Future Reflections        Winter 2014        PROGRAMS

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Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to the Extreme

by Natalie Shaheen

From the Editor: In 2004, a group of blind high school students in the NFB Jernigan Institute's Rocket On! program launched a rocket in partnership with NASA. Since that momentous occasion, the National Federation of the Blind has continued to create opportunities for blind students to gain hands-on experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, sometimes referred to as the STEM disciplines. In the summer of 2013, forty-five blind students and their mentors gathered at Towson University in Baltimore for a program called STEM-X. In this article, Natalie Shaheen gives readers a glimpse of the challenges the students faced and a chance to celebrate their achievements.

A boy tests a newly made bridge while the rest of his pod looks on.From July 29 through August 3, 2013, the NFB Jernigan Institute hosted a new program under its National Center for Blind Youth in Science initiative, NFB STEM-X. The X in the program's title draws inspiration from the aerospace community. Historically, programs and missions have utilized the letter X as an abbreviation for exploration, and as a statement that a particular effort seeks new solutions and new discoveries that surpass previously assumed barriers to scientific advancement. In the same way, the NFB STEM-X program challenges the notion that blind people are unable to pursue studies in the STEM fields, or on a larger scale, are destined to lives of dependence on government assistance.

Forty-five blind high school students from twenty-seven states traveled to Baltimore to participate in last summer's program. The students were not the only ones who traveled from all over the country to participate. Dozens of volunteers flocked to Baltimore to assist with classroom instruction, mentoring, recreation facilitation, and logistics. For the duration of NFB STEM-X we lived, learned, and played together on the campus of Towson University.

Before leaving home, each student had the opportunity to build his or her NFB STEM-X schedule. Each student chose one of the five focus disciplines (aerospace engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, and robotics) in which to participate, spending every morning in that class. Students also selected three enrichment classes, one for each afternoon, from the eight that were offered (paleobiology, video description, geology, nanotechnology, biology, human physiology, art, and cyber security). As is always the case with Federation programs, the learning didn't stop at five o'clock! Students spent their evenings in recreational activities of their choice. The offerings included beep baseball, goalball, accessible disc golf, ballroom dancing, rock climbing, and geocaching. (Geocaching is a game in which players use global positioning systems to locate hidden containers of objects. Learn more at <www.geocaching.com>.)

A boy shows his project to Mark Riccobono.One unique aspect of NFB STEM-X was the story around which the curriculum for the five focus discipline classes was developed. ISONia, written by long-time Federationist Jerry Whittle specifically for NFB STEM-X, told the tale of a comet (@STEMXComet) that was on a collision course with Earth. It recounted the efforts of a task force of world-class scientists (including the students at NFB STEM-X) to innovate solutions to this potentially devastating natural disaster. You can read Jerry Whittle's ISONia in its entirety by visiting the NFB STEM-X wiki at <http://bit.ly/16yysmO>.

The students' work to combat ISON required constant collaboration and problem solving. Students in the aerospace engineering group worked to build a spacecraft that could reach the comet to collect vital data to be sent to scientists around the world for analysis. They also built a hovercraft for transportation on Earth and a satellite to assist with communications in the aftermath of ISON. Students in the civil engineering class built a truss bridge to replace bridges that might be demolished upon ISON's impact, and they created desalinization plants to purify water. They were also called upon to design structures that could withstand the tsunami created by ISON's crash into the Atlantic Ocean. The robotics team built robots to conduct search and rescue missions during the clean-up after the comet collided with Earth. A robotic arm was also created to attach to the hovercraft built by the aerospace engineering group. The students in the chemistry class generated ethanol to power the robots built by the robotics group. In addition, the chemistry class created esters that could be used to flavor food after ISON destroyed the huge plant that produced esters for many of the food manufacturers. The computer science students aggregated and analyzed crowd-sourced data from social networks such as Twitter to provide vital information to the groups doing search and rescue and clean-up after the disaster.

With great concentration, a boy works on his STEM-X project.Woven into the program, unbeknown to the students and volunteers, and not even known to the majority of the NFB Jernigan Institute staff who facilitated the program, was the secret solution to a game (@#STEMXSecret). Everyone worked together to uncover the solution. Program participants young and old solved QR code riddles and searched out facts about the NFB to gain entrance to locked webpages. They assembled tangrams, tweeted, cracked a musical clue, and talked to Dr. Maurer in order to get to the ultimate secret.

So, what's the secret? That is for NFB STEM-X participants to know and for you to figure out!

Thanks to the power of technology, you are not limited to this author's account of the NFB STEM-X story. A quick glance at the tweet archive from #NFBSTEMX provides a picture of the fun and learning that took place during the program. Some of it was planned, some of it was impromptu, some was about STEM, and all of it was about living successfully as blind people.

#NFBSTEMX Tweet Archive


@Danielle_Sykora: Just got accepted to #NFBSTEMX


@setoth96: @nlshaheen I'm going to be at the #NFBSTEMX program later this month! can't wait!


@nlshaheen: The #Volunteers are coming! The volunteers are coming! Oh wait, many of them are already here!


@STEMXComet: Just cruising! #NFBSTEMX


@kea_anderson: Even if I was only there for a while, I love the #nfbstemx energy. Also love talking to teachers of blind students and learning from them.

@nlshaheen #NFBSTEMX: just showed a student how to carry a tray and use a cane in the dining hall. One of my favorite things to teach students!

@nlshaheen: blind student actively participating in science 4 1st time at #NFBSTEMX "they don't let me do this at school" she says

@IndSci: students producing ethanol from sugar #nfbstemx #stem #a11y <http://t.co/qj0lJPiJPT>

@STEMXSecrets: There's a #nfbstemx puzzle to solve! Who will be first to gain the prize?


@renfro92w: Getting ready for our video description class in the afternoon. #NFBSTEMX #videsc (@ Tubman House) <http://t.co/okKoiO9qSA>

@renfro92w: Tubman House Boo <http://t.co/SXJsQv1gNP> via @audioboo #videsc #nfbstemx

The Tubman House Boo is a short audio recording from one of the video description instructors

@NFBSCIENCE #NFBSTEMX students learn to use a drill for the first time #Independence <http://t.co/iMdbMJgtLS>

@Brooik #nfbstemx: a student has a Braille 'n speak. I think it's awesome.

@UMBCCARPAT1: Day 2 of Volunteering at #NFBSTEMX where the students are learning to do some programming in ruby to interact with Twitter

@TonyOlivero: students are gathering for today's #nfbstemx 12:00 briefing.

@deejayyungwill: #nfbstemx is going really well so far. learning a lot

@Brooik #nfbstemx: 2 members of team 7 have just found triangular puzzle pieces in their desks. is this related to the @STEMXSecret?

@Brooik #nfbstemx: my student just said this is more exciting than playing a video game! @stemxsecret

@IndSci: so many great memories from 2 days at #NFB-STEMX, wish we could have stayed the whole time. Good luck students!


@NFBScience #nfbstemx: Civil Engineering students are testing designs in the @HowardU wave tank. Here's 1 <http://t.co/CPXRRDHbrH>

@nlshaheen: some blind students are building with Legos for the first time! We need more access to Legos for our blind students! #nfbstemx

@Kansas_2000: I am having so much fun at #nfbstemx

@judgejordan: These students have so much energy. An excellent quality in a future leader. #nfbstemx

@GeorgeOnline: One parent's account of her son's #nfbstemx experience: <http://t.co/BmhexNVoGn>


@NFBScience: Final day #nfbstemx--Will the earth be saved from @STEMXComet, will the solutions be done on time, and will anyone solve the @STEMXSecret?

@SinaBahram: Just had a chance to speak with students at #NFBSTEMX about computer science, hacking, etc. It was fun! #a11y

@shaunkane: Ben demos 3d printing at #NFBSTEMX computer science track w/ @jeffbigham #umbchcc <http://t.co/kG5jkTeQu6>

@Riccobono #NFBSTEMX: Aerospace Engineers asked me to fly to the @STEMXComet: Pitch, roll, and yaw <http://t.co/3BRrO7P32K>

@nlshaheen: Leaving our mark at freedom square on the @TowsonU campus! #Braille rocks! #NFBSTEMX #TowsonU <http://t.co/cK6AbIPSZo>

@renfro92w: Getting ready to leave for Los Angeles! Had a great time at #nfbstemx. And would love to do it again next year. <http://t.co/Lc9QFyukAp>


@pulyperez1: My bag is packed. I am so inspired by all of you. I will miss you, but this isn't goodbye forever. I feel so loved and blessed. #NFB-STEMX

@setoth96 @nlshaheen: #NFBSTEMX was an excellent program. I left it wanting more!!!!!!!!

@deejayyungwill: big shoutout going to the folks at @nfbscience for allowing me to attend #nfbstemx this year. Had a great time and learned a lot.

Thank you to everyone who made NFB STEM-X a success, particularly the dozens of volunteers who gave so generously of their time and talents! A special thank you goes to our supporters--American Honda Foundation, UPS, Susquehanna Foundation for the Blind, M&T Bank, Northrop Grumman, Microsoft, and the National Security Agency; and to contributors AccessComputing and the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Research and Development Center.

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