Braille Monitor                                                 October 2012

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Charting Our Own Course
NFB Project Innovation

by Natalie Shaheen

Anil Lewis shows Matthew Duffel Hoffman how to use the nonvisual interface of the blind-drivable car.From the Editor: Since the NFB Jernigan Institute began conducting innovative educational programs for youth almost a decade ago, we have published wrap-up stories about the events that have stirred the imagination and left readers shaking their heads at the creativity and daring of the education team and the volunteers they recruit to help. Yet we have never before invited readers to watch the evolution of the ideas and activities that comprise these youth opportunities.

Natalie Shaheen, director of education at the Jernigan Institute, has solved this problem. She decided to keep a journal throughout the creation and execution of this summer’s youth program. What follows are excerpts from that journal. The glimpse into the process may not be as clear as observing Natalie and her team at work, but it is fascinating all the same. Here is what Natalie put together for us:

Traditionally, when children are in an educational setting, a few things about the structure are a given. First, the teacher determines what is going to be learned and then leads the children in the learning. Second, the children in the class or activity are all about the same age. These are common characteristics of education in the United States.

In the Federation we like to break the mold, try new things, and raise expectations. In NFB Project Innovation this summer that is exactly what we did. Instead of the teachers’ determining what was going to be learned and leading the process, the students took that role. Instead of one age group of students, we had two. We tried something new because we thought, based on what we know about the way children learn, that, if we changed a few traditional elements of education, the children would have a higher-quality learning experience. Excerpts from my Project Innovation Investigation Journal tell the story.

Investigation Journal Entry 1, October 11, 2011:

Description of Investigation: The NFB Jernigan Institute will facilitate a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program for twenty third- through sixth-grade students and ten high school students July 24 to 29, 2012. Students will design an inquiry-based investigation in an area of STEM that is interesting to them and conduct the investigation during the program. In addition to designing and conducting an investigation, the high school students will assist in mentoring the younger students.

Materials Needed for Investigation:

Hypothesis: A multi-age STEM program that incorporates student-initiated learning will produce students who are highly motivated and engaged in STEM content and have increased leadership and mentoring skills.


  1. For the ten weeks leading up to the program all thirty students will talk weekly with an educator from the NFB Jernigan Institute. The teachers will help guide the students through determining a STEM topic that is interesting to them, developing a measurable question, and designing their investigation.
  2. For the ten weeks leading up to the program, the students will maintain an investigation journal in which they will record their progress on the road to designing their investigation. Students will have the option of recording their investigation journal in hard copy, in an electronic document, as a podcast, or in a blog.
  3. Place students in Innovation Teams, each consisting of four Junior Innovators, two Senior Innovators, and one blind adult mentor.
  4. Develop a curriculum for the chaperone workshop taking place concurrently with student lessons during the program that will foster a positive attitude about blindness among the chaperones and provide the information they will need to raise their children to be successful blind adults.
  5. Develop independent experiments and optional chemistry and engineering activities that students can participate in during the program if they are at a point in their investigation where they are waiting for something, e.g., glue to dry or a reaction to happen).
  6. Bring everyone to the NFB Jernigan Institute.
  7. Let the learning and fun begin.
  8. Mourn the fact that everyone is leaving Baltimore to head back home, but rejoice in the fact that the Internet will allow us all to stay connected.

Investigation Journal Entry 2, April 23, 2012:

Kyle Beasley experiences the Mentos Project.We now know who is coming to the program. We have students from eighteen different states, ranging in age from seven to nineteen. We’ve put together ten independent experiments for the students to work on when they aren’t engaged with their investigations. These activities are diverse, including engineering challenges in which students will use gummy candy and toothpicks to create bridges and an experiment in which students drop Mentos into a two-liter bottle of soda to cause a huge eruption. Hopefully all of the students will find something of interest.

We have also designed four optional activities for the students to participate in if their investigation is at a stand-still. There are two optional chemistry activities—one for Junior Innovators and one for Senior Innovators—which involve eating Miracle Frooties, which change the way your taste buds work. Who knew chemistry was involved in eating! The optional engineering activity for the Junior Innovators is an engineering challenge in which students will try to use plastic cups to build the tallest tower they can. The Senior Innovators will also be tasked with an engineering challenge; but theirs will consist of using principles of physics and foam insulation tubing to create a rollercoaster for a marble. These optional activities will provide the students with glimpses into a few more STEM disciplines in addition to the disciplines they are studying in their investigations.

Investigation Journal Entry 3, May 13, 2012:

Braiden Lee builds a candy bridgeThis week we began weekly calls with the thirty Innovators. The students—especially the Junior Innovators—are shier on the phone than I had anticipated. In order to learn with them over the phone, I’m going to have to come up with some ways to get them warmed up before we start talking about Project Innovation. This week we’re asking the students to decide what format they are going to use for their Investigation Journals. We’ve given them many choices: hard copy, electronic file, podcast, and blog. We have also asked them to think of five things they might want to study. The only restriction is that it has to fall into the category of STEM. When talking with the students, I reminded them that sometimes even things that don’t seem like they are related to science have a STEM component. The example I gave, because I like sports, is that a lot of engineering and experimenting has to happen to make high-quality sports equipment. I wonder how many different topics the thirty kids will end up studying. Will any of them pick the same topic? Will one discipline be more popular than the others? If so, which one will it be?

Investigation Journal Entry 4, May 25, 2012:

The students have now identified the area of STEM they want to study, and they are beginning to work on their measurable question or engineering design specifications. One of the senior innovators wants to build a prototype of a space elevator. One of the Junior Innovators wants to do an investigation around the science of ice cream. The students are keeping track in their Investigation Journals of what they are learning.

Investigation Journal Entry 5, June 25, 2012:

All of the students have measurable questions now. They include:

Students are now developing their step-by-step plans or procedures for their investigations. They will be turning in the list of materials they will need to perform their investigations very soon. Once the students have completed their step-by-step plans and materials lists, they are ready to come to NFB Project Innovation and conduct their investigations. It is extraordinary to watch the students move through the process of preparing for their investigations. We have some intriguing youth coming to this program; I can’t wait to meet them in person and observe their learning firsthand.

Investigation Journal Entry 6, July 9, 2012:

Everyone has turned in their materials list. Now it’s time to do some frantic shopping. We have two students doing investigations of hovercrafts, but otherwise everyone is investigating something different. Consequently we have diverse materials to buy. Here is a sample of our shopping list.

Investigation Journal Entry 7, July 16, 2012:

With the exception of a few last-minute items, we’ve got all of the materials the students have requested. It’s time to start sorting through the dozens of shopping bags and placing each student’s requested items on the tables. I wonder how many students will find, when they start working on their investigations, that they should have asked for additional items. I suspect we will be doing a few shopping runs during the program.

Investigation Journal Entry 8, July 23, 2012:

The volunteers arrived today. Our team is now assembled, and we’re ready to work and learn with the program participants. Tomorrow we will spend the morning going over logistics as a team. After lunch the Senior Innovators will start arriving. This is going to be so much fun!

Investigation Journal Entry 9, July 25, 2012:

Matt Pettiet and Mark Meyers use their canes to find rocks for crossing a stream.The program has officially started. We have all of the students and chaperones in the building. Folks came from as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico. The Senior Innovator who came from Alaska took three planes to get here and traveled independently the whole way; she is going to be a great role model for the Junior Innovators. I am curious to see how the Senior Innovators take to their roles as mentors to the Junior Innovators. Yesterday during an activity where the Senior Innovators were learning about mentoring and how to be a good mentor, some of them expressed their concern that they aren’t naturally good with kids. I think the Senior Innovators are underestimating themselves; I’m glad we were able to provide them with an opportunity to be mentors and leaders.

This evening we had a welcome and kick off. After some inspiring remarks from President Maurer and Mark Riccobono, the chaperones and Innovators went their separate ways. The chaperones had an opportunity to introduce themselves and mingle while the students had a little fractal fun—an activity in which students used six index cards to create a box, which was then connected with other boxes to create a bigger box, demonstrating the mathematical principle of a fractal.

Investigation Journal Entry 10, July 26, 2012:

Today—the first full day of the program—was awesome. The students spent the morning in innovation time working on their investigations. The Senior Innovators got a jump start on their investigations Wednesday before the other students arrived, so they were able to step in and help the Junior Innovators when they got stuck or had questions. The Junior and Senior Innovators spent the afternoon in separate activities. Both groups had lessons on nanoscience, a STEM subject often not covered in the standard K-12 science curriculum. Each group also participated in a philosophy lesson. The younger students talked about the characteristics of successful blind people and then used craft supplies and Braille labels to decorate a large paper person to symbolize the characteristics discussed. The Senior Innovators watched a humorous video about some of the random comments sighted people frequently pose to blind people. Then they discussed the various ways they could respond to the comments, keeping in mind that they may be the only blind person that sighted person ever interacts with.

Tammayah Jordan is lifted by Julianna Lee’s hover craft.The chaperones also had a full day of learning. They learned about the programs and resources available to their families through the NFB Jernigan Institute. Dr. Schroeder offered remarks for the group about skills and confidence, the foundation for success. Two panels of blind adults covered things they wish their parents had known and discussed the fact that blind people can compete on terms of equality in STEM careers. The chaperones wrapped up their day with a hands-on nonvisual cooking activity.

The learning didn’t stop at 5:00 o’clock. The Junior Innovators and their chaperones headed to the Inner Harbor for a night on the town. This provided parents and students an opportunity to implement some of what they had learned during the day about independence. Senior Innovators spent the evening hiking at a local park. The outdoor learning experience started with some advice from experienced blind hikers about alternative techniques that are helpful on the trail. A few of the students had never hiked before, and they were a bit tentative about the unpredictable terrain. In the end, however, everyone had a great time, and those who were hesitant at first gained confidence as they successfully navigated obstacles on the trail.

Investigation Journal Entry 11, July 27, 2012:

Kemuel Perez explores a tunnel at the Columbus Center.We just wrapped up another jam-packed day of learning. Students had another block of innovation time; their investigations are coming along well. Bridges and hovercraft are taking shape, and some lovely pieces of fruit are well on their way to becoming batteries. One student is problem-solving why the ice cream maker isn’t working properly. Another student, who is designing a tactile graphics tablet, is already on his third prototype. The theme of today was creative problem solving. The students are learning firsthand that in STEM things don’t always happen the way you anticipated, and, when you come up against a barrier, you have to rethink your plan. These lessons are valuable far beyond the walls of the STEM classroom.

In addition to innovation time, the students participated in various other experiments and activities. Both the Junior and Senior Innovators had their optional engineering challenges today. The Junior Innovators also did a materials science lab, in which they combined ingredients to make new toys and then determined which toy they thought would be most marketable. The younger students also learned about the characteristics of fingerprints by examining enlarged tactile images of their very own fingerprint. Senior Innovators investigated whether or not a variety of foods had antimicrobial properties. By exposing the students to these activities in addition to their investigation, we provide the students with a broader view of STEM and the various alternative techniques used in those disciplines.

All of the Innovators had the chance of a lifetime today to get up close and personal with the NFB Blind Driver Challenge car and to talk in small groups with blind drivers Mark Riccobono and Anil Lewis. The students even got to sit in the driver’s seat of the car and test the nonvisual interfaces. I’m quite jealous; I’ve not yet had that opportunity myself.

Ethan Solano works at the lab at the Columbus Center.The Innovators topped off their day with a field trip to a rock-climbing gym, where they did lots of problem solving. Several of the climbing walls had overhangs and obstacles on the wall that the students had to figure out how to get around. We didn’t realize until we got to the gym that several of our Junior Innovators are part monkey. They practically sprinted up the walls. One of the students who ended up being a natural climber had resisted the idea of going climbing. He had never done such a thing and wasn’t really interested in trying; but, when we got to the gym and the energy level was high, he gave it a try, and not more than thirty seconds later he was at the top of the wall, eager to come down so he could try another wall.

The chaperones’ day was fast-paced as well. They learned about problem solving and structured discovery through a variety of hands-on cane travel activities. They now know how their children will be able to stow their new long white canes on the airplane or in a car, how to carry a tray and use a cane at the same time, and much more. Advocacy and the IEP process were also a part of the chaperones’ discussions today. The chaperones are gaining confidence as they soak up valuable information.

Investigation Journal Entry 12, July 28, 2012:

Today we wrapped up NFB Project Innovation with a bang. The day started with the last session of innovation time. Students concluded their investigations and tabulated their data. They spent time deciding what they were going to show off at the Innovation Expo—an open house later in the day where chaperones, Federationists, and members of the public would come to learn from the students.

In the afternoon the Innovators had a blast experimenting with liquid nitrogen under the direction and supervision of instructor Hoby Wedler. After freezing an assortment of items from carnations to balloons, students tossed objects across the room and listened with delight to them shatter all over the floor. We found out that making a mess is tremendous fun, and you can learn a lot in the process.

By far the highlight of the day was the Innovation Expo. Students stood by their tables and explained in detail to visitors the investigation they had planned, what actually happened, and their conclusions. You could hear the pride in the children’s voices as they taught the adults all about STEM. The chaperones were also proud of what their students had been able to accomplish under their own direction. One parent came running up to me and said, “See, I knew my son was bright and had the ability to learn. The school just doesn't believe in him.” After the expo one Senior Innovator pulled me aside and said, “Natalie, I am so proud of myself for doing this. I mean I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it on my own; but I did, and my project turned out even better than I had expected.”

As I walked around to learn from each student at the Innovation Expo, I asked everyone the same question. What is the coolest thing you learned from doing this investigation? The responses were a bit varied, but two common themes emerged. The students liked learning about problem solving and overcoming the unexpected. They also learned that, when they get to make decisions about their own learning, it is much more interesting. One student told me that, if the teachers had decided what she was going to learn about, they probably would have picked something boring like butterflies!

Investigation Journal Entry 13, July 29, 2012:

Based on my observations, I think we proved our hypothesis. It was amazing to me how engaged the students were in the learning that was available to them in this program. They almost never needed reminders about where they were supposed to be or what they were supposed to be doing. I believe they were so engaged because they were driving the learning. They chose the topic of their investigation, and, when they weren’t working on their investigations, they chose the independent lab or optional activity that they wanted to participate in.

The Senior Innovators—some of whom didn’t think they were good at working with kids—really stepped up to the plate. They encouraged the Junior Innovators when they were frustrated that a part of their investigation hadn’t work out. They helped guide the Junior Innovators in finding answers to their questions without providing the answer. Perhaps most important, they modeled good blindness skills and a positive attitude about blindness for their younger counterparts.

Like the Innovators, we learned a lot by doing our investigation—NFB Project Innovation. We had to do a great deal of problem solving too. What do you do to build rapport with students when they are shy about talking on the phone and you live thousands of miles from them? What do you do when the motors one of the students needs to build his space elevator is stuck on a boat coming from China and won’t come in until after the program?


When telling people about our plans for NFB Project Innovation, we often got the response, “Why? That seems like a lot of extra work.” The Federation is made of people who take charge and are in control of their own lives. We don’t sit around and wait for people to tell us what to do; we make things happen. We want the same for our young blind children. Our motivation for creating a program around student-initiated learning was twofold. First, we hypothesized that it would create a higher-quality learning experience. Second, we wanted to empower our blind students to take charge of their learning and by doing so realize that they can take charge of their lives.

We will continue to look for opportunities to incorporate student-initiated learning in our youth programs in addition to providing environments in which students of all ages can teach and learn together. If you are organizing a youth program in your affiliate, you might consider incorporating these two elements to enhance your effort. If you’d like ideas about how to do so, contact Natalie Shaheen at <> or (410) 659-9314, extension 2293.

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