Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Comets, Kids, and Captain Whozit: Tales from the 2008 NFB Junior Science Academy

by Mary Jo Thorpe

Reprinted from the October 2008 issue of the NFB monthly publication, the Braille Monitor.

At the mock press conference, Alex Butler (KS) describes his project for the alternative energy sources session.Editor’s Note: Mary Jo Thorpe is the education programs specialist at the NFB Jernigan Institute. Here is her report on the first-ever Junior Science Academy:

If you had visited the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore during the last week of July, you probably would have been swept up in all the excitement and commotion pulsating around the building as the first-ever NFB Junior Science Academy took place. Inquisitive onlookers would have seen thirty of the brightest, most talented children having the time of their lives amidst some of the most creative and exciting activities ever imagined.

This summer the NFB Jernigan Institute opened its doors to thirty families from across the country for its first-ever Junior Science Academy. Celebrating its fifth year of successful science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, the NFB Jernigan Institute ventured into new territory in an effort to empower children at an earlier age than ever before with the skills necessary to pursue study in STEM subjects.

Megan Palmer (UT) examines a tactile globe during a session about astronomy.One parent accompanied each child and attended programming for adults in conjunction with the children’s activities. These sessions were customized with presentations and activities designed to address issues facing parents of blind children. The sessions also aimed to provide parents with a vast network of resources and support. Blind people from across the country volunteered their time to come and serve as mentors to supervise the children during daytime activities. They served as great role models for the children and their parents. Each mentor had three students for whom he or she was responsible.

The four-day event was jam-packed with activity. The theme for the children’s activities focused on earth and environmental science. In order to help the children better understand why the earth is able to sustain life, however, the program began with activities that taught about the make-up of the various planets in the solar system and other phenomena that affect our earth. Noted astronomer and author of several tactile books on space phenomena, Noreen Grice led these activities. Noreen used containers of sand and hot packs (to represent the surface of Mars) and cotton balls sprayed with window cleaner (to represent the gaseous atmosphere of Jupiter) to help the students get a better sense of what different planetary environments might look like.

Mikaela Smith (IN) tests the efficiency of a lime fruit-battery as she explores possibilities for alternative energy sources.Though it was hot and humid outside, the children stayed cool during another activity, which had them making their very own comet. With frozen fingers, the students chatted on enthusiastically as they rolled balls of ice in sand, rocks, and corn syrup to learn how comets form as they travel through space. The children moved on to learning about different biomes and weather from two scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. A couple of future meteorologists were discovered in the group as the children constructed their own barometers and asked questions about clouds, air pressure, and weather patterns. Bursts of laughter greeted the instruction of one of the scientists who played strange birdcalls and various animal sounds during his explanation about life in different environments. He also passed around several samples of different soil and vegetation as they compared and contrasted different biomes.

On Friday night, Captain Whozit (Jessie Hartle of MD) leads the students on a treasure hunt to find the treasure of Independence.On day two the JSA decided to “Go Green” as the children participated in a number of engineering activities around alternative energy resources. These were led by Caroline McEnnis, a graduate student from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, who has been involved with our STEM programs for three years now. The children especially seemed to enjoy an activity where they made batteries out of fruit. First they had to insert a nail and penny into a piece of fruit. Then they attached the clips from a talking voltmeter to the nail and the penny to see how much voltage the fruit could produce as its juice interacted with the metal of the nail and the coin. They compared the amounts from different pieces of fruit to determine which produced the highest voltage.

By the end of the day the children had constructed some method for harnessing energy and producing electricity from each of the four sources of alternative energy--water, wind, solar, and vegetation. The children were then given a specific biome and asked to design their house of the future. Each biome brought with it its own restrictions and resources. For example, groups with a desert biome would not be able to construct a water pump for their house but would have access to a large amount of solar energy.

After constructing their houses from everyday household items like shoeboxes, paper plates, and straws, the children practiced their public speaking skills during a mock press conference before their parents and staff members from the National Center for the Blind. During the press conference the groups unveiled their designs and gave explanations about why they had chosen the components they did. This was a great way for the children not only to show what they had learned but also to practice some basic alternative techniques a blind person would use in giving a public presentation.

Mary Jo Thorpe and Nathan Stocking (MN) examine a Musk Oxen (the stuffed variety) during the field trip to North Bay Adventure in Cecil County, Maryland.One of the main objectives of the Institute’s Science Academy programs is to explore new ways of making certain activities accessible to the blind. During this session a program called “Computer Science Unplugged: Fun with Computing without a Computer” was introduced to the children. This is a new curriculum to help teach children some of the fundamentals of computer science. Richard Ladner, a Boeing Professor in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Washington, expressed an interest in adapting this curriculum so that blind children could participate in its activities. He and two of his staff came to the program and led several of these activities with the participants, some of the first blind children to test this curriculum. Activities included a variety of games or sorting puzzles which illustrated principles used by computer programmers. Once again the Science Academy is helping to open new doors to the blind through the use of cutting-edge education models.

Evenings provided family time and even more fun. A special guest, Captain Whozit, paid a visit to the children one night to recruit their help in finding the treasure of independence, which he explained had been left behind “by a man named Jernigan.” Captain Whozit led the children on a wild chase through some exciting challenge activities to find the five keys to independence that would unlock the treasure. After meeting some of the captain’s salty shipmates, walking the plank, and soaking themselves during the bucket brigade, the children managed to locate all the keys. They then learned that each key represented a particular skill of blindness that blind people need in order to gain independence. The highlight of the night was seeing the physical keys transformed into true keys of independence as a couple of the children learned how to use a key in an actual lock.

No summer program would be complete without some kind of outdoor excursion, so we made sure to throw one of these into the mix. The children visited North Bay Adventure, an outdoor recreational site in Maryland near the Pennsylvania border. Here the children participated in a nature hike, held snakes and turtles, and took a little dip in the Chesapeake Bay to cool off later in the day. North Bay also provided some of the children with what may have been the biggest confidence booster of the week—the zip line. Those who participated were harnessed to a large cable that extended from a four-story tower several yards across the beach and ended just off the shore in the water. One child in particular was very excited to ride the zip line since he had never done anything like that before. Once he was harnessed in and standing on the launching platform, however, he suddenly became extremely nervous and even tearful. Despite the tears, he clearly wanted to succeed and refused to be unhooked. So, after nearly ten minutes of coaxing and encouragement, he took off, eyes squeezed shut and panic on his face. We eventually had to pull him away from the zip line’s anchor staff member, with whom he spent nearly an hour trying to negotiate another turn.

The Junior Science Academy ends with a special ceremony on Sunday morning. Students pose for one last group shot with their mentors and teachers in the NFB Jernigan Institute auditorium.The parents had some great experiences of their own during the program. The parent educator team was Barbara Cheadle, director of parent outreach for the NFB Jernigan Institute; Carrie Gilmer, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children; and two renowned educators of blind children within our organization, Denise Mackenstadt of Washington, and Annie Hartzell from California. Parent sessions ranged from topics on multisensory learning to writing goals for IEPs. For many of the parents this was the first introduction to the NFB and the first time this kind of information about blindness had ever been given to them.

Experiential activities also helped parents learn the value of nonvisual techniques. Parents wore sleepshades as they learned to prepare a Jell-O salad, travel with a cane, and even use a chainsaw. One afternoon found the parents wearing sleepshades and rotating through various stations to learn practical skills of cane travel: going up and down stairs, stowing a cane in a car, and carrying a tray. Several of the parents reported that the best part of their sessions was the panels of blind adults. These panelists shared some of their own experiences growing up as blind children. They also talked about things their parents did well parenting a blind child and gave suggestions of things they wish their parents had known to do or had done differently.

Following the program we have received several e-mails and phone calls from the participants articulating their reflections on the program. Following are some of their comments:

It was an excellent decision to make this a dual child/parent event. The agenda for the parents was exceptionally well done. The content was clearly spot on, from the parent group interest and discussion that I observed. The subject experts who led the meetings were very knowledgeable and well prepared. 
--John Butler (Arizona), grandfather of Alex Butler, age thirteen

We came home with that action-packed information…and I have already put many things in motion…Don’t you all feel so charged up! I am ready to make some positive changes around here to help Dillon and to arm ourselves with as much information as I can about Dillon’s eye condition.
--Kathleen Smith (West Virginia), mother of Dillon Smith, age ten

My son had a great time, met new friends, and learned new things as well. As a parent I learned a great deal as well as far as the future for my son.
--Anita Velazquez (New Jersey), mother of Matthew Howell, age eleven

The last morning of the program wrapped up with a lot of excitement and a few tears. Both parents and children shared contact information with newfound friends. During the closing ceremony several of the students shared some of their favorite activities of the week as well as what they wanted to be when they grew up. It was exciting to hear that future blind adults have such great aspirations.

The entire program was a great success and has received rave reviews. Those interested in reading more about the program and viewing pictures can visit <www.blindscience.org> for more JSA action. The NFB Jernigan Institute hopes to offer more programs like this in the years to come. Those of us responsible for the organization of the JSA would like to thank the National Center for the Blind staff, the instructors, and those who served as mentors for the children. We could not have done this without such a great team. Finally, because of the overwhelming response of applicants and some unforeseen complications earlier this summer, the Jernigan Institute will conduct a fall session of the Junior Science Academy. We look forward to having an equally successful program with those who will be participating in September and look forward to more Junior Science Academy tales.

Editor’s Note: The September program might have been, so some maintain, even better than the summer program. Although the sessions were shorter, the smaller group and the experience gained from the summer program made it possible to create an intense learning experience that parents and kids are still talking about.

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