The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005

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Blind Students Excel at NASA

by Stacy Cervenka

From the Editor: Stacy Cervenka, a 2000 NFB scholarship winner, has herself been an intern this summer with the NFB Jernigan Institute. She has been working closely with the NFB NASA internship program. The following article summarizes what it accomplished during this first year:

"I believe that the first blind astronaut is alive today,"--Al Diaz, former director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at the grand opening of the NFB Jernigan Institute.

Tai Tomasi (left) and Stacy Cervenka (right) pose in front of Whozit, copying his cane-extended stance. 

Tai Tomasi (left) and Stacy Cervenka (right) pose in front of Whozit, copying his cane-extended stance.

With these words he issued a challenge. A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd as Federationists speculated amongst themselves who this intrepid blind person could be. Was he or she in college right now? Was he or she here tonight?

Since its opening in January 2004, one of the NFB Jernigan Instituteís key initiatives has been to see that Mr. Diaz's prediction comes to pass. One of the major initiatives of the Institute is to encourage more blind people to study and pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Institute took a large step in this direction in the summer of 2004 with the introduction of the NFB Science Academy. For one week in July twelve blind junior high students came to explore biology and earth science at the Circle of Life session. Then in August twelve blind high school students made history as they became the first group of blind students ever to launch a rocket and analyze the collected data during the Rocket On! session.

Although these programs filled an undeniable gap in the education of blind children, staff members at the Jernigan Institute still weren't satisfied. They realized that in today's competitive job market good academic skills and a high GPA aren't enough for any job seeker, blind or sighted. A diverse résumé filled with part-time jobs, work study, and internships is often what separates those who get jobs when they graduate from college from those who don't.

"All too often blind students still don't have employment opportunities at an early age, particularly before entering college," said Mark Riccobono, the Institute's director of education programs. "Therefore, they lack early employment experience, which hurts them later when they're out of college and trying to get a job. Furthermore, blind students often lack exposure to science jobs. They don't think they can go into scientific fields; therefore they don't pursue the coursework in college."

As a step toward improving this situation, the Jernigan Institute, in partnership with NASA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), established the EXCEL (Excellence through Challenging Exploration and Leadership) internship program. Through EXCEL six blind graduating high school seniors and college freshmen had the opportunity to intern for five weeks at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, or the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. As prerequisite training for the internship the EXCEL students attended the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Throughout the internship program students had the opportunity to observe the work of NASA firsthand and also to get to know other blind students, blind adults, and people working in their chosen career fields, both blind and sighted.

The NFB EXCEL interns stand at the Louisville waterfront. Left to right they are Thien Vu, David Wright, Grace King, Andrew Mayles, Jeremiah Griswold, and Amy Herstein.  

The NFB EXCEL interns stand at the Louisville waterfront. Left to right they are Thien Vu, David Wright, Grace King, Andrew Mayles, Jeremiah Griswold, and Amy Herstein.

According to Riccobono the goals of the EXCEL program were many-fold. "We hope the students have a quality work experience that they can put on their résumé. We also hope they gain employment skills that they didn't have before and that they can get a glimpse into what a professional setting is really like. Furthermore, we hope this experience will cause them to reflect on the level of their blindness skills and make a plan for improving those skills so that they're more employable in the future. Of course we also want them to learn more about what NASA is doing. We hope that the up-close-and-personal glimpse that they'll be getting this summer will inspire them to consider future job opportunities with NASA. Finally we wanted to expose the students to the work that the NFB Jernigan Institute is doing. We want them to know that we're a resource for them as they continue to pursue their academic studies in science, technology, engineering, and math."

Keys to Success

Although there are many work experience programs for blind teens and a growing number of public and private agencies are making concerted efforts to recruit qualified blind candidates for internships, several factors made the EXCEL program unique.

1. Quality Work Experience

Many state schools for the blind and vocational rehabilitation agencies have begun to offer summer work experience programs (SWEPs) for blind teens. However, the quality of these programs varies widely from state to state and from agency to agency. Although some SWEPs provide excellent, meaningful work experience, many programs suffer from low expectations for the students they serve. Thus the quality and variety of the job placements many SWEPs offer is shamefully inadequate. For example, many programs which purport to offer blind teens summer job experience offer them jobs at sheltered workshops or independent living centers only. These jobs do not provide students with an understanding of what it takes to succeed in a sighted or otherwise nondisabled workplace. Furthermore, they often reinforce blind studentsí convictions that their career options are limited to jobs specifically tailored to people with disabilities.

Besides providing limited employment opportunities, most SWEPs place little if any emphasis on truly learning the skills necessary to compete effectively in a mainstream workforce. For example, at many programs students don't travel to and from their jobs independently; a van picks students up each morning and drops them off at home each night. This is a contrived, unrealistic arrangement, since few mainstream employers provide such a service to their employees. Besides being unrealistic, this arrangement allows some students to disregard their inadequate travel and problem-solving skills and assume that these skills aren't really needed by blind people in the workplace since they assume that some sort of special arrangements will always be made for them.

During the planning stages of the EXCEL program it was extremely important to both NFB and NASA that the students have a true intern experience: living independently in dorms, getting themselves to and from work each day, managing their own free time and finances, and advocating for themselves to their supervisors and colleagues. It also included doing actual work that would look good on a résumé, enhance the students' office, technology, and science skills, and benefit NASA. Throughout their five-week internships students worked on making NASA Web sites 508-compliant, wrote computer programs correlating a NASA archive to another agency's archives in order to study solar bursts, worked on data reduction, learned HTML code, learned to use the Linux operating system, and wrote proposals for both the Mars Exploration Rover and the Mars Imaging Project.

"The most beneficial part of the EXCEL program is the opportunity to get meaningful job experience," said Grace King of Madison, Wisconsin, who interned at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. "I like the fact that Iím not answering phones, putting together kits, or folding towels. Instead I get to do real work, such as giving feedback on how a Web site can be improved."

Thien Vu, of Sacramento, California, who also interned at JPL agreed. "In the beginning I had thought that they were going to place me in the corner somewhere and give me simple, unimportant things to do. Instead I was involved in as much as I wanted to be."

JPL intern David Wright of Addison, Illinois, was also pleasantly surprised by the high expectations of his supervisors and colleagues. "In my job situation Iím given a task which Iím expected to follow through on. Iím also expected to be self-motivated and self-reliant. I consider this experience to be an asset because it is helping me to prepare for my ultimate goal of being independent and obtaining a career."

When blind students intern in the mainstream workplace, employers and other colleagues also benefit. "I believe there are many benefits to NASA mentors and others who are involved with the EXCEL students and all interns with disabilities," said Michael Hartman, of the Goddard Space Flight Center's Equal Opportunity Programs Office. "Of course there is the obvious benefit of getting qualified workers to do tasks that are related to our mission. In addition our program managers get fresh young students with new ideas and lots of probing questions and are given the opportunity to review the work they are doing. That is beneficial to NASA because this experience teaches the mentors to have high expectations of individuals with disabilities. This happens because very often the mentoring experience will be the first opportunity for mentors to work directly with individuals with disabilities, thus creating a positive experience which will be remembered when in the future another individual with a disability applies for a position in that mentor's organization. This is also true for other interns who interact with the EXCEL students. Many of them will be in positions of responsibility and leadership during their careers, and their experiences with the EXCEL students while interns together will help shape their images and expectations of individuals with disabilities."

"I've been very impressed with how independent the summer interns are," said John Callas, the deputy project manager for the Mars Exploration Program. "One of my concerns was that they would need a lot of attention from myself or my staff here. But in many aspects they're more independent than some of my other interns. Every day they get to and from work independently and on time. They go to the coffee kiosk on our campus every day, and they maneuver around our lunchroom, which is big and cluttered, independently. They walk around the JPL campus going about their various tasks on their own. That was a delight and a surprise. I've also been surprised at how integrated they've become into our Mars Rover program."

"Getting blind interns at JPL and Goddard is a great thing because it gives blind students a great taste of the NASA centers, but it also gives the NASA centers a great experience with blind students," said Vu.

"This program is an asset in and of itself," agreed Wright. "It is allowing us as a pioneer group to set positive precedence for future generations of blind and visually impaired people."

2. Mentoring

Another aspect of the EXCEL program which distinguished it from the legions of other summer work experience programs targeted at blind youth was the mentoring component. Before their internships began, all six EXCEL interns attended the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides attending the meetings of the National Association of Blind Students, the NFB Computer Science Division, and the Science and Engineering Division, students were paired with blind mentors who were working in the STEM fields.

"We wanted to connect them with blind role models and plug them into the network of individuals within the NFB who can provide them with mentoring and support and ongoing resources," said Riccobono. He commented that, although blind students are often told that they can "do anything they put their minds to," the phrase becomes somewhat of a cliché. Many professionals and the general public have learned to use positive language when speaking of the capabilities of blind people, but when these words aren't followed with actions, blind students become immune to them.

Andrew Mayles of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who interned at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, commented, "I found that the interactions with mentors and other Federationists prepared me more fully than could a week of lectures about blindness in the workplace."

"The mentors set a precedent for us," said Goddard intern Jeremiah Griswold of Stamford, New York. "Seeing over 3,000 blind and visually impaired people has made me realize that there's actually a whole vibrant blind community out there."

Goddard intern Amy Herstein of Ellicott City, Maryland, agreed that the mentoring portion of the program made the internship the success it was. "I think the most beneficial thing was meeting so many people who were willing to give you advice, share in your interests and goals, and tell you about their backgrounds."

Besides the NFB national convention, EXCEL interns had additional opportunities to network within the blind community. Goddard interns attended the Maryland Association of Blind Students' Steps to Success Seminar, the NFB of Maryland's annual crab feast, and a Baltimore City Chapter meeting. The JPL interns enjoyed an exciting day out with members of the NFB of California to Hollywood. Staff members at the Jernigan Institute traveled to each work site at least once throughout the summer to meet with supervisors, advise the interns, and observe NASA in action. Institute staff members also checked in by phone periodically with the students to offer advice, encouragement, and suggestions for solving any problems they encountered.

3. Emphasis on improving skills

One of the key reasons for any student, blind or sighted, to do an internship while in high school or college is to observe the workplace and learn what concrete steps he or she needs to take in order to succeed in such an environment. This is especially true for blind students.

"We really wanted all the students to reflect on the level of their skills and make a plan for improving those skills so that they're more employable in the future," said Riccobono. "A lot of blind students are not prepared to live independently in the real world and take on some of the jobs we want them to take on as eighteen- and nineteen-year-old young adults."

For this reason students received several hours of orientation and mobility training at the NFB national convention from blind mobility instructors. Program coordinators also spoke with students individually about areas they needed to work on. Increased exposure to competent blind role models made many students realize that their skills were not as good as they had previously thought.

"This summer has made me think of other things I need to learn in order to be competitive in my field, such as how to operate other systems besides Windows," said King.

Griswold has decided that Braille would be a beneficial thing for him to learn as a blind person with some usable vision. Wright has discovered that he'd like to receive further training in the skills of blindness. "Being around other blind people has really made me see that I have a long way to go," he said. "Because of this summer I've decided that I definitely want to pursue training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I think it will help me to get more out of life."

4. Experience at NASA

Finally, the EXCEL program was unique in that it afforded students who were interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics an up-close view of one of our country's most exciting scientific agencies.

"This whole experience has been really educational," said Griswold. "Working for NASA has changed my life in ways I don't even know about yet, in ways I won't even be able to see until I start applying for jobs. When I apply for a job and the employer sees NASA on my résumé, it's going to give me an upper hand over other candidates. And I'm so glad that I'm not only learning so much more about NASA, but also doing something productive for them."

At the Jet Propulsion Lab, where the students worked for the Mars Exploration Rovers program, interns learned all about the rovers; they were even allowed to touch and explore them.

"I think one of the neatest things is that we had the students shadow the rover drivers," said John Callas. ďThe rover drivers develop the very detailed activities for the motion of the rover, where the rover goes, how we use the robotic arm, and so on. It's probably the most visually demanding job on our team, but the rover planners were very descriptive in their tasks, and the students were able to get a lot out of it. I was very impressed with how completely the students became integrated into the program without the advantage of having all the visual information."

"One of the most exciting parts of my internship has been going to the planning meetings for the Mars Rovers. It has allowed me to observe how each day for the rovers is planned out and also how problems with the rovers are solved," said Grace King. "It gives us an inside look at the way NASA does things."

By the end of the program all the interns felt that they had gained invaluable skills, experience, and wisdom from their summer at NASA. "I think I have grown because I have more confidence, and I thrive on the independence we're given here," said Herstein. "It has further emphasized to me the importance of striving for any goal you wish to reach."

"Before the internship I thought I had what it takes to achieve," commented Mayles. "But now I can honestly say that I have proved to myself and others that I do."

"Something that had stuck with me from one of our EXCEL seminars at national convention is that it doesnít just matter what grades one gets, but it also matters how much experience one has,Ē said Vu. "With that bit of advice, I will do both; I'll strive to get myself more involved in internships and also to do better in college at the same time. I now know what's out there, and I know where good grades and relevant experience might take me."

NASA was also pleased with the first year of the EXCEL program and hopes it will continue in future years. "We see the EXCEL program as a beneficial program to NASA in several ways," explained Michael Hartman of the Equal Opportunity Programs Office at Goddard. "It is an excellent provider of qualified interns to help us further the completion of NASA's mission while they are here. At the same time it gives the students the experience of working at NASA and hopefully provides the opportunity to seek other programs and activities that will allow them to work at NASA throughout their academic careers. Finally, we anticipate that it will encourage the students to seek employment at NASA when they graduate."

Riccobono believes that the first year of the new program has been a success. However, because the NFB never rests on its laurels and is always seeking to improve existing opportunities, he looks forward to expanding the program to include more students and more NASA centers. He's also considering lengthening the internships by a few weeks and including even more pre-internship training. "The needs of blind students coming out of high school are different from what's needed for other students. Only by combining the knowledge and resources and mentors of the NFB along with the science capacity of NASA can we achieve a program that truly empowers blind people to consider advanced careers in science and prepares them to pursue the coursework necessary for these careers," he said.

Wright says that this summer has been a big turning point in his life and hopes the program will continue to expand. "This program has shown me that I can succeed as a blind adult and that the only thing standing in my way is me. I really enjoy being a part of something which could really influence the future for many other people. This program is definitely a step in the right direction toward placing a blind astronaut in space."

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