The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Blind Kids Do Science Too


From the Editor: Word is spreading. Fifteen months after the NFB Jernigan Institute established the Science Academy to encourage blind students to study science, opportunities for scientific investigation are expanding. This past summer two more groups of teenagers came to the Institute for the Rocket On! and Circle of Life science camps. In addition a group of teens in Missoula, Montana, attended a week-long science camp, Camp Eureka!, sponsored in part by the Missoula chapter of the NFB with an Imagination Fund grant. Also this spring at the Colorado Center for the Blind, blind adults and kids got to dissect dogfish.

Each time blind students are invited and expected to take an active part in science education, the barrier keeping them out crumbles a little further. Here are two newspaper articles that report on these small but significant breakthroughs. On June 22 the Missoulian published an article on Camp Eureka! on its front page.


Natural Symphony--Camp Takes Blind Kids into the Wild
by Perry Backus

Strolling along the dirt path leading into the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Skyler Kroll stops and holds up his little blue tape recorder.

"What do you hear?" asks Sean Meister.

"Crickets," is the reply from the eight-year-old. "I'm recording them."

"Hear the bird? It's a warbler of some sort," Meister says.

"Yep. I'm recording that too," Kroll chirps. "I'm going to record everything."

Just up ahead seven other young campers also are stopping as they capture the sounds of nature on their own recorders. A few minutes later they'll gather in the cool shade of a nearby pine to learn from a University of Montana ornithologist which song belongs to which bird.

And that's just the beginning of their second day at Camp Eureka!--a four-day-long natural history camp for children with visual impairments. Over the next few days the eight-to-twelve-year-olds from all parts of western Montana will learn about raptors, sing some folk music, and even discover the joys of mule packing at the Lee Metcalf and Teller wildlife refuges.

Camp Eureka! is about rediscovery. And it's not just the youngsters who are learning. Beth Underwood is the driving force behind the natural history camp for the blind. She spent twenty-six years as an environmental education specialist working both at the National Bison Range and the Lee Metcalf refuge before a bout with glaucoma changed everything.

"I had to regroup as I was dealing with my own vision problems," she said. So she learned Braille, earned a teaching certificate, and began tutoring a blind preschooler. She didn't forget what she knew best, and it wasn't long before she began to ponder the possibility of developing a summertime nature camp for blind children. "I finally decided I can do this," she said. "I knew it would be so wonderful for the children."

While she couldn't find another similar program anywhere else in the country to serve as a model, Underwood didn't have a hard time finding enthusiastic sponsors and people willing to volunteer as instructors and mentors. "Our partners have been terrific," she said. Those sponsors included the National Federation of the Blind, which sent a representative from Baltimore to take a look at the new camp.

Mark Riccobono, director of education for the Federation's Jernigan Institute, liked what he saw Tuesday morning, especially the blind adults volunteering as mentors. "That's especially important in a state like Montana that's so spread out," he said. "Most of these youngsters probably don't even know another blind person. Having a blind role model is critical."

That was something Underwood considered early on when she started putting together the program. She also knew that the sighted instructors were going to need some help before they sat down and started to interact with the young campers. They received that training this spring.

"We had some instructors who were really good with the outdoors and others who were really good with blindness," she remembers. "Most had to rethink the way that people access information. Most of us are so visual when we learn, with 80 percent or more of our information coming in through our eyes. You really don't realize that until you take it away. If blind people want some information, they have to find new ways to get it."

That challenge didn't scare anyone away. "They were revitalized," Underwood said. "It gave everyone new energy to think about the new ways they could do things." In the long run Underwood said the experience will make everyone involved a better teacher.

That's something University of Montana Disabilities Services Department director Jim Marks has seen happen on the Missoula campus. "That's one of the advantages of working with the disabled," Marks said. "It makes you rethink your methods. In the long run it makes you a better teacher."

Marks was one of several blind adults who volunteered to spend time with the young campers. "It's so important for young blind children to have role models who are strong and able people," said Marks. "They need to know early on that blindness just is. It's neither good or bad--it's not diminished my life. It's just different, but not worse."

And that's a message Marks wants the youngsters to take home. Marks knows what it's like to live in both worlds. He wasn't born blind. "I had to learn new skills when I lost my vision," he said. "I had to rethink everything. Like most people, I grew up thinking with the judgment that being blind was a very bad thing."

That all changed when he and two other siblings lost their sight. His brother works as an engineer "making big money" back East, and his sister works for the Montana Blind Vendors and has two children. "I would say that blindness has not diminished our quality of life. Not at all," he said.

It's important that blind youngsters learn early that everything is possible. Programs like Camp Eureka! provide opportunities for them to discover just that. "Blind kids get a chance to take some risks and experience the great outdoors," Marks said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for them to learn that they're able to do anything they want to.

"When you're blind, a lot of people think you can't do this or that. It's really about attitude--they can do just about anything they want to. It's important for them to learn that early. My hope is that this camp will help reframe blindness for them while they're also getting to learn a lot of cool stuff," Marks said. "Being comfortable with the outdoors is really important if you want to be a Montanan."

Having different abilities can be helpful in the natural world. Ornithologist Erick Greene of the University of Montana spent a portion of Tuesday morning helping the campers identify and record different bird songs. He let them know he relies a lot more on his ears than on his eyes as a bird researcher.

"This morning I've probably heard more than forty species of birds. I've seen maybe three," Greene said. "My ears are just tuned in. It's nice for these kids to get out here and realize that they have a lot of strengths that a lot of sighted kids don't have," he said. "This whole experience is tremendous for them."

On May 5 the Littleton Independent reported on a day of dissection that had just taken place at the NFB’s Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). Here is that story:

Blind Students Get Feel for Science

by Jennifer Smith

Even Julie Deden, executive director of the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, admits the concept sounds a little strange. On April 29 about sixteen blind people got together at the center to dissect sharks.

Glenn Beers (left) and Jason Fayre (right) dissect their dogfish. 

Glenn Beers (left) and Jason Fayre (right) dissect their dogfish.

"Too often blind students are told that they cannot participate in the areas of science, shop, and physical education," said Eric Woods, CCB's youth services coordinator. "We want blind students to stop putting limits on themselves and to learn that they can fully experience the world."

"I was excited to do this," said CCB student Kathryn Hanks, nineteen. She said she dissected a squid and a worm in high school, "but I wasn't really sure what was going on. … They wouldn't let me cut anything. Today I knew I would get to cut stuff up."

The event was part of CCB's employment training program, which is funded in part by a grant from the Qwest Foundation. Arapahoe Community College provided staff and supplies. Led by Terry Harrison, biology department chair at ACC, the students ranged in age from middle school to adult and in vision from a little to none. Each person got their own, very stinky, spiny dogfish, which is a small shark about twelve to eighteen inches long. Harrison explained he chose sharks instead of frogs or some other such creature because they have spines, so they're actually similar to humans in that respect.

"They have the four principal structures that we have, so it's a good example," he said. "And they're big."

"The smell's actually quite interesting," said Alex Randall, a freshman at Dakota Ridge High School, in perhaps the biggest understatement of the day. Randall was accompanied by his teacher, Samantha Hoffman. She said the class was great for Randall because the terminology was geared toward its audience--Harrison described how to feel for internal organs instead of how to look for them, for example.

Teacher Wendy Schlageter, who works [with] student[s] with visual impairments in Aurora Public Schools, brought several students to the event. She said this class was unique because kids in public school usually work in groups on dissection projects, and the blind kids "don't get to be a major part of the group." The slower pace was a bonus too, she said, giving them time to explore.

"We're going to take our time," Harrison told the group. "We're not going to jump into it too soon."

They all got their own tools, including safety goggles, ventilation mask, rubber gloves, tweezers, and scalpel. Then, after some jokes about getting a free lunch, they spent about four and a half hours exploring the inside of their fish, with Harrison explaining the biological functions as they went along.

Amazement was often evident. "That's the heart right there? Oh my gosh," exclaimed Jaime Tomasello, twenty-five, after Harrison guided her hand to the right spot.

Randall got the biggest surprise of the day. He said he knew something didn't feel right in his shark's stomach when he found an intact baby squid in it. Gateway High School student Alex Stocks, after demonstrating how the gutted shark could be used as a puppet, described the dissection experience as unique.

Frustration also made some appearances. "I don't think I've got the heart exposed," said CCB staffer Glenn Beers.

"No, you've got a bunch of mush," observed Harrison.

After everyone finally cleaned up the very substantial, slimy mess they had made, Harrison got out a large shark's jawbone for everyone to experience--which mostly resulted in the teenage boys putting their heads through it. Then Woods thanked Harrison, and the entire group gave him a standing ovation--which Harrison said doesn't happen every day in his usual classes at ACC.

Qwest representative Melissa Reffel spent part of the day with the group. "It felt really good," she said after the event. "It felt like I was experiencing it with them and seeing it for the first time."

CCB is a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of training programs for all ages. For more information or to find out how to help its mission, call Deden at (303) 778-1130, extension 210.