Braille Monitor                                                 November 2010

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Gearing Up for Greatness

by The Education Team at the NFB Jernigan Institute

Student Luther using a screw driver to learn how a screw works as a simple machineFrom the Editor: In a country that thrives on innovation, competing in the American workforce will depend on our readiness to tackle the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Junior Science Academy (JSA) has made this a priority, and what follows is a report of our 2010 summer event.

The NFB Jernigan Institute has been buzzing with activity this summer. As part of our continuing initiative to promote access for blind youth to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, the NFB hosted the second Junior Science Academy in Baltimore Maryland. This year a record-breaking 130 applications were received from elementary-school-age children across the country. Thirty elementary students and their parents were selected to fill the two sessions.

This year's Junior Science Academy theme, Gear Up for Greatness, introduced the children to hands-on learning in physics subjects, while participating parents learned how they could help their children be successful. The four-day program was jam-packed with learning and challenging experiences. Though the lessons in the student and parent curricula looked different, the learning objectives were closely related. By the end of the program participants of all ages recognized the potential greatness of a child and that he or she need not be limited by blindness.

Over the four-day session students expanded their knowledge of simple machines, gaining knowledge about the mechanical advantage provided by each through practical applications. Students used levers to lift refrigerators and launch goalballs across the classroom. Rubber-band cars were assembled to demonstrate the usefulness of the wheel and axle. Students also investigated the mechanical advantage of the wedge by hammering dull and pointed nails into scrap wood.

Equipped with a better understanding of simple machines, students learned how Rube Goldberg machines combine the mechanical advantage of multiple simple machines to make much more complex devices. After exploring a Goldberg machine built by the staff at the NFB Jernigan Institute, each pod (three children and a blind mentor) took a diverse collection of household items and created its own Goldberg machine. Students turned old door knobs and earbud cases into pulleys. They stretched balloons over cans to create trampolines. Each pod created a machine that moved an object at least three feet. The methods for moving the objects varied greatly, but each device the students created incorporated multiple simple machines.

The student activities culminated in a field trip to a local amusement park. The students had a blast visiting all of the attractions and simultaneously learned about the physics involved in each. At one point the students used multiple pulleys to rescue an instructor from an orchestrated emergency on the ropes course. They learned about the application of Newton's laws of motion on the go carts and roller coaster. The students even discovered physics concepts in a game of laser tag.

While the students were busy building confidence in their ability to do science as blind people, their parents got instruction from leaders of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and from blind adults. This happened in a series of panels in which parents were shown how to foster independence in their children. One panel explained that, when they were growing up, they wished their parents had known about blindness. The parents really opened up to the panelists and even asked important questions like how they could get their children to be more social and how a blind person could be a parent.

The parent instruction became more intense as experiential activities were introduced. During the discussion of orientation and mobility, parents participated in hands-on stations, where they learned nonvisual methods for travel. It was exciting when all the parents chose to don sleepshades during the entire session, rather than just at their stations. Parents practiced using canes and nonvisual techniques to walk around the building, carry trays to tables, climb stairs, and stow their long canes in both a car and a minivan. The sleepshade activity challenged the parents. At first they were hesitant about wearing them, but most confessed that they did it because they knew it would lead to an understanding of how to help teach nonvisual techniques to their children. This session was one of the most meaningful of the week.

Junior Science Academy students enjoy bumper boats.Parents also had the opportunity to share their experiences with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. During a session designed to help parents advocate for themselves and their children's needs, they discussed the problems in getting what their children need into the IEP and then in seeing that what is written is followed. Of course Braille was also an important topic of conversation. Parents learned about the benefits of enabling low-vision children to use Braille and learned about some of the research supporting this practice. They participated in experiential learning activities related to the literary and Nemeth Braille codes. During this session one of the parents who happened to have low vision himself and was not a Braille reader realized how valuable this skill could be for him in his own success and how important it is for him to learn Braille so he can be a role model for his low-vision son.

The parent sessions concluded with a cooking activity under sleepshades. During this session parents made Jell-O salads because the recipe incorporated a variety of skills: using a knife, measuring, pouring, and cooking using a stove. The children found this exciting and loved hearing that their parents were doing challenging things under sleepshades. They even enjoyed being the taste-testers who judged their parent's hard work.

Overflowing with excitement about their new-found knowledge of blindness and science, the students and parents shared their experiences with each other at the closing ceremonies. The children were charged with the task of creatively expressing what they had learned during the program. One of the most original ideas came from a group with two boys who used their bodies to show what they had learned about simple machines. To do this, they performed summersaults to represent the wheel, and one student lay in a push-up position while the other rolled a cane down his back to demonstrate an inclined plane.

Before the closing ceremony concluded, we sneaked in one last learning experience for the students. A large machine sat at the front of the room, inviting children and parents to ponder its purpose. Though participants developed theories, no one figured out why a crazy contraption was next to the podium. Finally, Professor Matt Maurer answered everyone's questions when he announced that one lucky pod would get to use the combined mechanical advantage of multiple pulleys to hoist President Maurer several feet in the air. Excitement rose at this announcement. The selected students took their position behind the hoist (a lift used in installing air ducts in large buildings), where they found a crank. Dr. Maurer sat in the chair in the front of the hoist. The students started cranking, and Dr. Maurer's feet left the floor. As the students cranked and Dr. Maurer's feet dangled over everyone's heads, the students wondered, "Can we raise him all the way to the ceiling? How many pulleys are in this hoist?" After raising him over twelve feet in the air, the students brought him safely to the ground, and everyone got to examine the pulleys hidden in the machine.

When it was the parents’ turn to share during the closing ceremony, one remarked that within the first two hours of their coming to the NFB, the staff of blind mentors had solved a problem she feared it would take her son some time to overcome. She had been worrying about how her son was going to learn to carry a tray in the cafeteria at his new school and whether the paraprofessional would be qualified and willing to teach him how to do it. Another empowered mother rejoiced in saying, "I came to this program with a visually impaired daughter; I am leaving with a blind daughter!"

Special thanks go to all of those who served as mentors and instructors during the two sessions of the program. We would like to recognize them for their hard work and dedication in helping to make our program a success:

Student Mentors: Mika Baugh (IN), Candice Chapman (MI), Mary Fernandez (NJ), Ashley Ritter (IN), Garrick Scott (GA), and Joe Shaw (TN).
Student instructors: Dr. Matt Maurer (IN), Nathanael Wales (CT), and Henry “Hoby” Wedler (CA).
Parent instructors: Kim Cunningham (TX), Denise Mackenstadt (WA), Dr. Ruby Ryles (LA), Carlton Walker (PA), and Laura Weber (TX).

We loved getting to know the thirty families who participated in the NFB Junior Science Academy, and we are anxious to see all the great things they will do in the coming years. To read more about this program or view pictures from the recent sessions, visit <www.blindscience.org>.


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