the only deaf person. And you just have to work to change that perspective they have about themselves because once you believe you can do anything, the opportunities are just everywhere.

SANCHEZ: It's the last week of classes at Gallaudet.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) Where is everybody (laughter)?

SANCHEZ: Students in Solomon's Biology 105 course are making the final presentations. One is titled, "Are Freshmen Getting Fatter?" Another is on vegetarian versus vegan diets. And then, there are two presentations on condoms.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) No wonder. I was wondering if it would be helpful.

SANCHEZ: Tucked in a corner of the room, an interpreter repeats verbatim what Solomon is saying. In some classes, the interpreter speaks into a microphone plugged to a gadget that turns the spoken word into text, projected on a television screen. Some of Solomon's students are profoundly deaf. Others are hard of hearing. A few wear hearing aids. And then there are those who can hear but communicate in sign language. All eyes, though, are usually on Solomon as she paces, constantly prodding, coaxing students, making sure they understand. She's been known to stand on her desk just to get a point across.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) Our students are so very visual, you have to think about everything in a visual way. For example, the immune system; the immune system is very complicated. It's not an easy concept to get across.

SANCHEZ: So here's what Solomon did in one of her biology classes to make it simple. She lined up all the chairs in the room and told students...

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) That's going to be the skin barrier. And then what I did, I put a hat or a mask on one student, and I said, you are the pathogen.

SANCHEZ: In other words, the bacteria or virus that can cause disease played by a student trying to break through the row of chairs, or skin. Solomon then got another group of students to act as the antibodies to destroy the pathogen. It was fun, says Solomon, and students got it.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) I wish that someone would have taught me like this when I was in college because, you know, I think often faculty are so focused on teaching from their own perspective, but they're not thinking about the students' side of things. What are the students thinking? What are they looking for in an excellent teacher?

SANCHEZ: After 15 years in the classroom, Solomon says, she's realized that what students are looking for is a teacher who is relentless in helping them succeed. And by all accounts, that's what Solomon does so well. She just can't imagine doing anything else.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) I just love teaching. I just love it so much.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We identify Caroline Solomon as an associate professor at Gallaudet. She is a full professor. We also say she won the 2013 Teacher of the Year award. It's actually the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.