Braille Monitor                                              June 2014

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The National Center for Blind Youth in Science: Expanding Accessible STEM Learning Opportunities for Blind Students, Parents, and Teachers

by Elizabeth Spann

Participants in last year’s STEM X work together to assemble a bridge.From the Editor: Elizabeth Spann is an educational program specialist at the Jernigan Institute and is the lead science educator on the recent grant received from the National Science Foundation. Here is what she has to say about an exciting new program it is helping to fund:

What do all of the top ten fastest-growing careers have in common? They all directly involve the knowledge and skills of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, twenty-one of the thirty fastest growing occupations directly require postsecondary education in one or more of the STEM fields. This means that the greatest opportunities for stable careers with good earning potential will require STEM education. If blind students are going to be successful in the competitive education and job markets, they will need early and consistent exposure to a wide variety of STEM learning opportunities.

With this in mind the NFB Jernigan Institute is expanding its work in accessible STEM education, having been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation–Advancing Informal STEM Learning (Grant No. 1322855). With this grant the NFB Jernigan Institute will be focusing on expanding informal STEM learning opportunities for the blind. The work done with this grant will expand the knowledge base of effective practices regarding STEM education for the blind. It will educate families, blind youth, future educators, and museum personnel about the techniques and tools used to engage blind youth effectively in informal and formal STEM settings. Finally, it will strengthen the digital resources for engagement of blind youth in STEM education.

As part of this grant the NFB is introducing NFB STEM2U, a new program beginning this fall. This program takes place at regional science centers and science museums around the country. In the initial year of the program (the 2014-2015 school year), NFB STEM2U will serve thirty blind high-school students and sixty blind elementary-school students in grades three to six, expanding their access to informal educational opportunities in STEM. This program will also involve ten teachers of the blind and visually impaired (TBVI).

The high-school student cohort will be referred to as “apprentices,” because they will function, not only as students in the program, but also as older peer leaders for the younger students. The upper-elementary cohort will be called the “juniors.” The apprentices will provide support and guidance to the younger students and have opportunities to use their developing leadership skills.

Prior to the regional NFB STEM2U programs, the thirty apprentices will participate in a weekend-long Leadership Academy. They will be trained as peer leaders and given training on how to share their knowledge and experience in blindness skills and education with younger students.

The regional NFB STEM2U programs to be held during the 2014-2015 school year of the grant will take place in Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; and Columbus, Ohio. Each of the programs will consist of two-and-a-half days of activities. On the first day apprentices and juniors will participate in hands-on inquiry-based learning challenges. On the second day they will get to explore all of the exciting learning opportunities the science museums have to offer.

The regional programs will provide opportunity for prospective TBVIs to gain additional hands-on experience in working with blind students in an informal science setting. This opportunity will help to inform them about ways to accommodate blind students in science and will also allow them to apply best practices.

While the apprentices and juniors are learning and exploring the museum, there will be seminars for parents to participate in, helping them to understand better how to advocate for their children’s science education and how to ensure that their children have adequate opportunity to explore the STEM fields.

All participants will be helping the museums to identify how to serve blind patrons better. The participating museums have expressed an eagerness to make their exhibits as universally accessible as possible. This will help to shape how these and other museums design their exhibits going forward.

In the summers of 2015 and 2016, there will be a week-long engineering design program for high school juniors and seniors who have already expressed a serious interest in pursuing STEM education and career pathways. The NFB Jernigan Institute will gather data from both the NFB STEM2U regional programs and the engineering design program and communicate this to educators and museum personnel around the country. We encourage parents of blind students and teachers of the blind and visually impaired to visit <www.blindscience.org> for more information and to apply.

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