Future Reflections          Convention Report 2007

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The Inside Scoop on the NFB Youth Slam

by Mary Jo Thorpe

Mary Jo ThorpeOne more calendar page has turned over, families have packed away their beach towels, and new backpacks grace the backs of blind students from all over the country as they return to the classroom. But this year their minds are filled with memories, new skills, and confidence gained from their summer experiences at the first-ever National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Youth Slam.

By now, news of the NFB Youth Slam has spread far and wide. Dozens of articles have been published about the successful efforts of the week. Many interested readers have visited the NFB Web site for snapshots of the slam from a variety of perspectives. However, those of us working at the NFB Jernigan Institute thought you might enjoy an overview of the content of the week from our perspective.

While we began with an initial picture of what we wanted the week to look like, no one could have imagined how this “big idea,” as it was affectionately called in the beginning, would develop into the masterpiece that was to become the NFB Youth Slam. Planning for the event began just a few short weeks after the conclusion of the 2006 summer science programs at the NFB Jernigan Institute. No rest for the weary, we thought at first, but this was soon replaced with excitement kindled by plans for doing something even bigger and better in 2007.

The education staff faced two big objectives. One, pull off something that has never been done before, and two, make sure it is meaningful to the students who participate. No big deal, right? As you can see, we had a daunting task before us, but we were up for the challenge. Under the direction of Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, this project was definitely a team effort. I am the education programs specialist for the Jernigan Institute and Karen Zakhnini is the education programs coordinator, and the two of us took the lead in carrying out most of the preparations for the event. We had tremendous support from two graduate students from the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, Caroline McEnnis and Ben Tang. Staff members from the NFB Affiliate Action and Parent Outreach departments were also key players in the preparations. Like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, we began putting the pieces together.

Continuing in the Institute’s efforts to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum among blind students, we structured the event around this theme, dubbing it a STEM Academy. The content for the week literally unfolded through dozens of collaborative meetings with instructors, scientists, students from Johns Hopkins University, and many others. Because I was at the forefront of all the planning for the content and activities, I also experienced the excitement of seeing how one idea could spawn a handful of new ideas.

Youth Slam Tracks
In total, there were nine targeted content areas or tracks which students attended each day. Many of the tracks and short sessions were several months in the making. Prior to the event, students were given a list with a description of the tracks and asked to select their top three preferences. As much as possible, we assigned students to one of their top picks for the week. A blind lead instructor was also assigned to each of the nine tracks. In addition to the tracks, students were organized into pods or groups of three students with one adult mentor. Five to six pods were assigned to each one of the nine tracks. Each pod also roomed together with their mentor in one of the four-bedroom dormitory suites on the Johns Hopkins campus.

Slam--The Renewable Energy: This track was led by Cary Supalo, a blind chemistry graduate student from Penn State University, and Dave Wohlers, a blind chemistry professor from Truman State University. Their students used adapted nonvisual technology, such as balances with speech output and SAL (submersible audible light) sensors, to perform basic chemistry experiments independently. This was the first time many, if not most, of the students had ever been able to do this as blind students in a chemistry lab. During the week, students learned about green chemistry through various basic chemical principles as they created bio-diesel fuel. At the end of the week, the students tested their fuel in a small engine and also made methane batteries to operate small cars.

Students explored the universe in unique and fully accessible ways at the NFB Youth Slam. In this picture, students navigate through the world’s only tactile planetariums.Slammin’ in the Stars: Noreen Grice partnered with Ben Wentworth to lead this unit. Noreen is an astronomer from the Boston Planetarium and founder of You Can Do Astronomy, a company that produces tactile books about astronomy, and Ben Wentworth is a former national award-winning science teacher with a knack for adapting activities for blind students. The two produced a dynamic set of hands-on activities to teach some highly visual concepts with alternative methods and materials. Students learned about constellations by looking at tactile star wheels and planet spheres. Tactile planetariums made of dome tents with a variety of nuts, bolts, and other tactile materials glued to their interior in various patterns to match the night sky also helped to illustrate these concepts. Hula-hoops cut into shapes of planetary orbits were used to depict how various objects orbit the sun and as demonstrations of the principle of seasons. Students explored handheld models of the Hubble telescope made from PVC pipe while noted Hubble scientist Max Mutchler engaged students in an advanced interactive lecture about the Hubble telescope project.

Inventors of the Future: This track brought participants together with graduate students from the Whiting School of Engineering as the teams carried out the process of designing and developing a prototype of a useful product. Each product was displayed with either a poster drawing or an actual model in a presentation at the end of the week. Inventions included a face recognition device so blind people could identify others in a room, a hands-free magnification and audible musical note reader for blind musicians, an automatic recycling trash compactor for malls, and a hover craft built from leaf blowers and plywood which could actually sustain a passenger. This track was a great deal of fun for the students and taught them some basic principles of mechanical engineering and material design. Perhaps these five inventions will be coming to a store near you someday.

Slam Rockets: Led by NASA contractors Berit Bland and Charlie Lipsit, this track was a spin-off from the NFB Rocket On! science academy program. Students worked in teams to design a payload and build censors for a two-foot rocket. The really exciting part came when, after calculating the trajectory, students launched approximately twenty rockets nearly five hundred feet into the air from a city park near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus.

Operation Air Slam: It’s not every day that someone can say he or she launched a scientific balloon, but now fifteen NFB Youth Slam participants can make this claim. These students worked with instructors from the University of Maryland Balloon Science program and the Maryland Space Grant Consortium. Students learned through hands-on physics experiments and presentations about how and why balloon launching is a valuable asset to scientists who study the atmosphere. Groups put together a cricket sensor and attached this payload to simple party balloons with a tracking device. After the launch, the students analyzed the data transmitted in Morse code from the sensors before the balloons landed several miles outside of Baltimore City.

The Youth Slam Engineering track studied not only the mathematics and physics behind the sustainability of bridges, but also the restrictions of a budget for supplies. Here the bridges are put to the test to see how much weight they can withstand.Slam Engineers Unit: This track packed a summer’s worth of curriculum from the What is Engineering program at Johns Hopkins University into one week. Students competed in teams to design a bridge that used the best quality material to hold the most weight, but with the least amount of cost. Each team was given a budget and a variety of materials they could use. At the end of the week, the moment of truth came when the bridges were put to the test. Through the squeals of delight, groans of disappointment, and snapping of string and popsicle sticks, a winner emerged: it was a bridge that sustained nearly seventy pounds of pressure without breaking.

Slammin’ in the Wind: Think learning about windmills is boring? That’s what one student thought upon being assigned to this track. The student put up quite a protest in the beginning, but after the first day realized how much fun it was and became the biggest cheerleader for the project. The students learned ways in which wind can be a valuable renewable energy resource by competing against each other in windmill design. Students used paper plates, cups, and other household items to make the windmills and then tested them at the end of the week in an actual wind tunnel.

Slam Talk Back: Don’t worry, we didn’t teach these typical teenagers how to talk back to their parents. Rather, students worked with computer scientists from the University of Washington to create a chat bot, which is a piece of software similar to a search engine. This can be programmed to search for a specific topic of interest at a specific time and then report the latest information to the user. From sports statistics to weather conditions, our students had great fun gathering information. Most of the students took their program home with them with big plans to build on their design.

Slam News: This track was a little unorthodox. Instead of engaging in a specific set of STEM activities for a part of the day, students in this track spent all their time visiting other tracks and reporting on the various activities. Blind instructors Brian Bashin and Liz Campbell, both of whom have backgrounds and job experience in journalism, led this track with additional support from American Printing House representative, Larry Skutchan. The purpose of this track was two-fold: first, it showed students who were not interested in STEM fields that there are many other professions in which one can work that require knowledge of the STEM subjects. Second, it provided an inside look at the week through the eyes of the students. Reports, podcasts, and blog postings written by students in this track can be found on the NFB Youth Slam homepage at <www.blindscience.org/ncbys/youth_slam.asp>.

Short Sessions
When not participating in track activities, students attended two to three of the short sessions. Nearly twenty-five of these reoccurring short sessions were peppered in throughout the week. The goal wasn’t for every student to do everything possible. Rather, we wanted to give the students a little taste of a lot of things and leave them wanting more—and that is exactly what we did.

One of the short sessions for the week included the dissection of tiger sharks. Part of the goal of the Youth Slam was to show that science isn’t limited to the sighted, so everyone wore sleep shades for this session.Short sessions crossed over all sections of STEM curriculum. Staff members from the NFB International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) fascinated technology lovers with the chance to tear apart and rebuild a computer and in the process, of course, giving students a chance to learn more about the hardware side of computers. Another technology session was about blindness products that can be used by blind students, such as Braille electronic notetakers, speech and magnification programs, and scanning software.

One of the favorites of the short sessions was the shark dissection--a trademark activity of previous NFB science academies. It was fun to hear the different students talk during the week about how gross and exciting the shark dissection was for them. Other students participated in a session with Dr. Joanne Settel, a biology professor at Baltimore City Community College, where they learned about bones and blood, had the chance to dissect a cow’s heart, and put together a model skeleton.

Another popular choice from the smorgasbord of sessions was the Gecko Project. The geckos were used to demonstrate principles of surface forces since geckos can walk upside down without any special adaptations to make them stick to surfaces. Other sessions included labs on making synthetic collagen, a unit using haptics software, and activities with software used to create virtual reality experiences with touch.

During the content planning for the week, we previewed the activities with the instructors to see what things might need to be modified for the students, and to determine what alternative methods would be used. There was always a great sense of anticipation after various test runs of the activities from those of us coordinating the content to see how the students would react to our plans.

Since we in the NFB are in the business of educating ourselves as well as others about blindness, we also planned short sessions on blindness issues conducted by blind NFB staff members from the National Center for the Blind. These sessions were as important to the curriculum and the learning experience as the STEM content sessions. Topics included advocacy, making positive first impressions as a blind person, cane travel, legislation, and the importance of collective action. Each pod--a group of three students and an adult mentor--was scheduled for at least one blindness session each day. In addition, each attended a session dedicated to a philosophical discussion on what it means to be blind.

The other mandatory session was an art project planned and conducted by Ann Cunningham, an artist and sculptor from Colorado. In this session, each student made a five-inch square clay tile that represented who they are and their vision and hopes for their future. One young girl interested in becoming a doctor designed her tile with sketches of a book, medicine bottle, the cross symbol of the Red Cross, and her name in Braille clay dots. These tactile tiles are currently on display in the NFB Jernigan Institute, Jacobus tenBroek Library.

One afternoon of the week was dedicated to a visit to the National Center for the Blind, home of the NFB Jernigan Institute and headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, where several activities occurred. The afternoon featured tours of the Institute, exhibits, and breakout sessions with blind scientists, NFB cane travel instructors, technology experts, and leaders of the NFB—including a special session with NFB President Marc Maurer. Two dozen exhibitors had displays in the Members Hall, providing opportunities for students to visit booths from NASA, Somatic Digital, Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), HumanWare, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), just to name a few. One booth offered ice cream made on the spot from liquid nitrogen; needless to say, there was always a line in front of it. Another booth offered students a chance to chat with blind scientist Dr. Abraham Nemeth, inventor of the Nemeth Braille math code; Dr. Geerat Vermeij, a marine biologist; Dr. Michael Gosse, a systems engineer; and Dr. Adrienne Asch, a bioethicist.

After Hours
The daytime curriculum was jam-packed, and so were the evenings. Each night was filled with a variety of recreational activities for all to enjoy. These included social activities at the dorms, a night at the Johns Hopkins University recreation center, a talent show, two Star Parties, and a dance at the National Center for the Blind. Students had auditioned in advance for the Showcase of Talent by mailing in tapes, videos, or CDs of their performances. Representatives from the Westminster Astronomical Society of Maryland put on the two Star Parties. They brought telescopes, a swell-form tactile graphics machine, and special swell-touch paper so that students could convert real-time visual images taken from a telescope into tactile images moments later.

In the evenings, our budding Pulitzer Prize winners transformed into party animals. They revealed competitive streaks during games of UNO, donned their game faces as they played goal ball, and demonstrated their showmanship by serenading the crowd with the latest hip hop song at open-mic night. The immense amount of talent displayed throughout the week was impressive. Students demonstrated it at the Showcase of Talent, on the rock-climbing wall, and back in the dorms where peers shared knowledge on using Wi-Fi on their BrailleNotes. And of course, what summer youth program would be complete without a few blossoming summer romances and a sprinkling of teenage drama. We were glad to see that most of our blind youth were behaving age-appropriately.

Our participants were quite an animated group, and demonstrated their enthusiasm on many occasions. Spirited cheering raised the roof after Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former executive director of the Jernigan Institute, welcomed a crowd of nearly three hundred students, mentors, and instructors at the dorms where the students spent the week; and raised the roof again after the two podcasts by the Slam News track aired at dinner times. On Friday, the last day, you would think that after a week of intense activities and late night chats that these teens would be ready to throw in the towel, but this was not the case. After a rousing gathering at the Baltimore Inner Harbor where participants heard an inspirational address from NFB national board member and president of the NFB of Georgia, Anil Lewis, the participants made their way in a Youth March for Independence--a mile jaunt to the National Center for the Blind. Even a mild summer shower toward the end of the march could not dampen the enthusiasm. The excitement was palpable as we all thought about the precedent we were setting.

The week culminated in a Youth March for Independence through the streets of south Baltimore to the National Center for the Blind.Later that afternoon, the enthusiasm reached a new level. During the week the students had created cheers for each of the dorm floors, using their floor number for group identification. As the students and mentors gathered in Members Hall for the closing ceremony, the room rang with the cacophony of chants. Students yelled out their cheers at the tops of their lungs. Shouts of “Four rules,” “Five is alive,” “Six Rocks,” “Seven is heaven,” “Eight is great,” and “Nine is Sublime!” rang out as each floor tried to outdo the others and establish their group as the ruling floor of the week. Cheers also greeted the remarks of NFB dignitaries and the presentations of student representatives from each track who talked about what had been accomplished that week. The evening program wrapped up with an exciting video--see <www.blindscience.org >-- that documented the highlights of the week. And, of course, no teen event would be complete without a dance, so a performance by a local band capped off the night.

The NFB Jernigan Institute leads the quest to understand the real problems of blindness and to develop innovative education, technology, products, and services that help the world’s blind to achieve independence. This event was another step on the ladder of progress toward expanding the initiatives of the National Center for Blind Youth in Science. We invite you to visit <www.blindscience.org> to read, listen, and view other memories from the week and to learn more about the other exciting programs taking place to promote STEM among blind youth. In addition, you will find information on the Web site about many of the alternative techniques and the adaptive equipment used during the NFB Youth Slam.

All of us who participated in this extraordinary event feel a sense of pride in being a part of something bigger than ourselves. The NFB Youth Slam truly made many impressions, and it is difficult to do it justice in one short article. The tremendous community of the National Federation of the Blind is what made it such a powerful event. The philosophy of this organization, the role-modeling of confident blind mentors, and the high expectations that we share set our programs apart from others, and mold them into greatness. We look forward to doing it all over again, even bigger and better in 2009!

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