Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Learning About the Stars

by Penny Leigh

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the September 2001, Volume 6, Number 3, issue of Howe’s Now, Council of Schools for the Blind, newsletter. The article was titled, “NASA-SCSDB Program Makes it Easier For Children with Special Needs to Learn About the Stars.” Penny Leigh is the Public Information Officer for the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind:

It’s difficult to learn about the solar system when you can’t see the twinkle of a star or the glow of the moon. But a new program will make it easier for students who are blind or have other disabilities to understand astronomy.

South Carolina School of the Deaf and the Blind (SCSDB) staff members spent part of the summer working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists on adapting learning materials for the needs of children who are blind or deaf. SCSDB is the only school in the country working with NASA on the pilot project to test and implement the Multisensory Space Science Kit.

The new kit will be in use this fall at the Spartanburg school. The kit provides tools designed to provide teachers with the background information and lesson material they need to teach a variety of activities on solar system exploration and planetary science. “NASA was developing materials on its findings for educational classroom use and wanted to adapt them for students who are blind or deaf and make sure they are accessible to all children,” said Lin Mackechnie, SCSDB’s special education director.

Mackechnie, SCSDB science teachers Vicki Banks and Barbara Barnhardt and retired SCSDB teacher Pat Moore, who specializes in developing tactile maps, attended a three-day workshop with several NASA scientists in June at the College of Charleston. Some teachers of the hearing impaired from Charleston and a teacher of the learning disabled from Virginia also attended. “It helped teachers open their minds to the possibilities of adapting material that is very visual into something tactical or material that is auditory into something visual,” Mackechnie said.

The SCSDB staff helped the NASA representatives and other workshop attendees understand what it’s like to learn with a disability. The scientists put on blindfolds and used canes to get around and then tried on earplugs simulating various degrees of deafness to experience what it is like to be hearing impaired in a classroom.

The NASA representatives gave the teachers a lesson on the latest research findings from solar system missions. “A lot has been discovered since most of us studied the solar system,” Mackechnie said. “For instance, we now know many planets have rings, not just Saturn, and that at least one moon has a thin atmosphere whereas we thought they used to have none at all.”

The teachers and scientists then put their heads together to refine educational exercises designed for children who aren’t disabled. An example is a hands-on lesson that shows the proximity between planets. Students, each representing a planet, stand on different parts of a baseball field to show how far away other planets are from earth. This lesson would not mean a lot to a child who is blind. So the team came up with the idea of having each student hold something that makes a noise, such as clickers, whistles and horns. Bigger planets would be represented by something making a louder noise than a smaller planet.

An Alphabet of Space, an ABC chart in which each letter represents something from space, could be made into tactile flash cards. For instance, A stands for astronaut on the chart. The letter could be put into Braille format, and a raised space helmet, which children could feel, would represent the astronaut. Each Multisensory Space Science Kit also contains a plastic model of a space shuttle and a tactile map on which visually impaired students can feel the shape of the planets and a comparison of their size in relation to everyday objects.

Pat Moore is helping NASA reproduce the maps so more school systems can reap the benefits. The Roebuck resident taught science for thirty-five years—thirty of those years at the School for the Blind at SCSDB. One of the talents she developed during her years of teaching was creating tactile maps and graphics to help her visually impaired students understand abstract materials.

The solar system was one of the hardest concepts for students who are blind to understand because it is not concrete,” Moore said. “There weren’t maps or materials available to help them better learn the material.” Moore hand-drew tactile maps in the early days and became a self-taught expert. Today, she has a Thermoform machine that uses a heat-centered vacuum to produce tactile maps. Moore is reproducing NASA’s master copy of a tactile map of the solar system for SCSDB and other schools in the Southeast and will be producing other learning materials in Braille for the NASA program as they are developed.

The kit contains another helpful learning tool for the visually impaired—a CD of songs about the planets and the stars written by a retired Broadway actress. Each song tells a different story about part of the solar system. Music also is an effective learning tool for

students who have learning disabilities, Mackechnie said. The group also worked on developing simpler, easier-to-read text for learning disabled students.

For students who are deaf, the team worked on adapting textbooks with more visuals. The team recommended all NASA educational videos are produced with closed captioning for the deaf and with descriptive text for the blind.

SCSDB got involved with the program at the invitation of Dr. Cass Runyon, a geology professor at the College of Charleston. Runyon also is the director of SERCH, Southeast Regional Clearinghouse, which is funded through NASA’s Office of Space Science.

The agency acts as a liaison between NASA and schools in the Southeast and works “to promote education and public outreach and bridge the gap between science and education,” Runyon said.

A couple of years ago, the creator of the Multisensory Space Science Kit, former NASA program manager Steve Dwornik, decided it was time to retire and handed the kit over to Runyon to finish his work. “I had no experience with this type of thing so I started looking for some expertise,” she said. ‘That’s when I started coming to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind and asking for some assistance. The June workshop was the first step in bringing the teachers together with NASA to adapt the kit and make it better for exceptional children. “The teachers taught us so much about what they are facing and the flexibility required of the kit.”

Runyon hopes to put the Multisensory Space Science kit in as many schools across the country as possible. NASA is planning other educational kits on different topics in the future. SERCH and the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium will organize another meeting between NASA and SCSDB officials in four to six months to follow up and plan for future projects.

“We want to give every NASA scientist developing educational materials a set of guidelines to go by on how to make the material more usable for all children,” Mackechnie said.

For more information contact:
Penny Leigh
(864) 577-7508 (telephone)
<Pleigh@scsdb.k12.sc.us> (email)

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