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Taking Matters Into Their own Hands: Blind Students’ Perspectives on Teaching, Trust, and Telescopes
by Michaela R. Winchatz, DePaul University
When I first arrived at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, I was rather nervous. I was invited to go there by a group of individuals who were leading an astronomy camp for blind students. The camp was part of the Space Exploration Experience (SEE) Project for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which had been funded by a NASA IDEAS grant (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science). As the evaluator for the SEE Project, I had come to interview the students and staff about their experiences at this three-day camp.¹
As a communication researcher and educator, conducting interviews is part of what I do. I ask people questions and pay close attention to how they talk. Ultimately, if I do my job well, I can find out how individuals understand and experience their world, and most importantly, I can discover what is meaningful to them. So, the interviews were the least of my worries. What made me nervous were the list of unknowns I was facing. I had never been to an observatory, I knew little about astronomy and science, and I had never before worked with blind and visually-impaired children. Clearly, this was going to be an adventure.
It was a beautiful May evening, and the two-hour drive from Chicago to Williams Bay went without a hitch until the final stretch. As large as I had imagined an observatory to be, I never thought it could be hidden so well. After passing the entrance countless times, I finally found the small, unlit sign that marked the winding drive up to the building. The night was clear, and the silhouettes of the three domes against the evening sky were a lovely sight. The large, wooden doors of the planetarium opened, and I was greeted by Geoff Holt, the director of the Madison, Wisconsin, planetarium and member of the astronomy camp team. He escorted me through corridors and downstairs to a small room where the others were waiting.
When I entered, I found a group of young people seated around two wooden tables, laughing and eating cookies. The six students in the astronomy camp were all females ranging in age from twelve to twenty years. They were accompanied by two teachers of the blind, Beverly Helland and Diana Brower, as well as Vivian Hoette, a former teacher who now conducts education programs for students and teachers at the Observatory. I introduced myself to the group and felt immediately welcome. As we sipped hot chocolate from styrofoam cups, I listened to the young women rave about the day’s events. They were full of energy, despite the late hour, and I soon found out why. They still had a midnight date with a 24-inch telescope for some late-night observing, and this snack break was the last pit stop before heading up to the dome to start their work.
Once the group navigated its way up the narrow, spiral staircase, we entered a large dome 30 feet in diameter. The students got themselves into position in order to complete the number of tasks needed to make observing possible. The dome had to be opened, making the work area quite cold and forcing us all to put on our jackets. The floor under our feet was raised and lowered, in order to give students access to the instruments on the back of the telescope. As the students aimed the instrument toward the planets, stars, and galaxies they wished to observe, the high-pitched squealing of the telescope’s gears filled the air.
Once they located the astronomical object they were interested in, they worked with the computer to take an image of the object as seen through the telescope. These images were then embossed on thermal image paper, which allowed the young astronomer trainees to see, in detail, what these objects in space actually look like. For some, it was their first real look at outer space.
Just how complicated this process really is came across quite clearly to the camp participants. Olivia Smithmier-Bohn, a seventh grader from Jefferson Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, told me, “What I thought was really interesting was that—to get a really good image with the telescope, there were so many things that you had to do. Someone is adjusting the floor on the telescope, or someone is checking the dome, or someone else is checking the coordinates to make sure they’re correct. But it’s just amazing to me that it all works so well because there are so many things that have to be just right, and there are so many things that could go wrong.”
Amelia King, a sixth grader at Jefferson Middle School, added, “You have to do so many things to just get one picture. It takes a lot of teamwork, and it takes a lot of patience, but once it works, it feels really, really cool.”
The responsibility that came along with this unique opportunity to work at Yerkes Observatory was not lost on Angelica Hope, a seventh grader from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “My favorite part was working with the telescope because not many twelve-year olds get to use one of those big telescopes.”
Because astronomy is usually understood as a science for which vision plays such an integral role, it was highly rewarding for me to watch these six young women navigate the complex technical equipment involved in making astronomical observations. Grace King, who was finishing her senior year at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said, “My favorite part of the experience was working with the computers and learning how the actual observing is done. Blind people could almost do it on their own! Just with a little tweaking of the program, it could be done.”
The program Grace speaks of is the screen reader JAWS. One of its limitations, when applied to the software used to operate the camera on the telescope, is that it does not allow a blind user to find and read the floating window on the screen without guidance. This appears to be one of the few smaller, though important, details that need to be worked out in order for blind individuals to conduct telescopic observing on their own. Luckily, Grace promptly emailed the technology group responsible for JAWS, Freedom Scientific, and informed them about the difficulties she encountered with the program during her work at the camp. She is about to start her college education at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in assistive technology. With her newly acquired experience applying JAWS to astronomy observations, she appears to be the perfect candidate to promote the kind of change needed to fully open up the world of astronomy to the blind.
When the students weren’t observing with the telescope, the camp provided many opportunities to discover more about our home planet. Earth is the only planet, as far as we know, that has an atmosphere that can sustain life. On the days before my arrival, the group participated in a guided nature walk to learn about the plant life growing in the region. They enjoyed a pontoon boat ride on Lake Geneva to experience one of Earth’s most precious resources—water. And I had the opportunity to go with them to a local airport, where all of the students explored the details of ultralights on the ground and then were taken into the air in a small Cessna plane to explore the atmosphere.
The pinnacle of the camp came on the afternoon of day three, when each student chose one of the tactile images created during the evening observing sessions to write about. The ultimate goal was to create a tactile book containing astronomical images taken by the students during the nightly observing sessions, supplemented with the students’ own Braille descriptions of these objects and of their experiences while conducting the observations.
Amelia found this part of the camp one of the most exciting. “When we got the pictures, that was rewarding. I also liked feeling the pictures after they were done because it was like, ‘Yeah, I was there. I was taking that picture.’ It’s not like when you’re looking at someone else’s book.”
For fourteen-year-old Katie Watson, taking the pictures and seeing them later gave her a whole new perspective on space. “That picture we took of the moon was really interesting. I pictured the moon being rocky and everything, but I never really had seen a picture with craters and mountains and stuff, actually detailed.”
Chelsea Reilly, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Carthage College, agreed with the sentiment of the group as well. “I think that looking at the pictures and being able to observe was really good because we got to feel the tactile images and know what the shapes and lines are of what’s out there in space. I think that putting it into a book of our own and getting our own ideas out there was really fascinating.”
On the afternoon of day three, sandwiched in between plane rides and book making, I had the opportunity to talk with the six young women about their experiences at the camp. I had come to collect their comments about what had gone well and what could have been done differently, so that possible future camps like this one could be made even better.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how much insight these young students would have about their own learning styles and preferences. For me, these interviews moved beyond mere evaluations of the camp to a kind of teaching tutorial, the lessons of which are worth sharing.
One significant theme that emerged across the students’ talk was the importance of trust. Each of the young women talked about the enormous trust they felt the teachers and staff at the camp placed in each one of them. As is so often the case, trust seldom remains a
one-way street. Once the students realized how much responsibility the camp team was willing to hand over to them, the young women found that they, in turn, were able to let their guard down and dive head first into the learning experience without any fear.
For example, several of the students mentioned how surprised they were that the camp team allowed them to actually work, hands-on, with the 24-inch telescope. As with all young people, there exists a strong desire among these students to try things on their own without someone stepping in and doing things for them. Katie contrasted her experience at this camp with some of her prior experiences. “People don’t always let me do things myself. They would either put their hands over mine and show me, or they would just do it themselves and not let me do it at all. So, I think this was great that we got to really control the telescope and move the floor and take the pictures.”
Amelia agreed, “Other people would say, ‘No! She will never touch the telescope. That’s just too dangerous!’ But here they trust you, and they don’t really limit you on what you can and cannot do.”
By allowing the students to work on their own and develop confidence with some expensive and highly technical equipment, the camp team showed the group that they were genuinely interested in their learning experience. This fostered an atmosphere in which the students felt comfortable to show what they didn’t know by asking questions of the camp team. Olivia specifically found the small size of the student group quite helpful to her learning experience. “You felt like you could ask anything, and you wouldn’t be made fun of by anyone. At school it’s a large group, and even though you’ve known your classmates for a while, you still feel uncomfortable, and the teachers don’t have a lot of time to answer all the questions you have.”
Because each of the students was at a different age, grade, and knowledge level in science and astronomy, the camp could have easily fallen into the trap of teaching to the so-called lowest common denominator. This would have had the advantage that no student gets left behind or confused by any of the activities, but it certainly would have also limited or constrained the learning experience of those students who had a stronger base in science and astronomy prior to arriving at the camp. Katie talked about how well the camp team dealt with this facet of the learning process. “I’m pretty familiar with astronomical basics, so one thing I really liked is that they didn’t limit me. I could ask more advanced questions, and I didn’t feel weird about it.”
Beyond trust, the students also talked about how special it was to work with a group of teachers and professionals who were open and willing to learn how the students themselves wanted to be taught. Although two members of the camp team were teachers of the blind, several other members had had limited experience working with blind and visually impaired students.
The team members’ willingness to approach this camp with open minds about how to teach the young students especially impressed Olivia. “The team had this willingness to learn. They wanted to know what would work for us and what didn’t.”
Amelia agreed, “Some people just won’t listen to how you want to be taught. When you’re blind and visually impaired, you kind of learn differently. But here they will listen to how you want to be taught. The more time they spent with us, the more they learned how to teach us.”
Katie summed up the impact of this distinctive learning experience as well. “It’s very rare to meet people who are so willing to help you, and not only help you, but who want to learn how you like to be helped.”
All in all, every participant in the SEE Project rated the three-day camp a huge success. Clearly, partnering young students eager to learn with experts in a particular field is no easy task. The funds made available by the NASA IDEAS grant provided a much needed financial base, but it was the energy, creativity, and open mindedness of both team members and students that allowed this experience to become a model and an inspiration for future endeavors of this kind.
In my twelve years of university teaching, I have cherished meeting that handful of students who are excited to learn and driven to discover their intellectual boundaries. For some, coming up against blocks in their own scholarly journey can cause stagnation or retreat. Little did I know that I would find six young scholars in an observatory in Wisconsin whose focus and drive allowed them to transcend the boundaries they faced—if even for just three days.
I drove back to the Windy City that evening having learned something about myself as a teacher. Striving to control what and how my students learn may seem an efficient way to tackle the time-restraints and uncertain chaos that all teachers face from time-to-time. But perhaps there is another way. Perhaps I could truly listen to what my students want and learn to open up my classroom and my teaching more to their needs and interests. Perhaps I could learn to let go of the wheel a bit and trust the students to steer for a while. Easy? Certainly not. But if these tactics can get students to reach for the stars, then it’s most definitely worth a try.
1. The Principal Investigator of the SEE Project is Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, who is an Assistant Professor at DePaul University.
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