by Chelsea Cook
From the Editor: Lately articles in the Monitor about education have been about difficulties getting class materials in accessible formats. We were thrilled to hear from Chelsea about a positive university experience, especially in a challenging degree program like physics. Chelsea is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and of the Writers Division. Chelsea was a 2010 scholarship winner, and she has this to say about her experiences pursuing her physics degree:
It was a rainy Friday evening—Halloween, in fact—and I was waiting for the bus to take me home, though I was not going to get ready for a party or put on a costume. I was not scared or disheartened by the weather but filled with adrenaline and optimism. I was heading straight to my computer to code an orbital mechanics problem. Getting to this point had not been easy; in fact, getting into this course had not been easy. In a basic space survey course in my freshman year, my favorite part had been the material on rockets: velocities, launch times, and the way payloads moved once in orbit. I loved the mathematical treatment and knew I wanted to investigate further. Someone said, "If you want to go deeper, study orbital mechanics." I remembered that phrase and continued with my physics degree. I kept checking the class schedule, but I always had a scheduling conflict and prerequisites I hadn't taken yet. The semester before my senior year I thought, if I wanted to take this mystical astromechanics course, I'd better get serious about it. I examined the prerequisites, and, although I hadn't taken the prescribed courses, I was well into my physics program and had mastered similar material. With the blessing of the Aerospace Department head, I was allowed to enroll.
Working with a new department on campus always fills me with some trepidation, but it turned out the instructor and I were a perfect match. He and I had the same learning style (visual/tactile), so he was able to spot areas in coursework where I might have trouble with a concept. Anticipating these, he would come up with solutions before I even knew there were problems. These solutions were often low-tech, demonstrating that keeping things simple is often valuable. Since English was not his first language, he wanted a way to communicate with me that would work well for both of us, and it turned out that tactile models were the key. He could use simpler vocabulary and have my hand exploring the model at the same time. What a winning combination.
The first model he made consisted of two pieces of cardboard taped together. Since satellite trajectories are naturally in three dimensions, having a model mimicking reality was crucial. The cardboard was oriented to simulate the two planes of a spacecraft's orbit, and creases in the material represented different vectors between important points. Most of this model-exploring was done during office hours, which came to be a sacred time for me. When the class began, my instructor initially thought that reading the equations aloud in class would be sufficient. When he realized this would take much more time, he needed another approach, so office hours worked to fill in the gaps. I had Braille notes, so I could follow along in class easily enough, but he said it was his "duty to teach you and the class the whole syllabus." Taking that to heart, he was receptive to my many inquiries, which often took us on interesting journeys outside of class and through the world of academia. In one session we could go from discussing course problems to pure geometry to real applications of spaceflight to how those applications were implemented to coding. The logic was often unpredictable and beautiful. The bond between student and master was strong. When grades fell away, knowledge remained, and the depths of that knowledge seemed limitless. That is why I eschewed social norms on Halloween and was so eager to run home and code a problem. It was me, my computer, my teacher, and my knowledge of physics—communing with the universe at large. I thought this must have been what it was like for the Greek scholars and tutors in the classical era.
This was not the first time I had experienced the pure joy of learning. In sophomore year I took an independent study in differential equations with a math instructor I'd worked with in freshman calculus. I had had bad experiences with calculus during high school, and this teacher gave me a huge confidence boost. So, when I started asking for assistance with differential equations, she was happy to help. When she found out the reason I was having trouble (getting the Braille book on time), she decided to help me act to change the situation. With a bit of help from the math department, I decided it was best to drop differential equations on the stipulation that I would have an independent study covering some math material, some visualization techniques for other courses, and a final "Best Practices for Instructors" paper. This all worked beautifully, and I learned more about differential equations that semester than when I had to take the course again the next term. Future-proofing was the goal, and it paid large dividends in my later physics courses. To this day I enjoy solving differential equations (ordinary or partial), and I attribute that to the instructor who took the time to teach me not only math but the joys and potentials of independent learning.
Future-proofing was also the goal in modern cosmology in my last semester. Because of a time conflict, this was also an independent study course; my professor knew I was thrilled about this. That Greek-scholar feeling returned every week as we explored the theoretical framework for the origins of the universe. He made sure I had Braille notes and a textbook to carry me to the future—graduate school. To me those volumes are worth their weight in gold—which, if you have experience with Braille, you know is quite a lot.
As graduation approaches, I am excited for the future but will never forget the people who have helped me accomplish this thing in my life called a physics degree: Braille Services at Virginia Tech, and all those professors and instructors who believed in me and went the extra mile to prove it. They often didn't do this just because of an accommodation request or administrative decree but because they saw an eager student ready to soak up what they offered; it was a challenge they rose to as well. Indeed, my favorite academic memories of college will probably not be of sitting in a lecture hall but of concentrating in a quiet, often small office, taking in knowledge about nature and conversing in the language of discovery and tactile toys.My philosophy for choosing college courses has always been, "If it's not challenging or interesting, why take it?" And I believe I have lived up to that motto. I've treated every course as a new adventure, a chance to take a plane for a test flight and see what it can show me about our world. Some flights I've taken are routine but always insightful; some flights find me flying around in a fog until that beacon called finals appears; some flights find me exploring little islands and caves that I might not return to, but it is great to know they exist. My absolute favorites, however, are those flights that go beyond the airplane, those that rocket off the ground and, whether theoretically or practically, take me to the realm of outer space itself.