by Natalie Shaheen, Joseph Heimlich, Arianna Benally, Frances Hammond, Cricket Bidleman, and Salvador Villa
From the Editor: What we say about blindness is significantly different from what others say about it, but what we do to give credence to our words is what changes people’s lives, what makes them better, and what sets them free. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in our programs for young people. What follows is a panel discussion introduced and guided by Natalie Shaheen. As you read these remarks, consider how life might have been different for you had there been a STEM2U program when you were young enough to have benefited from it. This was a treat to behold, and hopefully we can bring it to life in these pages. Enjoy:
As a kid I really liked math, and I was pretty good at it too. In high school I took extra math just for fun, and I loved it! Science class, on the other hand, wasn't as interesting to me in my freshman and sophomore years. I found the subject matter rather straightforward and the pace of the classes too slow; I was bored because I wasn't challenged. In my junior year I decided to take advanced chemistry, hoping for more of a challenge. Well, ask and you shall receive.
Chemistry presented a significant intellectual challenge, one that, at the time, I felt was beyond me. I put 110 percent into chemistry class, but I could never quite grasp the concepts. I ended up getting a C in that class, one of two Cs I have received in my entire educational career. I was devastated. It sounds sort of goofy, but, for sixteen-year-old-perfectionist Natalie Shaheen, the bad chemistry grade was traumatic. I left that class angry, embarrassed, and fed up with science. I concluded that I just wasn't smart enough for hard sciences.
It wasn't until I came to work for the National Federation of the Blind and was assigned to make a wide variety of STEM subjects accessible for blind students that I realized what had happened in chemistry class all those years ago: in chemistry I didn't do the experiments. In order for me to see what I was doing, I would have had to get dangerously close to toxic substances and fire. The teachers, of course, didn't want me to get hurt. They didn't know how I could do chemistry if I couldn't see what I was doing. And I certainly didn't have any answers for them. I couldn't even phone a blind friend to ask for advice—I didn't have any blind friends. I didn't have a community of practice of blind people who could help me figure out how to do science nonvisually.
So I suffered through chemistry class as the notetaker for my group, trying to understand the content without having full access to the activities. The C that I received in chemistry did not, as I once thought, reflect my lack of capacity for doing chemistry; rather, it reflected my lack of access to the subject matter.
Thanks to the work of the National Federation of the Blind, today blind high school students have a community of practice of blind people who can share wisdom and advice about how to do all kinds of STEM subjects nonvisually.
Well what exactly is a community of practice? So as not to bore you with the long academic definition, I'll give you the twitter-style definition—140 characters or fewer. Is it possible? A community of practice is a group of people who organize themselves, share information, and apprentice novices to become experts.
Our community of practice, the National Federation of the Blind, organized itself in 1940. To this day we share information and advice with each other about how to be successful in the world, and we apprentice novice blind people to become expert blind people. Though we do not commonly use the term apprenticeship, we practice apprenticeship every day in the Federation. If you all will help me, we can demonstrate the prevalence of apprenticeship in our organization. Are you all listening? Alright.
If you have been mentored by an older, more experienced blind person in the Federation, say "aye." [Many affirm they have.] If you have mentored a younger less experienced blind person who was just entering the Federation, say "aye." [Again a significant response from the crowd is heard.] That's our community of practice, all over this banquet hall and all over the country.
My first mentor in the Federation was Dr. Larry Streeter, who is unfortunately no longer with us [Applause for the work and dedication of Larry Streeter]. That's right—give it up for Dr. Streeter. Today I am mentored by numerous people in the Federation, including President Riccobono. Just as more experienced blind people mentor me, I, in turn, mentor the young blind students who walk into my classroom or bump into me out in the world. That's how a community of practice works, that's how the Federation works, and that is why this organization is such a powerful resource for blind students of all ages.
As you listen to the other speakers on this panel today, take note of how our community of practice is referenced both explicitly and implicitly. All of the speakers on this panel have participated in one way or another in our National Center for Blind Youth in Science programs, which are currently funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. This three-year grant is comprised of three intertwined components. The first component is our regional STEM programs, called NFB STEM2U, which serve blind students, parents of blind children, and teachers of the blind. The second component is NFB EQ, a weeklong advanced engineering program for blind high school students. The third and final component involves working with six science museums across the country to increase accessibility for blind visitors. Today our speakers represent each of those three components of the grant.
Our first speaker is Dr. Joseph Heimlich, the executive director of the Center for Research and Evaluation at COSI and the principal researcher at Lifelong Learning Group. Dr. Heimlich has donned many hats as a part of this project. He has been a great advisor with respect to navigating the museum world, and he has been a tremendous resource as our external evaluator, giving us advice about how to make our programming even more effective. Here is Dr. Heimlich.
Joseph Heimlich: Thank you, Natalie. As President Riccobono said yesterday, this program is exciting, it's innovative, and it's powerful. My role and my team's role in this project is a fun one: we get to help the National Federation of the Blind succeed. Our goal—our role—is to make sure that the good programs get even better and that we can give critical feedback and watch how Natalie and her team turn that into better and better programming for the benefit of the youth.
There are several things we've learned on this project; one of them is that these programs are working. They're working for the youth, they're working for the parents, they're working for the educators, and they're working for the museums. One major learning is that the NFB is strongly committed to STEM learning, and this is important for the National Science Foundation. And finally, we're learning that parents want and need tools to help their children do science at home.
So I'm going to take just a moment and make you do some work for me. I want you to take one minute and talk to the people next to you, and identify three reasons why you think these programs are important. You've got one minute; go [audience starts talking].
All right, so what are some of the reasons these kinds of programs are important? Shout them out. Equity, education—shout loud, I'm deaf—yes, career choices, problem-solving, empathy, raising expectations—absolutely, these programs are doing all of those things and more. Oh man, that's a big one, learning about themselves and who they are.
What we are seeing—number one thing we're seeing—is an increase in confidence in the youth, a discovery of what they can do and how they can do it and how they can be engaged in making their own decisions for the future.
A second is an exposure to skills. They've not been given, in many cases, the opportunities to manipulate, to learn tactilely and haptically around these various issues. And finally they're receiving tools to help them perform in the classroom and beyond.
Most STEM we learn, and almost all the STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—we use, we do not use in the classroom. We use them in daily life. This means that museums and other informal organizations also need the support to work with youth who are blind and blind adults. This program is taking the traditional educational approaches used in blind education into museums and beyond, where we are seeing a transformation. The reason is that access and accessibility is the real issue for a lot of these youth in science. We're seeing that these are amazing young people who really need the opportunity to succeed, and this program, and programs like this in the future, will continue to give them opportunities to succeed [applause].
Natalie Shaheen: Thanks, Dr. Heimlich. Next up is Arianna Benally, one of our younger blind students. She participated in two NFB STEM2U programs. At NFB STEM2U Phoenix, Arianna told me she was writing a story about our program for her school newspaper. Now she's going to share her story with us! Let's give it up for Ari:
Arianna Benally: Hello. My name is Arianna Benally. I'm eleven years old and going into the sixth grade. I went to two NFB STEM2U programs. STEM means science, technology, engineering, and math. We did a lot of engineering. Engineering taught us to make something new with recyclables. It inspired us to build and imagine.
At the NFB STEM2U program in Columbus, Ohio, the museum was called COSI. COSI has exhibits about the human body, the ocean, and electricity. One exhibit was a timeline from when we did not have electricity until present day when we have a lot of electronics. COSI was a lot of fun!
I met a lot of kids in Columbus, and we built many projects together. We built racers, brush bots, and a flash-card tower. I learned that even though a person is visually impaired or blind, they can still build anything [applause]. I also learned how to work in a group. With our parents' help, we tried to build the tallest tower out of big blue blocks. My group won. These activities helped me learn more about STEM.
At the NFB STEM2U program in Phoenix, Arizona, the museum was called the Arizona Science Center. That museum has exhibits about the human body. One exhibit was about a woman having a baby. Another exhibit was about the wind. In that exhibit you had to stand on a platform, and you could feel the wind and see the lightning. The Arizona Science Center was interesting.
We built racers and a flash-card tower. Making these things made me use my creativity. We also played with big blue blocks. We pretended to build a machine. It was fun and imaginative. With our parents, we learned how the digestive system works. The museum brought out a bowl with food in it. We smashed the food with a potato masher, which is like our teeth chew food. Then we put the mashed food in a plastic baggie, which was like our stomach. The museum brought out tubes that were the same size as the small and large intestines. We got to look at them. Finally, we learned what happens to our food [what it turns into] after we digest it. It was gross! The program was fun, creative, and it helped me to understand that I can do and accomplish anything, even though I am blind.
So, there you have it. Now you know that the NFB STEM2U program is great for children and their parents. Blind people can accomplish anything. It is great to be connected with the National Federation of the Blind because their programs help us live the life we want.
Natalie Shaheen: Thanks, Ari. Francis Hammond is Arianna's mother, a board member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and an NFB STEM2U parent participant. Francis is going to tell us what it was like to be a parent at the program. Here is Francis:
Frances Hammond: Thank you, Natalie. My eleven-year-old daughter Arianna and I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We have been members of the NFB of New Mexico since 2012, and since then I have been in awe over the amazing work you have been doing to support each other and blind adults and children across the country. With the support of the NFB, our NFB of New Mexico, and our Parents of Blind Children of New Mexico, we were given the opportunity to attend two of the NFB STEM2U programs. We attended the program in Columbus, Ohio, at the Center of Science of Industry in May of 2015, and we attended the Phoenix, Arizona, program at the Arizona Science Center in November of 2015.
I learned leaps and bounds about how to make science, technology, engineering, and math more accessible for Arianna. I tried to make our attendance at the Columbus program a learning experience from the beginning, because Arianna and I had never been to Ohio before, and we had never traveled alone with each other before. I let her guide me through the airports, which she quickly found is not always an easy task. She found out that rather than roam around aimlessly to read signs too small for her to read, she had to ask for help—this was a big step for her. Then we had our first ride in an Uber. These small, simple transportation details are steps that Arianna had never taken before. We were learning leaps and bounds, and we had not even arrived at the NFB STEM2U program yet.
When we arrived at the hotel for the program, we met our facilitators and other parents and children from across the country who, like us, were searching for ways to make the STEM fields more accessible for our blind children. We all came from very different experiences in regard to our children's educations. Over the course of the next couple of days I heard about instances where services for blind students were extremely limited and examples of technology not being accessible to blind students. I learned that it is a struggle for our students to be as proficient as their sighted peers, simply because of accessibility issues. I also learned how blessed Arianna has been to have blind teachers who are NFB members for four of the five years she was in elementary school. The NFB and the NFB philosophy make a difference in accessibility for our children.
At the Columbus program, we learned about advocacy and what tools are available to blind children in the STEM fields. We talked about our children's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and how much of an impact they have on a child's education. We were given a crash course on ways to make tools in the STEM field more accessible. We learned about how to use tactile calipers and how to tactilely mark a plastic milliliter syringe for measuring. We were shown an audio pen/book combination that could read the periodic table and all of the information it displays. Dr. Cary Supalo showed us his wonderful talking LabQuest that makes taking measurements in a scientific setting as accessible as accessible can be. I was surprised that I had never even heard of any of these tools before, and I was grateful that the NFB had put the STEM2U program together to help us sighted parents understand more about accessibility issues.
Before the program I thought I had a good understanding of what Arianna needed, but I was amazed at the wealth of information I had received. After the program Arianna and I went home with a new outlook on what Arianna's education would look like. I started wondering about her future. Then we heard about another NFB STEM2U program much closer to home in Phoenix. I was overjoyed because the proximity meant that my husband Bryce could attend. I had originally planned for him to take her alone, but I could not resist another weekend of attending an NFB program—after all, this is why we're Federationists. We were able to drive to Phoenix, and upon our arrival, I was expecting the program to mirror the Columbus program. I was excited to learn that a fellow National Organization of Parents of Blind Children board member, Pat Renfranz and her husband Dave had come to facilitate most of the parents' activities. Pat and Dave are scientists, and learning from them was a much different experience because they have a deeper understanding of the STEM fields. Bryce and I were in for a long weekend of learning.
For this program we were asked to bring Arianna's latest IEP. We talked about IEP advocacy, and then we really delved into the IEP and what should be in it. We were told to highlight words like technology, science, math, and measure. Our IEP was the most highlighted in the whole room. This meant that our IEP team must be doing a good job, but there were other IEPs that were less than adequate. I am thankful that the NFB shed light on this problem through the STEM2U program. Now there are so many more informed parents out there who can more effectively advocate for their child's educational needs.
As the program continued I once again found myself with inadequate knowledge of how to make things more accessible for Arianna. Pat and Dave gave us specific examples of how to make science accessible. I had never considered how to explain lunar cycles, the relative size of planets in our solar system, or the distance between planets to our daughter. Pat and Dave showed us how. We used a very long piece of string and beads to show the relative distances between planets. Using this method, it was easy to deduce that Mercury, Venus, and Earth are much closer in distance than Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Then we were paired in teams of two to tour the Arizona Science Center, armed with different tools to make the museum more accessible to our blind children. At each exhibit one partner would wear sleepshades while their partner would explain the exhibit to them while using some of the tools to make it more tactilely accessible. One of the tools we found most useful was the Sensational BlackBoard. We were able to use it to sketch a tactile representation of an exhibit. Bryce and I took turns. We learned more about the dynamics of helping our daughter get the most out of future trips to museums than we ever had before.
The NFB STEM2U programs educated us in the importance of making the STEM fields more accessible for Arianna to succeed in her future educational endeavors. I am thankful that the NFB shared with us how to approach accessibility issues within the STEM fields. Now I know that even though she has had great NFB teachers, I still need to raise my expectations of her educational needs in the future. This coming year Arianna will not be assigned a full-time teacher of the visually impaired because she is starting middle school. All of her teachers will be sighted. I am worried about how they will help make things accessible for Arianna, but I know that I can help where they lack. The NFB STEM2U program has given us knowledge that we would not have obtained otherwise. Thank you NFB for providing a program that empowers parents with the knowledge to help their children succeed in the future [applause].
Natalie Shaheen: Thanks, Frances. Cricket Bidleman was an apprentice in our NFB STEM2U San Francisco program and a participant in NFB EQ 2015. She is going to share her NFB EQ experience. Here's Cricket:
Cricket Bidleman: Good morning, fellow Federationists. I'm Cricket Bidleman, a twelfth grader from Morro Bay, California, and I am incredibly honored to have the opportunity to share my experiences with the National Center for Blind Youth in Science initiative regarding the National Federation of the Blind Engineering Quotient program. A man named Edward Prescott once said, "The only man who can change his mind is a man who's got one." This is true, but how much impact can just changing one's mind really have?
Before ninth grade I thought about a career in law. Since then, however, and no offense to the lawyers out there, I have wanted to go into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, also known as STEM. The only problem was that I didn't think such a career would be practical due to my blindness. That all changed after I attended NFB EQ.
After arriving at the Jernigan Institute—having flown independently for the first time—I met nineteen other blind high schoolers. I was then assigned to a team with three other students. After everyone had been split into teams, each group was given a marshmallow, dry spaghetti noodles, a paper bag, string, and a piece of tape. We were challenged to make the tallest structure possible, using only the materials we had. My group taped the tips of our canes to the ground in a square, then stood them all upright and tied the paper bag over the handles to keep them together—imagine a square pyramid kind of shape. Then, we put the marshmallow on top and waited for the verdict. Though we did stretch the rules just a little, our creativity had allowed us to make the tallest structure, using only the materials we had. I do want to point out that no one said anything about using only the materials we were given.
The next day, we began our project, which took four days to complete. Each group constructed a boat and oars out of PVC pipes, wood, a tarp, and duct tape—and they weren't those little model boats that people put on shelves and forget about. We learned safety techniques for using drills, saws, and other tools. We also learned to make charcoal water filters out of recyclable materials, and each group was responsible for designing their own filter. At the end of the week, we raced the boats in the nearby reservoir. Thankfully, all of them floated, and although my team did not win the race, we did our best and learned a lot about engineering in the process, and in the end we won the award for the best filter design [applause].
The NFB EQ program taught me a lot. I learned independent travel skills by navigating multiple airports. I learned about the engineering process, about water filtration, and about how to use sharp tools safely. Most of all, the program developed my passion for the STEM field.
As I mentioned earlier, Edward Prescott once said, "The only man who can change his mind is a man who's got one." I changed my mind in ninth grade and am now interested in going into some area of the STEM field. However, just changing my mind was not enough. At the National Federation of the Blind Engineering Quotient program, I was able to gain the experience that allowed me to realize that science is a practical career for me and that with certain techniques I can be just as independent as my sighted peers. In other words, NFB EQ taught me that I can live the life I want. Thank you, NFB [applause].
Science, technology, engineering, and math is so much more than numbers and equations. STEM is about sharing how each person's individual perspective allows them to see and explain the world differently. As a blind person I definitely see things differently, and thanks to NFB EQ, I now have the courage to share my perspective. And this is why we need more programs like NFB EQ—to inspire blind youth to pursue careers in STEM and to give young blind people the skills and confidence to share their perspective with the world [applause]. Thank you.
Natalie Shaheen: Thanks, Cricket. Salvador Villa just participated in NFB EQ 2016, and he was an apprentice at NFB STEM2U Phoenix. Sal is going to tell you what it was like to be an apprentice at NFB STEM2U.
Salvador Villa: Good morning, my Federation family. How are you all doing this morning? My name is Salvador Villa, but everybody calls me Sal. I am from McAllen, Texas, and I will be a senior in high school this upcoming August.
Last fall I participated in the NFB STEM2U program. At the program I learned leadership skills, had the opportunity to mentor younger students, make friends from different parts of the country, and travel across the country to new places.
The aspect of the program that was most meaningful to me was being an apprentice at my regional program in Phoenix, Arizona. I enjoyed this part of the program the most because I was able to use the leadership skills I have gained from working in the NFB of Texas BELL Academy and put into practice the new skills I learned at the NFB STEM2U Leadership Academy in Baltimore.
When I was a kid, many people helped and mentored me. Being an apprentice at STEM2U allowed me to finally give back to my community. To me, nothing feels greater than watching a child be successful and reach their goals, and NFB STEM2U gave me a firsthand experience of this feeling.
In this program I was in charge of a small group of children, and my job was to mentor them as they learned about science. I remember teaching them different cane skills as we walked around the museum looking at exhibits they were interested in. I was also able to share my story on what I have done in order to reach my goals and give them advice on how they can reach their goals.
I am thankful and grateful that I was given the privilege to be a part of NFB STEM2U, and I hope that other teenagers like me can have the same experience I had last November. [Music begins] Yo, this one goes out to the NFB of Texas, my mentors Daniel Martinez, Michael Ausbun, and Jared Nylin.
[Rapping]Check it November 5th through 8th 2015
Phoenix Arizona was the place to be
I was an apprentice at STEM2U
Mentoring young blind children was all I had to do
Watching them be successful while working together
They thanked me for everything, and I couldn't've felt better
Making wine glasses ring was pretty cool
I say it's like jumping into an ice cold pool
We learned about fossils and the anatomy of starfish
I remember someone said that they smelled like their goldfish
Walking with our canes and looking at exhibits
I remember telling them that the sky is the limit
Not everything was all fun and games
Eventually, leadership came into play
Thank you [applause, cheers]
Natalie Shaheen: How about these kids? Our last presentation is a virtual presentation of sorts. We had participants from all of our NCBYS programs send in tweets about their experience, and we pulled a selection of them together to share with you. Here is our spoof on the Jimmy Kimmel skit "celebrities read mean tweets."
Anil Lewis reads and inserts some of his own comments into these tweets; his comments are in parenthesis:
@CuriousKid: At the Museum of Science in #Boston, I picked fake boogers out of a really huge model of a nose in the Hall of Human Life. :) #Yucky (absolutely) #STEM
@ProudMama: (It's a great handle) Overheard my son saying, "I want to be more independent at home." (big mistake, Kid) That spoke volumes to me. (I'm sure it did.) #Grateful #AwesomeOpportunity #NCBYS (And I'll add #NowYou’llHaveToMakeUpYourBedAllByYourselfAllTheTime. Good luck.)
President Riccobono reads: @ScientistSarah: I asked a child at NFB STEM2U #Bmore to watch the experiment... "don't forget, I'm blind!"
@apprenticeSTEM2U: piano keys on the floor, 'Do Re Me,' give me more! #science museum #NCBYS
@aoates: Favorite overheard #Exploratorium #STEM2U moment: "I'm having so much fun, I'm forgetting about growing up! Does this make you forget about growing up?"
Anil narrates: @allieykatt13: Dissecting starfish was amazingly spongy at Arizona Science Museum #NCBYS #STEM2U (I just learned something; starfish are spongy.)
@DuctTapeKing: I used 10 million rolls of #DuctTape to build my boat at NFB EQ #Engineering #STEM (Hopefully that was an over exaggeration of the amount of duct tape.)
President Riccobono narrates: @PatriotsFan29: All the boats floated! #WeDidIt #OhSnap #WeAreAwesome
@nlshaheen: 2 years, 6 states, 11 programs, 400 participants (students, parents, teachers), hundreds of volunteers, 1 awesome @NFB_Voice team! #Time4ANap
@riccobono: Great job, @NFB_Voice #whatsnext
Natalie Shaheen: In closing I would like to thank each and every one of you for making our education programs possible. Everyone in this room contributes to our community of practice, and without that community of practice our education programs would not be successful. Pat yourselves on the back, and give your neighbor a high five. Together with love, hope, and determination, we transform young blind students' dreams into reality. Thank you.
For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.
With your help, the NFB will continue to:
Creating a will gives you the final say in what happens to your possessions and is the only way to be sure that your remaining assets are distributed according to your passions and beliefs. Many people fear creating a will or believe it’s not necessary until they are much older. Others think that it’s expensive and confusing. However, it is one of the most important things you will do, and with new online legal programs it is easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary. Visit <www.nfb.org/planned-giving> or call (410) 659-9314, extension 2422 for more information. Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.