Future Reflections Convention Report 2005
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Ronit Ovadia (left), provides instruction and guidance during the dogfish shark dissection.
Astronomy and analyzing star patterns is not an activity that most people would even consider adapting for a blind student. In fact, before I was a facilitator for the Circle of Life 2005 Science Academy, a program operated by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, I hadn’t even thought about how it could be done—and I’m a blind chemistry major!
For the last two years, the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, in partnership with NASA, has conducted a science academy for blind middle school and high school students. The goal of the academies is, in part, to instill a love of science in the students and to encourage them to pursue careers in science. But the overarching purpose is to develop and disseminate nonvisual techniques for learning and “doing” science.
There were two sessions of the academy in 2005, one for high school students called Rocket On! and one for middle school students called Circle of Life. In these two programs, the students learned about science, about how they could participate as a blind person in science, and they observed—twenty-four hours a day for seven days straight—blind adults living full productive lives. You see, the academies are planned and run by blind people, and all but one of the facilitators for the two academies were blind. I was one of ten blind facilitators who served as teachers, counselors, and role models for twenty-three blind students from all over the country as they learned techniques that would enable them to become fully included in science endeavors.
Some of the activities in our Circle of Life curriculum included learning about stargazing, astronomy, and the moon; analyzing the health of a river; and dissecting a dogfish shark. You may be thinking that these activities would be impossible for a blind student to do. However, this is definitely not the case. There are specific ways of presenting information to a blind student that helps them understand the material, and there are specific techniques that a teacher can utilize to include the blind student in lab work.
Here’s what we did. We took the students to a planetarium and each student received a tactile diagram that showed the shapes of different star patterns and where the planets were located in relation to each other. This diagram reinforced and followed an even more graphic and dynamic activity. They had just completed forming a human solar system by using a scale to figure out how many inches would be between each planet if each inch represented 80 million miles. Then one student represented a planet, and they spaced themselves out according to how many miles separated each planet. Once they received their tactile diagrams of the star patterns and planets, it made a lot more sense to them.
The students also received a tactile star wheel that allowed them to figure out which stars and constellations are visible on any given date and time. For example, they could locate a date in the middle of August on a Sunday at 10:00 p.m., and by “looking” (touching, of course) at their tactile wheel and “looking” at which part of it was visible (to their fingers), they could tell which constellations would be visible in the sky that particular night. This simple adaptation allowed the students to be fully included in an activity that they had previously thought was impossible because it was supposedly so “visual.”
The students were also given tactile pictures of the phases of the moon and told to put them in the order they believed they would occur. Putting the tactile images in order made the concept much more understandable to them. These tactile diagrams were made using plastic paper and a thermoform machine, which heats up the parts of the paper with more ink and makes those areas more tactile than areas with less ink. Without these diagrams and with only verbal descriptions, I don’t think the students would have gotten much out of this activity.
Doing lab work is a huge part of science classes in middle school, high school, and college. Many people believe that this is the toughest part about doing science as a blind person. However, we showed these students that it’s very possible to participate in lab work. One of the activities they participated in was analyzing the health of a river. They threw fish nets out into the water, caught as many fish as they could, and then counted the number of species they caught. Of course, they did this tactually. They reached in and picked up a fish and one of the instructors helped them identify the species. When they found another fish of the same species, they were able to identify it and add it to their list. The more species they were able to identify, the healthier the river.
Usually, in science classes when river or creek analysis is done, the blind student just stands around and sometimes takes down information that the other students report, but is never allowed to physically participate in any data collection. This simple method of touching the fish they pulled from the river allowed the students to be more involved in the entire process. The students in the Science Academy also felt the water and the surrounding soil and drew conclusions about the environment based upon what they were feeling.
The highlight of the week for most of the kids—and, I confess, for me as a facilitator, too—was the dogfish shark dissection. Students were paired up, and each pair of students was given a shark to dissect. Each of the six teams was supervised and guided by a facilitator; however, all the dissecting was done by the students. They used a scalpel to cut open the shark, then they examined the organs inside and the inside of the intestinal tract. They identified whether the shark was male or female, and they learned about other systems like the excretory system, and the respiratory system.
The students were instructed in how to hold the scalpel, and how to cut straight down the belly of the shark, from the mouth down to the tail. They were taught how to hold the flat side of the scalpel against the knuckles of their opposing hand so that they wouldn’t cut their fingers. One student held the shark while the other cut. They also were taught how to use the scalpel like a saw to make sure that they cut through the thick skin. All of the students were astonished at how hard they had to saw in order to break the skin. We told them that it was equivalent to cutting through a thick piece of steak or chicken.
Once one student had made a cut, the other student took a turn in cutting as well. Once they did that, they were able to reach inside the shark and identify organs which were also verbally described to them. Often times, sighted students use pictures in textbooks to find what organ they are supposed to examine by comparing the picture to the real item. The students in the Science Academy were able to locate and identify organs just by verbal descriptions. They sometimes needed confirmation that they were looking at the right organ, but they did everything on their own. They cut open the stomach and intestines and determined whether there was any digested food in the system, all by touch. They found the liver, which felt very large and oily, and slid it aside while they searched for the tiny heart of the shark. Of course, not all of them enjoyed getting their hands into the insides of the shark, but after it was all over, they had a much better understanding of the anatomy of animals, and they expanded their knowledge about how a dissection actually works.
I know that I never enjoyed dissections when I was in school because I was never allowed to hold the scalpel or participate in the cutting or examining. Looking at something isn’t the only way to learn about it. Touching it and getting verbal descriptions works just as well for most things. As long as the student knows how to use the scalpel properly, he or she will not get hurt. Dissecting a larger animal, like a shark can also be an alternative activity for another dissection, like dissecting an earth worm. Several classes in middle school dissect different types of worms, but this is not as helpful for the blind student because the organs are so much smaller. The dogfish shark is a wonderful model system to use because the animal and organs inside are large enough for the blind student to touch and identify. Dogfish sharks for dissections are also easy to obtain and affordable.
In addition to making sure the blind student is included, it is also important to make sure that the student is touching the right things and examining them fully with their hands. One technique that we found to be very successful in the science academy is for the instructor or facilitator to slide his or her hand underneath the student’s hand and then guiding the student to touch something. It’s a lot less threatening than grabbing the student’s hand and pulling their hand toward something they should be touching. This way, the students can be guided but still remain in control and able to focus on what they are touching.
It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes blind students don’t know how to fully “look” at an object. They sometimes need to be reminded to use both hands, especially if the object is large and it’s hard to get the full picture. This was evident when the students visited the Maryland Science Center and they were looking at life-size models of dinosaurs. If the student is reminded to use both hands and thoroughly explore the objects or environments they are studying, they will learn more and be able to develop complete concepts.
Finally, it is imperative that the student is not discouraged from participating and asking questions. If the student’s teachers and parents don’t believe in the student’s capabilities as a blind person, the student certainly won’t and will be much less likely to pursue a career in science, even if that is what he or she is interested in.
This year’s Science Academy was very successful. It is our hope that the participating youth took the techniques they learned back to their schools and employed them in their science classes this year. In addition, it is our hope that this article has been helpful to you in thinking about how you can expand your child’s opportunities in science and in science classes. It is very important to remember that nothing is impossible for our blind students, and the more we help them to be included and to compete equally with their sighted peers, the more likely they will grow up to become successful blind adults.
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