American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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       Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)       PROGRAMS

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National Center for Blind Youth in Science:
Increasing Blind People’s Informal STEM Learning Opportunities

by Natalie Shaheen

From the Editor: For nearly three years, the National Federation of the Blind has coordinated a project called the National Center for Blind Youth in Science, made possible through a generous grant from the National Science Foundation. In this article project director Natalie Shaheen describes each of the programs created under the project. She encourages blind people to explore science museums as untapped resources for learning and fun.

In September 2013, the National Federation of the Blind was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 1322855). The three-year National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS) project, which will conclude on August 31, 2016, has the overarching goal of increasing blind people's access to STEM learning opportunities. The project addresses this goal through three embedded components: NFB STEM2U regional programs, NFB EQ summer engineering programs, and collaboration with science museums across the country to increase nonvisual accessibility. This article provides an overview of each component of the project, beginning with the NFB STEM2U regional programs and concluding with a discussion of the collaborative nonvisual accessibility work at the museums.

NFB STEM2U: Regional STEM Programs

A.J. and Jack Forman blow into each end of the tubing used as a demonstration of the large intestine during STEM2U Phoenix.

Six NFB STEM2U regional programs were facilitated in partnership with science museums and affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind. The programs took place from November 2014 through May 2016. The program sites and dates were as follows:

NFB STEM2U Baltimore (November 6, 2014-November 8, 2014): Port Discovery Children's Museum, NFB of Maryland
NFB STEM2U Boston (March 12, 2015-March 14, 2015): Museum of Science, NFB of Massachusetts
NFB STEM2U Columbus (May 14, 2015-May 16, 2015): Center of Science and Industry (COSI), NFB of Ohio
NFB STEM2U Phoenix (November 5, 2015-November 7, 2015): Arizona Science Center, NFB of Arizona
NFB STEM2U San Francisco (March 3, 2016-March 5, 2016): Exploratorium, NFB of California
NFB STEM2U Minneapolis (May 19, 2016-May 21, 2016): Science Museum of Minnesota, NFB of Minnesota.

Each NFB STEM2U regional program served three audiences, and two of the programs served four. The NFB STEM2U regional programs each served approximately twenty elementary school students (grades 3-5), referred to as "juniors" in the program; twenty chaperones, who accompanied the juniors to the program; and ten high school students, referred to in the program as "apprentices." In addition, the Baltimore and Phoenix programs each had a professional development component, which served approximately ten teachers of the blind.

Participants came from all over the US to attend the NFB STEM2U programs. Though some students came from the towns in which the programs were held, many traveled thousands of miles to enjoy a weekend of fun and learning.

All participants arrived on a Thursday afternoon. Sessions began on Thursday evening with dinner and introductory activities. The juniors and apprentices worked together throughout the weekend on museum exploration and various STEM activities. The chaperones attended concurrent workshops. They learned to prepare their children or students for success in STEM, both in school and through informal learning opportunities such as visits to science museums. At the Baltimore and Phoenix programs, teachers learned about the various tools, techniques, and accommodations that blind students can use in the study of STEM subjects. The program concluded Saturday evening for the juniors, chaperones, and teachers. The apprentices stayed for some additional activities on Saturday evening and departed Sunday morning for home.

Following is a brief description of the types of activities in which each group of participants engaged.

Juniors (Elementary School Students)

Throughout the weekend the juniors participated in classroom STEM activities developed by the National Federation of the Blind and the host museum. These activities included:

Jalen Yu mixes ingredients in a bowl during the “Stomach This” session at STEM2U Phoenix.At the museum, students got behind-the-scenes hands-on experiences with museum shows pertaining to topics including electricity, biology, nanoscience, paleontology, acoustics, and psychology. Students also spent time exploring the museum with their chaperones and with the apprentices. On the museum floor, students explored a wide variety of exhibits: the Bed of Nails, the Hall of Human Life, a high-wire unicycle, Science in the Park, Math in Motion, and the Fisher Bay Observatory.

A hallmark of every Federation program or event is the opportunity for participants to learn from other blind people. The juniors who participated in the NFB STEM2U regional programs had the chance to learn from blind instructors and program facilitators as well as the apprentices, the blind high school students who were just a few years ahead of the juniors.

After participating in several engineering activities during the program, one junior said, "We had just started learning the engineering process at school, but now it's more clear." After engaging with the accessible STEM learning activities at the program, another junior shared, "[I have a] better perspective on science processes. Science classes at school are visual. Now, because I understand the processes, my school science will make more sense."

The chaperones, too, found the programs enlightening. One chaperone explained that her child "learned what his BrailleNote can do because someone else here has one and can share what he is doing with it. He is learning from others like him." Another chaperone explained, "[my child] came away saying that he wants to be more independent at home. That spoke volumes to me, and I'm grateful that we both had the opportunity to participate." Another parent explained how important the accessible learning environment at the program was to her daughter. "[My child] doesn't have opportunities to go have fun and do educational things with other kids. She goes to a public school and only gets about half the experience. . . . She loves science. Here it's hands-on, she can experience the activities, and she can experience the museum."


While the students were engaged in their activities, chaperones were engaged in a variety of STEM- and blindness-related lessons in an adjacent classroom. Parents began their weekend with the Marshmallow Challenge, an engineering exercise. Afterwards they made comparisons between the iterative nature of the engineering design process and the iterative nature of parenting.

On Friday morning the parents discovered the five elements of a successful blind person, as defined by James Omvig in his article "Freedom for the Blind." They applied the five elements throughout the weekend.

Building on the initial engineering challenge, parents explored a variety of topics pertaining to their children's success in STEM subjects. These sessions covered topics such as the following:

Throughout the weekend, parents got to talk with successful blind people, some of whom were scientists.

Perhaps the most exciting activities were those that the parents did with their children. Parents and children explored the museum exhibits and a variety of hands-on STEM activities side by side.

"Being able to share experiences with other parents is always invaluable," one chaperone commented. Another noted, "[The program] challenged [my son's] comfort zone while allowing him to be well taken care of . . . the perfect balance." Another chaperone shared that she valued "interacting with successful blind adults who could share how they learned to be independent and how they overcame barriers to become scientists."

One parent related an emotional aspect of her experience at the program. "I'm finding I didn't deal well with the grieving process [over my child's loss of vision]," she said. "This is helping me be less overprotective." Another parent explained, "I loved the facilitators! I think they talked at our level and respected all the different opinions of parents. I enjoyed listening to them and [hearing] their personal stories."

Apprentices (High School Students)

Jamison Hunter paddles his canoe against the incoming tide at Gunpowder State Park in Maryland during STEM EQ.The NFB STEM2U experience for the apprentices was comprised of two programs, the NFB STEM2U Leadership Academy and the NFB STEM2U regional program. The leadership academy was held early in the fall of each program year, before that year's NFB STEM2U regional programs began. The leadership academy, a weekend seminar, provided the apprentices with the leadership and mentoring tools and techniques that they would need to help facilitate activities, differentiate instruction, and mentor the juniors at the NFB STEM2U regional program. Approximately thirty apprentices attended the two NFB STEM2U Leadership Academies, one in the fall of 2014 and one in the fall of 2015.

In the six weeks leading up to their regional programs, each group of ten apprentices took part in a weekly synchronous distance education program, an extension of the leadership academy. During these six weeks apprentices collaborated to create a plan for their work at their regional program. This planning process included developing the opening evening's activities for the juniors.

At the NFB STEM2U regional programs, the apprentices led some activities; helped differentiate the instruction during other activities (e.g., helped students who didn't understand a concept, repeated instructions, etc.); helped orient the juniors to the space (e.g., locating various rooms or features within the room); capitalized on teachable moments (e.g., showing a junior how to use scissors if the junior had never done so before, showing a junior how to do something with his technology that he didn't know how to do, etc.); and acted as friends and role models for the juniors.

After their full days of working with the juniors, the apprentices participated in nightly reflection sessions. They shared their challenges and successes and offered each other constructive feedback. During these sessions the apprentices made connections to the leadership and mentoring concepts that they had learned at the leadership academy.

One teen shared that mentoring is a "mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship" whereby the mentor and mentee both benefit. After the leadership academy, one apprentice commented, "If I hadn't felt that sense of community and friendship, I know that I would have kept myself emotionally away from everyone else and would have been too nervous and distracted to really pay attention to any of the lessons. The lessons were also very intriguing, and I could tell how great everyone felt with the confidence and independence that our teachers were trying to ensure that we had."

One apprentice explained how the leadership academy helped her feel more comfortable and confident about her role as an apprentice and her capacity to be a mentor. She shared, "Participating in the different activities that will be similar to what the children will be doing will most likely be really useful for the regional program, as I will know what to expect. Different seminars helped me to believe that I would be able to help mentor these younger students."


Jordan Main using a raised line drafting board during STEM EQ in Maryland.During the NFB STEM2U Baltimore and Phoenix teacher cohorts, teachers of the blind from across the country came together to learn from each other and to gather additional tools, techniques, and pedagogical approaches for making STEM content accessible to blind students. Teachers learned about a variety of tried and true tools that have been used to make STEM subjects accessible, such as transfer pipettes, micropipettes, cafeteria trays, tactile diagrams, notched syringes, and click rules. Teachers also learned about emerging tools and techniques such as crowd-sourced video description, 3D printing, and new tactile drawing tools. Teachers collaborated to develop techniques for making STEM activities such as dissections accessible. The teachers also learned about resources and programming offered by the museums, resources that they could leverage when working on STEM subjects with blind students.

"NFB STEM2U reinforced that my students who have the interest and intellectual ability can tackle anything they want to in STEM," one teacher stated. "Their only limitation is my own creativity and willingness to problem solve. I am bolstered in my efforts to help my students succeed."

"I really see the need and importance of introducing my students to successful blind adults in the fields of science, engineering, math, or technology," another teacher noted. "I also hope to use NFB as a teaching resource as future needs arise for my students." Another teacher told us, "I appreciated the collaboration with other teachers in the field who, like me, often work in isolation."

"[NFB STEM2U] was a safe place to reveal inadequacies that exist for me as a teacher," one teacher told us. "The learning opportunities that came out of that were most helpful." Another teacher added, "I feel as though I am better prepared to make suggestions to STEM teachers for how best to instruct my students. I also have more tools in my own personal toolbox that I can use and suggest, not only to my teachers who I work with, but my district as well. I also feel as though I know a little better how to work with my students within the STEM classroom setting."

NFB EQ: Advanced Engineering Design Programs

During the course of the grant, the NFB Jernigan Institute will host three NFB EQ programs in Baltimore. The first of these programs was held August 2-August 8, 2015. The second iteration of the program will be held June 19-June 25, 2016, and the third will take plaçe July 31-August 6, 2016. Each iteration of the program serves twenty blind and low vision high school students, primarily juniors and seniors who are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

During the week-long advanced engineering program, students are presented with a real problem from the developing world. Students work in teams to design solutions to the problem. Specifically, they are asked to design a method for purifying water and transporting the clean water across a body of nonpotable water. The challenge requires them to engineer a water filtration system and a boat from materials that are readily available in the geographic region where the problem occurs. Students' water filtration systems utilize common materials such as empty plastic bottles and jugs of various sizes, pebbles, charcoal, scraps of cloth, and five-gallon buckets. The students' boat designs make use of common building materials such as PVC pipe, tarps, duct tape (lots of duct tape!), and plywood. In addition to engineering the solutions, students must create technical drawings of their work and present them to stakeholders for feedback.

After their boats are built and their water filtration systems are finalized, the students put their work to the test at a nearby state park. At the park they gather water and run it through their filtration systems. Then they test the water with various probes to ensure that it is safe to drink. They load up their boats with the filtered water and row across the body of water.

Mausam Mehta and Jamison Hunter test the PH of their water using a talking LabQuest meter at STEM EQ.Throughout the week, students learn a great deal of content that they are seldom, if ever, exposed to at school. In particular, students get in-depth learning opportunities around the engineering design process, technical drawing, and construction. In the technical drawing portion of the curriculum, students learn to use adapted drafting tools to create tactile technical drawings. As students execute their boat designs, they use saws, hammers, and drills to assemble their own components. The program offers blind students the opportunity to try and succeed or fail independently. Such life experiences are crucial to long-term success, particularly if the student is pursuing a STEM career.

One teen who attended a state school for the blind wanted to take the "different tools" back home, "[so I can] be independent and do some of these things by myself. [I want to] share them with others in class, help them feel independent." Another student shared a take-away from the program when he said, "During the NFB EQ program I realized engineering isn't about following instructions to the letter. It's changing on the fly. It takes a set of skills to fundamentally change something to make it better while you're working on it."

Several teens discussed the teamwork element of the program and how it differed from their experience with teams at school. "I want to be part of a group, even though I'm blind and they [classmates at school] aren't," one teen said. Another shared, "In the classroom people don't always ask us to get involved. I feel I can integrate myself better now after having the experience at this program." Another teen said, "I've been taking engineering classes at school, and now that I know there are tools, drafting boards, I'm going to ask for [them] next year. This program has made me more confident in what I can do."

"My science teacher didn't want me to do anything, and I know how I can do these things," another student explained. "I can use a talking scale or measure. I can be one who participates, not just the one who takes notes." Another stated, "Participating in this program gave me the determination to push forward. If I hear someone say 'You can't,' I will push forward." One teen stated, "Expectations for blind [people] are really low. This program showed us all that there is a way to do things we never thought we could do. I always thought STEM seemed kind of impossible, but there are tools, techniques, and there is a way to integrate into the real world." Several teens cited the opportunity to network with like-minded peers who shared their perspective as a benefit of attending the program.

Finally a young man shared, "I wish I could be a pilot. I thought that was impossible. Here I learned people don't hire you for what you see, but for what you know. If I make my own decision--I shouldn't listen to others say I can't. That's the barrier. Since this program, I'm more confident I can do activities friends who are fully sighted can do. I have physical and mental capacities I'm willing to use and show."

Museum Accessibility

In addition to the programmatic aspects of the project, the NCBYS team has collaborated with six science centers across the country to increase the accessibility of the museums, thereby improving the experience of blind patrons. Working with the six science museums has been an exciting learning experience for all involved. Each of the six museums has a unique culture and a unique approach to designing STEM learning opportunities for its patrons. All of the museums have been open to and enthusiastic about working to improve the experience of blind visitors. This section will outline the collaboration framework that has been implemented to facilitate the accessibility work, point out interesting things to check out at each museum, identify the three common nonvisual access barriers found in the museums, and highlight some of the accessibility work that is in progress.

Collaboration Framework

President Riccobono has said on numerous occasions that one key issue in the museum space with respect to nonvisual access is that there is a disconnect between blind people and museums. That is to say, blind people do not go to museums because they assume there is nothing there for them. At the same time, museums do not feel an urgency to make their spaces fully accessible to blind people because blind people are seldom around the museum.

The Federation's goal in collaborating with museums is to interrupt this cycle and create connections where they have previously not existed. Consequently, the collaboration framework was designed to provide multiple places for connection and relationship building. The framework is comprised of four elements:

(1) collaboration between the NFB Jernigan Institute, the local affiliate, and the museum
(2) museum staff training, in advance of the regional program, regarding interacting with blind people and making learning opportunities more accessible
(3) the NFB STEM2U regional program
(4) museum partner meetings hosted at the NFB Jernigan Institute.

Collaboration began a year prior to each museum's NFB STEM2U program. Before the event members of the NFB Jernigan Institute team, as well as the affiliate liaison, visited the museum to learn about it and to get acquainted with the staff. Members of the local affiliate volunteered to participate in an accessibility advisory group. Members of the advisory group visited the museum to evaluate the accessibility of the experience for blind patrons. Group members then attended a meeting where they shared their feedback. That feedback was aggregated and synthesized by the affiliate liaison and the NCBYS project director. The synthesized feedback was offered to the museum at an accessibility roundtable meeting. These meetings served to kick off and set the direction for the accessibility work.

The NFB representatives offered feedback regarding the aspects of the museum experience that worked really well for blind people and the aspects of the experience that posed barriers. Museum representatives then shared their ideas and asked questions. After the meeting the museum staff continued to work with the affiliate liaison to develop a formal plan for moving forward and then to implement the plan and get feedback on various prototypes of designs.

Simultaneously, members of the NCBYS team were facilitating trainings with the museum staff. These trainings included:

These trainings were developed collaboratively with the museum to ensure that they met the needs of the institution. Consequently, the trainings took on various formats and covered a variety of content. Topics covered in the training included tips for interacting with blind people, common access barriers that blind people face in informal learning environments, nonvisual teaching strategies, examples of accessible learning materials, legal and technical standards and guidelines, and Q&A about blindness.

One museum staff member commented on the value of watching videos that showed active blind people. "Seeing people blind being interviewed and watching them maneuver through their day really helped me understand them. They were less mysterious and more like me." Others noted that the discussions gave them a broader perspective. "It has made me focus on specific details and concepts about our museum so that I can better describe it to people instead of just pointing at something and not describing it." "I feel like I have inside knowledge on how blind people feel and what they experience," a staff person commented. "I understand I don't have all the answers, but I feel more like a friend and less like a stranger. I'm sure that alone will help me interact with more sensitivity, warmth."

"I didn't realize how much tactile clues contributed, as audio seemed more obvious to me as a method of learning and perceiving things," one staff member told us. Another remarked, "Even small changes/modifications can have a big impact on accessibility. Start small, think big. As educators interacting with visitors, we can make changes on the fly if we are aware of challenges."

One goal of the trainings was to empower museum staff and increase their confidence so that they would feel prepared for their NFB STEM2U regional programs, when the museum would be taken over by blind people! Each regional program served as another point of collaboration and learning. Members of the NCBYS team collaborated with museum educators to design and adapt various museum activities to ensure that they were accessible to blind students. During the program, the museum staff members got to implement some of their newly acquired knowledge and gain confidence from their successes.

Finally, a representative from each of the museums attended one of two museum partner meetings at the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. At these meetings, the museum partners had the opportunity to learn more about the Federation and the work that we do. Museum partners also had the chance to share the accessibility and programmatic work they were doing related to the NCBYS project. By sharing their work, the museums were able to learn from each other. In the spirit of the informal learning world, the meetings also incorporated learning through play. Museum representatives, NFB affiliate liaisons, and NFB staff collaborated to solve engineering challenges such as building bobsleds and flying discs.

Things to See at the Museum

What do the science museums have that is of interest to blind people? All sorts of cool exhibits! Some of the exhibits are cool for everyone, because, well, they are just cool! Other exhibits are particularly cool for blind people because they offer a learning experience that one cannot get anywhere else. Following are some very brief highlights from each of the six museums. This is just a sneak peek into what the museums have to offer. Take a Saturday afternoon and discover the rest!

Port Discovery Children's Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Freely explore the two-story playscape in the center of the museum with your cane. Then visit the nano exhibit to construct a human-sized carbon nanotube.

Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts

Lie on a bed of nails. Don't worry--you won't get hurt! In the Hall of Human Life, get hands-on experience with the diversity of the human species. Be sure to visit the wall of feet!

Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio

Visit the Progress exhibit to get your hands on everyday items from various periods in history. Build a bridge in the Gadgets exhibit. And don't forget to take a spin on the high-wire unicycle!

Arizona Science Center, Phoenix, Arizona

In the Forces of Nature exhibit you can feel what it's like to be in a hurricane, tornado, volcanic eruption, and wildfire.

Exploratorium, San Francisco, California

Visit the Tactile Dome to win a "lights out" maze! And check out the tidal ribbon in the observatory; it's a very accessible depiction of tide data.

Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota

Check out the collectors' corner, where visitors donate and trade natural treasures such as rocks, minerals, and fossils.

Common Nonvisual Access Barriers

Throughout the project the accessibility advisory groups from each affiliate visited the six museums and reported their feedback. Three common barriers were repeatedly reported. These barriers were found at almost all of the museums.

The first common barrier was wayfinding; blind people have little access to information about what is in the museum and where various exhibits are located. The lack of information makes navigation more challenging than it should be.

The second common barrier was access to textual information within exhibits. The vast majority of the exhibits across museums did not provide the text of exhibits in an accessible format. Without access to the text in the exhibit, it is difficult for blind patrons to understand what they are supposed to do in the exhibit or what they are supposed to learn.

The third common barrier was partially inaccessible interactives. Science museums are full of hands-on exhibits, which are generally great for blind people. But some of the interactive exhibits had elements that were inaccessible, which prevented the blind person from completing the activity. These barriers were frequently found in input-output exhibits; the input mechanism would be hands-on, but the output mechanism might only be visual. For example, in some of the museums there is an exhibit that compares the amount of energy required to illuminate different types of lightbulbs. Visitors produce the required energy by turning a crank or peddling a bike; this part is great. But there is no nonvisual indicator that the lightbulb is lit. (Some creative blind visitors solved this problem by using the light detector app on their iPhones to get around this barrier.)

Accessibility Work in Progress

All six of the NCBYS museum partners have been very receptive to the accessibility feedback that the team has offered. The museums are eager to work toward eliminating the aforementioned barriers. Here are some examples of the work that is currently underway at the museums to eliminate or mitigate the access barriers.


This three-year project has been a fun and exciting learning opportunity for all involved. The museum partners have been wonderful to work with and to learn from. If you want to increase the accessibility of your local science museum, work with your affiliate to develop a relationship with the museum personnel. We have found science museum staff to be open-minded and excited about this work, and we suspect that the same will be true of staff at other museums.

If your affiliate is interested in working with a local museum to increase accessibility, reach out to me at [email protected]. I can share resources and information from the NCBYS project.

[Note: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1322855. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.]

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