Braille Monitor                                                                                                           November 2004

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The 2004 NFB Science Academy: Turning Dreams into Reality

by Mark A. Riccobono

From the Editor: Mark Riccobono is manager of education programs at the NFB Jernigan Institute. Here is his more detailed report on the 2004 Science Academy programs that took place this summer:

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow. Robert H. Goddard

In the February 2004 issue of the Braille Monitor, I detailed the road that led to the establishment of the 2004 NFB Science Academy, a series of summer science camps designed to change the prospects for blind youth in science education and careers. Readers will recall that we had a number of ambitious goals for our science camps:

• To spark the interest of blind youth in science and inspire more of these youth to pursue careers in science;

• To allow blind youth to build confidence through opportunities to perform challenging science activities from which they are generally excluded in public schools; and

• To demonstrate the effectiveness of the Federation's approach through the development of a centralized collection of resources for blind youth in science that can be accessed by blind youth, their parents, regular and special educators, and others.

The camps--and our high expectations of them–-began as a dream articulated by NFB President Marc Maurer. Dr. Maurer presented this dream at the NFB 2003 national convention assembled in Louisville, Kentucky. Then, at the grand opening of the NFB Jernigan Institute in January 2004, young Courtney Despeaux, representing America's blind youth, spoke about the brighter future the Institute represents. She said, "This Research and Training Institute, a dream turned into reality, now allows blind youth like me to have even bigger dreams."

Now, just one year after President Maurer announced the establishment of these camps and slightly more than half a year after the opening of the Jernigan Institute, the first stage of this dream has been realized. By summer's end 2004, twenty-four blind middle school and high school youths had successfully completed the first-ever consumer-conceived, -planned, and –executed summer science camps: the Circle of Life camp (July 18 to 24) and the Rocket On! camp (August 15 to 21). There is no doubt that, with the assistance of our new partners at NASA, we are well on our way to establishing a rigorous summer science program, one that inspires blind youth and those working with them to imagine a future full of opportunity in the sciences.

This assessment is not based on subjective opinion alone. In keeping with accepted professional practice, we employed an experienced program evaluator. Federationists are familiar with the work of Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan, a blind sociologist, professor, and author whose work has often appeared in the pages of the Braille Monitor. In order to examine the effectiveness of the 2004 NFB Science Camp sessions, students completed pre- and post-surveys developed by Dr. Vaughan. His evaluation report displayed overwhelming positive results based on student responses to the surveys. In fact, the one major problem expressed by participants in both camp sessions was that the camps were too short. Many of the students said we should add one or two days to each camp.

We clearly achieved the goals outlined above. We inspired youth, gave them confidence in their capacity to do science, and demonstrated that our unique approach works. The purpose of this report is to begin disseminating what we know to others–-science teachers, schools, parents, science museums, universities, and other science programs for youth. Only then will we achieve our ultimate goal of the complete integration of blind youth into scientific studies and careers. As we reviewed our success, seven key ingredients emerged.

However, before we look at the essential elements of this program of the NFB Jernigan Institute, let's review the two camp sessions briefly.

Circle of Life–
July 18-24, 2004

In this session twelve blind middle school students, from eleven states, participated in a week full of exploration and investigation into the world in which we live. The participants ranged in age from eleven to fourteen and included students from entering seventh graders to entering high-school freshmen. Although a few of the students had partial sight, most of them were Braille readers.

The following list gives the student's age at the end of camp and the grade he or she will be entering in the fall of the 2004-2005 school year:

Jordan Richardson gets help identifying a plant from a NASA volunteer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Jordan Richardson (right) gets help identifying a plant from a NASA volunteer (left) at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Karl Martin Adam, Southfield, Michigan, age 14, grade 8

Rachel Becker, Frederick, Maryland, age 14, grade 9

Bryce Gitzen, Cle Elum, Washington, age 12, grade 7

Amelia King, Madison, Wisconsin, age 12, grade 7

Aaron Linson, Louisville, Kentucky, age 14, grade 8

Steven Maxfaults, Brooklyn, New York, age 13, grade 9

John Pastorius, Smithfield, Virginia, age 13, grade 8

Tanya Perkins, Thorton, Colorado, age 13, grade 8

Jordan Richardson, Blaine, Minnesota, age 13, grade 8

Daisy Soto, Thousand Oaks, California, age 11, grade 7

Andrew Wai, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, age 12, grade 8

Matthew Wallace, Springfield, Pennsylvania, age 13, grade 8

The intent of the activities in this session was to spark the Wow! of science in the students, challenge them to do things blind students are typically not expected to do, and introduce them to blind mentors, blind scientists, and the blindness techniques critical to the pursuit of science. The session especially emphasized the hands-on, fieldwork nature of the way real science is conducted. This was a revelation to most of the students, whose primary exposure to science has been in the restricted, highly text-based or visual-based methods of the classroom or school lab.

Rocket On!—
August 15-21, 2004


The Rocket On! graduates at the NFB Jernigan Institute.   Pictured are: Charles Cheadle, mentor; Mary Jo Thorpe, mentor; Dr. Bernard Beck-Winchatz, DePaul University, mentor; Phil Eberspeaker, head of the Sounding Rocket Program at Wallops Flight Facility; Mark Riccobono, manager of education programs, NfFB Jernigan Institute; Nathaniel Wales, mentor; Dr. Robert Shelton, NASA Houston Space Flight Center, mentor; NFB President Marc Maurer; and Robin House, head teacher. Pictured in the front row, left to right, are David Abrahams, Justin Harford, Tiffani Clements, Amy Herstein, Justin Hodge, Alysha Jeans, Daniel Ramirez. Meghan Joost, Nikki Singh, Ryan Thomas, Hoby Wedler, and Limdsay Yazzolino.
The Rocket On! graduates at the NFB Jernigan Institute. Pictured in the back row, left to right are: Charles Cheadle, mentor; Mary Jo Thorpe, mentor; Dr. Bernard Beck-Winchatz, DePaul University, mentor; Phil Eberspeaker, head of the Sounding Rocket Program at Wallops Flight Facility; Mark Riccobono, manager of education programs, NFB Jernigan Institute; Nathaniel Wales, mentor; Dr. Robert Shelton, NASA Houston Space Flight Center, mentor; NFB President Marc Maurer; and Robin House, head teacher. Pictured in the front row, left to right, are David Abrahams, Justin Harford, Tiffani Clements, Amy Herstein, Justin Hodge, Alysha Jeans, Daniel Ramirez, Meghan Joost, Nikki Singh, Ryan Thomas, Hoby Wedler, and Lindsay Yazzolino.

In this session twelve blind high school students from nine states participated in a one-week mission to launch a one-half-sized Patriot rocket with a payload. Participants included:

David Abrahams, Albuquerque, New Mexico, age 16, grade 11

Tiffani Clements, Ramona, California, age 14, grade 9

Justin Harford, Chico, California, age 16, grade 11

Amy Herstein, Ellicott City, Maryland, age 16, grade 12

Justin Hodge, Bunker Hill, Indiana, age 16, grade 11

Alysha Jeans, Wichita, Kansas, age 16, grade 11

Meghan Joost, Chicago, Illinois, age 17, grade 12

Daniel Ramirez, Brooklyn, New York, age 19, grade 12

Nandini (Nikki) Singh, Ellicott City, Maryland, age 14, grade 9

Ryan Thomas, Tucson, Arizona, age 16, grade 11

Henry (Hoby) Wedler, Petaluma, California, age 17, grade 11

Lindsay Yazzolino, Issaquah, Washington, age 15, grade 10

Amy Herstein learns the controls in the launch control room at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
Amy Herstein learns the controls in the launch control room at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

The mission consisted of learning key scientific concepts, examining the history of rocketry, working together in teams, managing time, doing complex calculations and making predictions based on these calculations, reporting information to colleagues, building and testing sensors for the payload, preparing and testing rocket components, performing the countdown sequence (including fueling and firing the rocket), and analyzing and reporting on data gathered from the mission.

This session presented blind students with a challenging experience under the direction of blind mentors and partners from NASA. The session also taught the students about the nonscientific elements of successful missions--that is, teamwork, project management, problem solving, information sharing, and other important aspects of working with colleagues. The program exposed the students to the invaluable network available to them through participation in the National Federation of the Blind and helped them understand the importance of the NFB/NASA partnership.

That's the overview. Now, let's examine each of the seven key ingredients that made the NFB Science Academy so successful.

1. Blind Mentors: The core of this program is the same critical ingredient that the NFB brings to any program for children or youth: successful blind role models. The instruction for each of the two camp sessions was headed by Robin House, a blind teacher and guidance counselor from St. Louis, Missouri. Ms. House was assisted by a group of blind facilitators who served as mentors, in addition to fulfilling their duties as instructors and camp counselors. The facilitators for the Circle of Life session included Paul Howard, a teacher of blind students from Gary, Indiana; Alicia Richards, a guidance counselor from Des Moines, Iowa; Caroline Rounds, a teacher of blind students from Apple Valley, California; and Mary Jo Thorpe, a graduate student at Louisiana Tech and a recent recipient of National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB).

At the Rocket On! camp, Robin House and Mary Jo Thorpe were joined by facilitators Nathaniel Wales, a blind civil engineer from California; Chaz Cheadle, a blind college graduate from Maryland; and one sighted facilitator, Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an associate professor of astronomy from DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Beck-Winchatz brought his own skills to the program as a sighted person who understands and promotes the NFB philosophy of high expectations and positive attitudes about blindness. Dr. B, as he was known during the rocket session, fully participated in all aspects of the program, including doing some activities under sleepshades along with the students. In addition, a number of other blind individuals participated as guest instructors during the program. These were Dr. Geerat Vermeij, Dr. Michael Gosse, Dr. Robert Shelton, Dr. Kent Cullers, NFB President Marc Maurer, and various other staff members (including me) from the NFB.

The great value of having successful blind adults at the heart of the instructional team cannot be over-emphasized. How many blind students have the opportunity for exposure to blind mentors who can challenge them to achieve higher expectations in the sciences through role modeling and who can engage them in honest and open discussions about life as a blind person? The consistent presence and guidance of the blind facilitators provided the camp students with a level of mentoring and understanding about their own capabilities as blind people that most of them had never before experienced.

This was demonstrated in Dr. Vaughan's evaluation report: "Students valued the intensive involvement with successful blind adults. This was shown in such comments as ‘I liked working with such high-skilled blind people,' and ‘It was good to be exposed to more blind people and just how much blind people can do.'"

2. Independence and Self-sufficiency: While the focus of the program was science, not blindness skills, it is difficult to separate the two. In order to master complex scientific tasks and carry out a career in a scientific field, one must have a certain set of core skills to work effectively and gain respect among colleagues. Thus students in both camp sessions were expected to travel using the long white cane, to take usable notes independently (twenty-one of the twenty-four students were Braille users), bus their own tables at meals, be responsible for themselves and their property, and otherwise function at an age-appropriate level. While instruction and support were provided when needed, the expectation was that the students would do for themselves.

Though this approach receives lip service in most summer programs for blind youth, it is often not carried out effectively in practice. In the NFB Science Academy, as in our other youth programs, independence and an expectation of independence underpinned all activities from day one through to the closing ceremonies. Of course in only one week no program can hope to provide students with a complete set of skills or the deep understanding of blindness and confidence in their own abilities that is desirable for blind people to lead full, productive lives. However, by the end of the two sessions evidence of change was already emerging. The evaluations showed that most students moved from simply saying that they were capable of doing something to actually building a collection of experiences in doing the things they had claimed were possible to do.

3. Hands-on Learning: Science is often taught using pictures and words to describe complex concepts. However, science lends itself very well to models and hands-on learning experiences that are beneficial for all students, not just the blind. Thus this program emphasized hands-on learning in all of its activities. The opportunity to experience science through personal observation and structured discovery was clearly invaluable and, as demonstrated by comments from students, something that does not happen in the typical science classroom. Consider these statements from three of the students:

Now I actually know I can do dissections, make conclusions, collect and record data, share and communicate information with others.

 --Andrew Wai, Pennsylvania

It made me experience science a lot more. In school it's boring, but because this was hands-on, it was interesting.

 --Daisy Soto, California

There is a lot of hands-on science that I didn't know about. I learned that you can study soils and seashells by touch.

 --Amelia King, Wisconsin

While many of the students coming into the camp sessions said that blind people could compete in scientific endeavors, they could not say how that might be done. They lacked a range of experience in doing science as a blind person. Although all of them had taken science classes in school, it was clear that they had spent considerable time sitting on the sidelines. The actual hands-on participation in activities makes a tremendous difference in the learning and interest gained in a subject like science.

4. Braille and Tactile Models: Using a combination of Braille materials, tactile graphics and maps, and three-dimensional models, instructors can convey complex concepts. We emphasized this technique in the program, and it proved to be highly effective. However, these materials are effective only if they are presented in a way that makes sense and if the students have the appropriate background with tactile materials to fully use the rich information provided. We observed the need, particularly among the middle school group, for blind youth to be strongly encouraged to put their hands on things and use their sense of touch for close observation. Often, when the camp students were handed an object, they were not skilled in thoroughly examining it using both hands in a systematic pattern and then describing its details.

This problem was not limited to students with residual vision or to those without it; it seemed to be a problem across the board. It seems that our look-but-don't-touch and hurry, hurry culture has a seriously dampening effect even upon those children whose parents or teachers have tried to counteract it. Part of the function of the blind mentors was to demonstrate and model effective tactile exploration methods. This, of course, took time, and on a number of occasions we modified our Circle of Life camp schedule to accommodate the need for more complete tactile observation.

5. Challenging Experiences: All too often blind youth are surrounded by an environment of low expectations. Completing even the most basic tasks receives high praise. However, the NFB Science Academy presented challenging opportunities in an environment of confidence in the students. They were treated equally and without special consideration in every aspect of the program. Because both students and facilitators were blind, everyone faced the same high expectations to complete a task. Second, the students faced experiences that stretched them. For example, none of the students in the Circle of Life camp had previously done a dissection themselves. That is, one or two had been part of dissection teams but had not actually done any of the work.

In this program all of the students were expected to dissect a dogfish shark, and each of them did it under sleepshades (blindfolds) to emphasize the effectiveness of nonvisual techniques. While we called our Science Academy sessions "camps," do not let the semantics fool you. Many of the students in both program sessions made comments much like the following sentiment expressed by a student in the Rocket On! camp: "I've never been this challenged in other academics/programs I've attended"--Justin Harford, California.

6. Partnerships: The NFB Jernigan Institute collaborated with a number of partners to provide the NFB Science Academy. Most important among these partnerships was the collaboration between the NFB and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In particular the Rocket On! session was a true reflection of the great value of the NFB/NASA partnership. Instructors and supporting contributors to this camp came from both organizations and are an important part of its success.

Individuals from NASA who were not familiar with blindness and working with blind youth went through training offered by NFB staff. It is clear by their work in the camp that all of the NASA staff took this training to heart and came to believe in the capacity of blind people to contribute to the community as a whole. At all times NFB students and facilitators were treated like any other group working with NASA employees.

While it would be difficult to name all of the NASA employees who had an impact on the 2004 NFB Science Academy, special recognition should go to Phil Eberspeaker, who designed the NFB rocket mission and provided much of the instruction to the students in collaboration with NFB instructors. In addition, blind NASA employees worked with students from both camp sessions as mentors.

A number of other organizations participated in the program. These include the Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Baltimore; and the Smithsonian Institution Naturalist Center, Leesburg, Virginia. Each organization worked with the NFB Jernigan Institute staff in advance of the event to prepare its staff and facility to maximize the learning experience for the camp participants.

7. Follow-Up: The NFB Science Academy was not intended to be an isolated event. Students in each session will remain in touch through mentoring and ongoing connections to the NFB. For example, the Rocket On! session was not simply a program but a commitment to inspire and challenge the next generation of blind youth to accept the scientific and technological challenges facing our world. Each student was matched with a mentor from NASA in order to have a one-on-one relationship that can help him or her develop an understanding of the steps necessary to build a career in an organization like NASA. Additionally, a listserv has been established so that all the students, facilitators, and mentors can communicate and share information. We hope that this ongoing relationship will lead to students securing internships and other opportunities with NASA.

Conclusion: The 2004 NFB Science Academy program met its goals and in many cases exceeded them. Most important, it demonstrated to the students the type of future they can have if they work hard and apply their imaginations. The blind role models set a higher level of expectation than blind students typically get in the classroom and challenged them to fulfill those expectations. The NFB/NASA partnership clearly proved its effectiveness because coordinators and instructors from both organizations worked collaboratively to develop a rich experience unlike any other mission ever attempted by NASA.

Twenty-four students have been influenced and inspired by this program, but what about the great lack of resources and information about the tools to empower the thousands of blind youth throughout the country to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math classes and careers? The NFB Science Academy is just one component of a broader vision for the NFB Jernigan Institute.

We plan to establish a National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) as part of the Institute. This center of excellence will continue to find new horizons for blind youth in the sciences, provide a national centralized clearinghouse for information and resources, and establish a body of knowledge related to science instruction and nonvisual techniques that is desperately needed in order to improve opportunities for blind youth across the country. The NFB Science Academy will continue to be an important part of the NCBYS. Plans are already underway for the 2005 sessions. The high school program, Rocket On! is scheduled July 15 to 23, 2005. The middle school session will take place July 30 to August 6, 2005. Both will be located at our headquarters (site of the NFB Jernigan Institute) in Baltimore, Maryland.

An advisory work group has been established to assist with the plans for the NCBYS at the Jernigan Institute. Parents, students, educators, and others who have or know of valuable resources related to teaching science to blind youth, innovative methods/materials for conveying scientific concepts, Web sites with valuable information related to the blind and science, or other materials to be included in the NCBYS should contact me, Mark Riccobono, manager of education programs at the NFB Jernigan Institute.

The NCBYS is not intended to be a manufacturer of products but a clearinghouse of information and resources to emphasize the good work being done in this area, eliminate duplication of effort, and build a body of knowledge so that the constant reinventing of the wheel can end and the imaginative building of a bright future full of opportunity can begin.

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