Future Reflections         Winter 2011

(back) (contents) (next)

Gear Up for Greatness!

by the Education Team at the NFB Jernigan Institute

Dr. Marc Maurer rises in the air as young blind students apply the scientific principles of simple machines.From the Editor: The NFB Jernigan Institute sponsors an array of programs that promote the education and independence of blind and visually impaired children.  Junior Science Academy, hosted every other year at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, gives middle-school kids a hands-on exposure to science.

As part of our continuing initiative to promote access to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects for blind youth, the NFB Jernigan Institute hosted its second Junior Science Academy (JSA) in the summer of 2010. This year we received a record-breaking 130 applications from elementary-school children across the country. Thirty students and their parents were selected to fill the two four-day sessions, held at NFB headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Junior Science Academy involved parallel learning tracks for children and parents. Based on the theme "Gear Up for Greatness!" the program introduced the children to hands-on learning in the field of physics. Participating parents learned how to start gearing their children toward success. Though the lessons in the student and parent curricula looked very different, the learning objectives were closely related. By the end of the program participants of all ages realized that a child's potential greatness need not be limited by blindness.

During the JSA sessions students learned about the workings of machinery through practical applications. They used levers to lift refrigerators and launch goalballs across the classroom. Rubber band cars were assembled to demonstrate the uses of the wheel and axle. Students investigated the mechanical advantage of the wedge by hammering dull and pointed nails into pieces of scrap lumber.

In later lessons, students learned how complex Rube Goldberg devices combine the mechanical advantages of multiple simple machines. After exploring a Goldberg machine built by the staff at the NFB Jernigan Institute, each pod (consisting of three children and a blind mentor) took a diverse collection of household items and built its own Goldberg creation. Students turned old doorknobs and ear-bud cases into pulleys. They stretched balloons over cans to make trampolines. Each pod created a machine that moved an object at least three feet. The methods for moving the objects varied greatly, but each mechanism incorporated multiple simple machines.

The student activities culminated in a field trip to a local amusement park. While they delighted in the various attractions, the students learned about the physics involved in each ride. At one attraction they used multiple pulleys to rescue an instructor from an "emergency" on the ropes course. They learned about the application of Newton's laws of motion through simple machines used in the go carts and roller coaster. The students even discovered physics concepts in a game of laser tag!

While the students were busy building confidence in their ability to do science, their parents learned from blind adults and NOPBC leaders how to foster independence in their children. On one panel, blind adults shared their experiences, expressing what they wished their parents had known about blindness when they were growing up. That panel really seemed to help the parents open up, and they asked the panelists some probing questions. They explored such issues as how to get a child to be more sociable and how a blind person can be a parent.

The parent instruction became more intense when hands-on activities were introduced. During the discussion of orientation and mobility, parents learned nonvisual methods for performing practical tasks. Every parent chose to don sleepshades for the entire session rather than using them only during specified activities. Parents practiced using canes and nonvisual techniques to walk around the building, carry trays to tables, and climb stairs. They also learned ways to stow their long canes into cars and minivans. Most of the parents explained that they wore the shades to gain a better understanding of how to teach nonvisual techniques to their children.

During a session designed to help parents advocate for their children, parents shared their experiences with the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. Naturally Braille was an important topic of discussion. Parents learned about the benefits of teaching Braille to children who have low vision, and heard about some of the research that supports this practice. They also participated in experiential learning activities related to the literary and Nemeth Braille codes. One parent in the group had low vision himself and was not a Braille reader. During this session he realized how valuable Braille could be for him, and how important it is for him to learn so he can model this for his low-vision son.

The parents' sessions concluded with a cooking class under sleepshades, led by blind instructors. During this session, the parents made Jell-O salads. The recipe incorporated a variety of skills--using a knife, measuring, pouring, and cooking over a stove. The children loved hearing that their parents were tackling these challenges under sleepshades. They especially enjoyed serving as taste-testers when their parents finished their hard work.

Overflowing with excitement over their newfound knowledge of blindness and science, the students and parents shared their experiences with one another at the closing ceremonies. The children were charged with the task of expressing in an original way what they had learned during the program. One of the most creative groups included two boys who used their bodies to show off their knowledge of simple machines. They performed somersaults to represent the wheel. One student lay in a push-up position while the other rolled a cane down his back to demonstrate an inclined plane.

Before the closing ceremony was over, we sneaked in one last learning experience for the students. A large machine stood at the front of the room, inviting children and parents to ponder its purpose. Though a number of theories were developed, no one knew why there was a crazy contraption next to the podium. Finally, Professor Matt Maurer answered everyone's questions. He announced that one lucky pod would get to use the combined mechanical advantage of multiple pulleys to hoist our NFB president, Dr. Marc Maurer, several feet into the air.

Excitement soared at this announcement! The selected students took their positions behind the hoist (a lift used for installing air ducts in large buildings) and found a crank. Dr. Maurer sat in a chair in the front of the hoist. As the students started cranking, his feet left the floor. They went on cranking, and soon Dr. Maurer's feet dangled over everyone's heads. "Can we raise him all the way to the ceiling?" the students wondered. "How many pulleys are in this hoist?"

After lifting Dr. Maurer over twelve feet into the air, the students brought him safely back to the floor. Everyone got the chance to examine the pulleys hidden in the machine.

Finally it was the parents' turn to share during the closing ceremony. One mother said that before she came to the JSA she had worried about how her son would learn to carry a tray in the cafeteria at his new school. She thought it would take a paraprofessional countless hours to discover a solution and teach the new skill to her son. Within her first two hours at the center, blind mentors showed her a simple method for carrying a tray with one hand and using a cane with the other. Another newly empowered mother rejoiced in saying, "I came to this program with a visually impaired daughter. I am leaving with a blind daughter!"

Special thanks go to all of those who served as mentors and instructors during the two sessions of the program. We would like to recognize them for their hard work and dedication to making our 2010 program a success. Our student mentors were Mika Baugh, IN; Candice Chapman, MI; Mary Fernandez, NJ; Ashley Ritter, IN; Garrick Scott, GA; and Joe Shaw, TN. Instructors of students were Dr. Matt Maurer, IN; Nathanael Wales, CT; and Henry (Hoby) Wedler, CA. Our parent instructors were Kim Cunningham, TX; Denise Mackenstadt, WA; Dr. Ruby Ryles, LA; Carlton Anne Cook Walker, PA; and Laura Weber, TX.

We loved getting to know the thirty families that participated in the NFB Junior Science Academy, and we are geared up to see all the great things they will do in the coming years! To read more about this program or to view pictures from the most recent sessions, please visit  <www.blindscience.org>.

(back) (contents) (next)