Braille Monitor                                                June 2013

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Natalie Shaheen Honored by her Alma Mater

Natalie ShaheenFrom the Editor: On April 19, 2013, Natalie Shaheen, director of education at the Jernigan Institute, was given an award by her alma mater, the Ohio State University. The College of Education and Human Ecology New Leader Award is presented to an EHE alum under the age of thirty-seven in recognition of significant early accomplishments in his or her profession. We share OSU’s admiration of Natalie and are delighted to showcase the praise people had for her. Reprinted here are several letters. The first is the letter nominating Natalie written by Dr. Tiffany Wild, a professor at OSU; then a letter of recommendation submitted by Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute; and then the letter confirming Natalie’s selection to receive this award. Last are Natalie’s own words, answering questions about what she’s done so far and how much more she plans to do to further the work she loves:

Nominating Letter from Dr. Tiffany Wild

Dear Members of the Alumni Awards Committee:

I am writing to offer my strongest recommendation for Natalie Shaheen to receive the New Leader Alumni Award offered by the College of Education and Human Ecology. I am acquainted with Ms. Shaheen through her time as a graduate student at the Ohio State University and more recently through the cutting-edge science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs she has facilitated at the NFB Jernigan Institute, at which I was able to conduct research.

Ms. Shaheen brings enormous energy, passion, and leadership to the educational programs that she directs, which serve thousands of blind and visually impaired children across the United States each year. In all of the programs she facilitates—particularly the STEM programs—Ms. Shaheen uses innovation and research-based pedagogy for engaging her students in learning, helping her students to realize that a visual impairment will not impede STEM education opportunities. She allows the curriculum to come alive and provides hands-on experiential learning not normally available to students with visual impairments. Merely adapting existing textbook-based curricula for learners who are blind or visually impaired is not enough. Ms. Shaheen brings the element of fun into STEM education.

Ms. Shaheen is committed to ensuring that all visually impaired children have access to high-quality learning opportunities. Numerous times I have called Ms. Shaheen, only to find her still at her desk well after her agency has closed, finishing a project or curriculum plan. She has also been known to take supplies home for a curriculum instructional activity she will be doing at the center with blind youth.

Ms. Shaheen is also very diligent in sharing the wisdom she gains from the programs she directs with fellow educators. She acts as a resource to and supports the work of the up-and-coming leaders in the field of blindness education—the fellows of the National Leadership Consortium in Sensory Disabilities. Ms. Shaheen has even offered her assistance to acquaintances in the field who train teachers of the blind and visually impaired abroad. Ms. Shaheen took it upon herself to provide current and pre-service teachers the opportunity to have live-feed chats about educational issues in the field of visual impairments from her home in the evenings outside of her standard workday. Students in the current OSU teacher preparation program in visual impairments have benefitted from that live-feed chat and have commented on how well it was executed by Ms. Shaheen.

Natalie Shaheen is a born leader. The best leaders know that one of the most valuable contributions they can make is to nurture the growth and development of the next generation of leaders. Understanding that the skills one needs to become a leader must be fostered from a very young age, Ms. Shaheen provides the youngest blind students—like those who attended her most recent STEM program—with the opportunity to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills by allowing students to direct their own learning. Ms. Shaheen models for her students the skills a good leader must possess and, perhaps most important, she shows the youth that her blindness does not impede her ability to make a difference.

Upon learning of this award, the first name to come to my mind was Ms. Natalie Shaheen. She embodies all aspects of the qualities of a new leader in our field. I feel Ms. Shaheen is an outstanding candidate for the New Leader Alumni Award. I believe she will continue to be a force for development in education. By recognizing her achievements to date, Ohio State will bring credit to the tremendous foundation it provides for the growth of leaders from diverse backgrounds who work with under-served populations. Please contact me if you would like additional information on Natalie Shaheen.


Tiffany Wild, PhD
Assistant Professor
Program in Visual Impairments Coordinator
Middle Childhood Math/Science Education
The Ohio State University

Letter of Recommendation from Mark Riccobono

Dear College of EHE Awards Committee:

I am writing in support of the nomination of Ms. Natalie Shaheen for the New Leader Alumni Award. For the past three-and-a-half years I have had the opportunity to work directly with Ms. Shaheen, observe her growth as well as her positive impact on others, gain inspiration from her passion and ideas, and enjoy her constant promotion of Ohio.

I first got to know Ms. Shaheen in the spring of 2009 when we hired her to work on a national demonstration project teaching Braille to blind students during the summer. It was immediately clear that her passion for education was not confined to the classroom. It carries through everything that she does. She is constantly seeking opportunities to improve her own learning as well as that of those around her. Ms. Shaheen’s initial work with us was under contract for the summer only. After observing her in action with students, we recognized that she would be a tremendous asset to our education team here at the NFB Jernigan Institute.

One unique attribute we discovered in Ms. Shaheen was her passion for the intersection of technology and education and the way the two could be effectively used together. She has a strong belief in the important role technology can play in the learning process and an appreciation for the role the educator needs to play in conjuction with the use of technology. Furthermore, Ms. Shaheen’s experience educating a variety of children in a variety of settings gives her a unique perspective on how to understand what is happening in a classroom.

Ms. Shaheen has taken that passion for education and technology and is building national programs that were previously unimagined. The 2009 pilot program that she participated in has now spread to eleven states with six [now eleven] more coming on board in 2013. Ms. Shaheen has been the primary leader of the program and its curriculum development, including finding innovative ways to promote and fund the program (not something that she was ever trained to do). When Ms. Shaheen is confronted with a challenge, she does not run from it. Rather she studies it and figures out the most effective ways to tackle it. In 2011 she was promoted to be director of education here at the NFB Jernigan Institute—the youngest person we have ever had in that position. She is quickly becoming the best director we have ever had (in full disclosure, I once had that position myself, but I am not ashamed to say that Ms. Shaheen brings skills and perspective I did not possess). Last year, despite personal health struggles that kept her out of the office a significant amount of time, she built and executed a new summer program that many educators told her could never work. NFB Project Innovation was a huge success and changed many lives.

Ms. Shaheen exemplifies a high standard of personal and professional integrity and excellence that any university should want to acknowledge. And she makes it very clear to everyone she meets where she received her education. Considering that Ms. Shaheen works with many young blind kids who have constantly been told that they can’t do this or that, her impact when she tells them they can and tells them she got her skills from OSU adds extra inspiration. I add this last note to bring up that Ms. Shaheen also possesses the characteristic of being humble. She understands that she has had opportunities because someone invested in her, and she takes every day as a chance to cultivate new opportunities to invest in others. Her impact is now felt across the country, but she will not be satisfied until she finds a way for every child to have the quality education she knows he or she deserves. It is not about her; it is always about the kids.

I believe Ms. Shaheen’s qualities are an example of what this committee seeks in a nominee. You will not be disappointed by selecting Ms. Shaheen, and I believe the university will gain tremendously from acknowledging the current and future achievements of this new leader.


Mark A. Riccobono, M.S.Ed
Executive Director, Jernigan Institute
National Federation of the Blind

Letter Confirming Selection for New Leader Award

Dear Ms. Shaheen,

It is my distinct honor to confirm in writing your selection for a College of Education and Human Ecology New Leader Award. This honor is presented to EHE alumni, age thirty-six or younger, for significant early accomplishments in business or professional life.

A nomination was submitted on your behalf by Dr. Tiffany Wild. One comment from your nomination that resonated with me states, “Ms. Shaheen uses innovation and research-based pedagogy for engaging her students in learning, helping her students to realize that a visual impairment will not impede STEM education opportunities. She allows the curriculum to come alive and provides hands-on experiential learning not normally available to students with visual impairments.”

The Hall of Fame reception, dinner, and induction ceremony will take place at the Blackwell Inn and Conference Center on April 19, 2013. The Blackwell is located on the Ohio State University campus at 2110 Tuttle Park Place. The reception will begin at 6:00 p.m., followed by dinner and the induction ceremony. Valet parking will be available.

At the induction ceremony you will be invited to make acceptance comments of approximately two minutes. In previous ceremonies this has been an extremely enjoyable time of storytelling about the inductees’ perspectives on their professions. Sean Thompson is coordinating the event. If you have any questions concerning the event, please feel free to call or email Sean. If he has not already done so, Sean will be contacting you to discuss planning for the ceremony.

I look forward to celebrating this honor with you on April 19th.

Cheryl Achterberg

In Her Own Words: Natalie’s Answers to the Award Committee Prompts

1. For the New Leader Award – Summarize what you consider to be your most significant accomplishments in your business or professional life or in service to our college.

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) will have an increasing impact on the world in which we live as today’s youth become tomorrow’s workforce. Consequently, all children should be provided with rich educational opportunities in these fields to foster the development of the skills that will eventually allow them to make life-changing contributions to science or to apply these valuable skills to analogous tasks in other disciplines. More and more, STEM education is being offered to our youth in formal and informal settings. Unfortunately—due to common misconceptions about blindness—blind and visually impaired children are not afforded the same opportunities as their sighted counterparts. The greatest accomplishment of my career to date has been the development and implementation of national multi-disciplinary STEM programs that serve blind and visually impaired youth in elementary through high school.

The 2010 NFB Junior Science Academy, the 2011 NFB Youth Slam, and NFB Project Innovation, held in the summer of 2012, have all carried forward the mission of the National Center for Blind Youth in Science: empower blind and visually impaired youth, through engaging learning opportunities and mentoring, to believe that vision is not a requirement for success in STEM. In these programs blind youth learn inquiry, design-thinking, problem-solving, and the alternative techniques needed to perform tasks in the lab nonvisually. The instructors who facilitate this learning are predominantly STEM professionals—who happen to be blind.

The impact of these programs does not stop at the hundreds of youth who have had the opportunity to attend; the knowledge that is developed through each program is disseminated to teachers, blind students, parents of blind children, and STEM professionals across the country. Therefore, when a university professor of biology who has a blind student in his class wants to know how the student can participate in dissections, he can capitalize on knowledge developed at the aforementioned programs. Likewise, when the advisor of a high school engineering club wants to know how the blind student in her club can precisely measure materials to be used in the construction of a bridge, she can draw from the knowledge base created by these programs.

The scientists who will develop the most progressive technologies in the next half century might be blind. Educational opportunities like the ones I develop and implement ensure that blind children do not dismiss a career in STEM for fear that the subject matter is too visual.

For New Leader Award Only – You are 36 years old or younger; what do you envision your impact or legacy to be?

It is my firm belief that the misconceptions that exist about blindness are the largest barrier to the success of blind children. These misconceptions, which are rooted in a lack of information, are widely held by people from every subset of society, including blind people themselves. It is challenging for society to understand how a person can complete a task without the use of vision and do so accurately. I want to retire with the knowledge that I effected change in societal attitudes about blindness.

As a teacher I know that the best tool for combating misguided beliefs is education. Through public educational outreach for the youngest to the oldest in our society, I will work to change the way the public views blindness. By providing rich educational opportunities that include mentoring from successful blind adults, I will empower blind youth to believe in their own abilities. By disseminating the knowledge created in programs I facilitate and by creating forums where teachers and parents can share their wisdom, I will raise the expectations parents and teachers have for our blind youth. If I can help the world come to know what I know about blindness, our blind children will know no barriers.

3. How did your OSU experience/roots impact your later accomplishments?

Born and raised in Columbus by an entire family of Ohio State University graduates, I was a Buckeye in spirit and values long before I enrolled in classes. My parents—both OSU alumni—instilled in me a love of learning, a love that was deepened by my experiences as a graduate student at Ohio State. I have fond memories of the learning I engaged in within the numerous libraries on campus, many of which occurred even before I graduated from high school. I learned early on from my parents that, if research was to be done, the Ohio State University was the place to go. Ultimately, I became a teacher because I loved learning, and most of all I loved learning with others. I believe that, to be a good teacher, one must be a lifelong learner.

But for Ohio State, I would not be a teacher of the blind and visually impaired. It was not my experience as a blind child that sparked an interest in teaching blind students; it was the coursework and practicum experiences that comprised my master’s program that helped me realize how much I enjoyed working with blind children. From middle school on I knew I would become a teacher, but, until I enrolled in the graduate program at OSU, I had no interest in working with blind students like me. I am forever indebted to the Ohio State University for helping me to realize my true calling.

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