Braille Monitor                                                                                                           November 2004

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Two Small Camps, One Giant
Leap into the Future for Blind Youth:
The Next Generation of Rocket Scientists

by Danica Taylor

From the Editor: One of the most exciting efforts the NFB has undertaken in a number of years has been the two science camps for blind students we conducted this past summer. Twenty-four young people have now been exposed to serious science in new and exciting ways, and this is only the beginning. The importance of this early NFB-Jernigan Institute program is such that we are devoting two articles in this issue to reporting on what happened. The first piece is an overview of the program, and the second is a much more detailed report on the two science camps and where this program is going in the future. Danica Taylor is a relatively new member of the NFB staff. Her first assignment as National Federation of the Blind copy editor was to report on our new Science Academy. Here is that report:

In the February 2004 issue of the Braille Monitor, Mark Riccobono, National Federation of the Blind manager of education programs, published an article entitled, "Reaching Out for New Opportunities: The 2004 NFB Summer Science Experience." His article was written in anticipation of the NFB Science Camps, which were coordinated by the NFB in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The expectations and goals for these camps outlined in the article were ambitious, and some wondered whether blind students could meet such high expectations.

The 2004 NFB Science Camps (in future to be known as the "NFB Science Academy," reflecting the fact that the objectives of the camps focus on academics and learning rather than leisure) were held in two separate sessions. The first, entitled Circle of Life, running from July 18 to July 24, included middle school students enrolled in grades six to eight. The second session, Rocket On! running from August 15 to August 21, included high school students who would ultimately become the first blind high school students ever to launch a sounding rocket.

The immediate educational purposes of the camps were slightly different, as can be seen from the titles of the sessions. While both camps promoted interest in the field of science, the Circle of Life camp focused on life sciences, while the Rocket On! camp concentrated on the physical sciences.

However, despite their apparent differences, the two camps shared a number of goals. Scientists, camp facilitators, and other blind professionals mentored the students in the science camps, giving them positive reinforcement and instilling a spirit of accomplishment throughout the week of activities. According to lead instructor Robin House, the mentoring allowed interaction between the adults and the students in ways the youngsters had never before experienced. "One of the most remarkable observations," says House, "was the way these twenty-four blind kids touched the lives of each other and the staff in such a short time."

House goes on to say that it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of promoting science among blind youth. "It's hard to pull anyone into this field," she points out. "It is even harder to prove to blind kids that they can do it."

Many blind students are told, either directly or indirectly, that hard science is too complicated for them even to try. "The hands-on experience, performing all aspects of science, will benefit these kids throughout their middle school and high school years and into their careers, whether or not they enter the field of science," says House.

House also stresses the importance of an "I can" attitude, the notion that blindness is absolutely not a hindrance to success in science or any other field. This attitude was the foundation of the objectives of both camps.

Each camp session consisted of twelve blind students invited to participate free of charge. The NFB provided funding. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), under the direction of President Barbara Cheadle, assisted the NFB in selecting the students. To be considered for invitation, students completed an initial interest form. Then Mrs. Cheadle interviewed potential Circle of Life campers, along with their parents. The campers were chosen based on individual characteristics, interests, and hobbies to form a body of students with aspirations in many areas, including math, science, literature, music, and social science.

Applicants for the Rocket On! camp wrote essays on various topics, such as what they believed the blind could contribute to the field of science. The students also submitted transcripts of their grades and letters of recommendation, and the twelve best applicants came to the Rocket On! camp session.

However, the current success of each student was not the only concern in the selection process. Just as important was each applicant's potential to excel in science in the future. "We would like to see these students entering careers in science-related fields," says Mark Riccobono. "Maybe some of them will be employed at NASA."

Along with the NFB, NASA worked as both a partner and a contributor in both camp sessions. During the Circle of Life session NASA provided a day at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where campers examined soil, plants, and birds. Through nonvisual observation the campers could pick out important characteristics of the artifacts being examined and link that information to the environment. Elissa Levine, NASA scientist, provided a preparatory session for the campers at the Jernigan Institute that helped prepare them for their work at Goddard.

NASA also provided expertise and information for several different hands-on experiences for the campers. The middle schoolers learned how to obtain a soil sample and detect the characteristics of the soil by touch. They also discovered how to identify certain elements of the soil by smell. They learned how to test water for certain components and the way in which such a procedure gives scientists knowledge about the planet. They themselves realized the benefits of this hands-on experience. As Circle of Life camper Tiffany Clements of Ramona, California, put it, "The camp experience helped me understand science because everything was hands-on, so it was easier to figure out what things were and what they did."

Campers learn to identify plants at Goddard Space Flight Center.   Left to right: Bryce Gitzen, Andrew Wai, Robin House, and Daisy Soto.
Campers learn to identify plants at Goddard Space Flight Center. Left to right: Bryce Gitzen, Andrew Wai, Robin House, and Daisy Soto

The Circle of Life campers traveled to the Naturalist Center--a branch of the Smithsonian Institution--in Leesburg, Virginia. Here the students worked with Professor Geerat Vermeij, a blind marine biologist from the University of California at Davis. Of the experience, Professor Vermeij notes, "Blind children need hands-on experience. They need to learn what the scientific mode of thinking is; they need to learn how to ask questions [and] how to make observations. Blind children get even shorter shrift than the average sighted child does, so I think it is essential for them to be exposed to science." This contact with Professor Vermeij helped to mentor the campers by exposing them to successful blind professionals working in the field of science.

The Circle of Life campers then traveled to the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, where, along with the camp facilitators and Science Center staff, they dissected a shark.

Students dissect a shark at the Maaryland Science Center.   Left to right: Andrew Wai, Adult mentor Paul Howard, and Jordan Richardson.
Students dissect a shark at the Maryland Science Center. Left to right: Andrew Wai, adult mentor Paul Howard, and Jordan Richardson

The National Center for the Blind also conducted activities for both camps at its facilities in Baltimore. Walter Adam, an engineer who works in the automobile industry, explained the mechanics and physics of small engines. Dr. Kent Cullers, a blind radio astronomer, discussed his work in a telephone conference call. He explained to campers how he analyzes data using modern instruments and nonvisual techniques.

All of these and other activities during the week-long camp helped to build the confidence of the students and prove to them that blindness need not be a hindrance to success in science. It's one thing to tell blind students that they can succeed; it's another thing actually to show them that they can do it. This is exactly what the camp facilitators strove to do--and they succeeded. As one camper put it, "Now I actually know I can do dissections, make conclusions, collect and record data, share and communicate information with others."

Like the Circle of Life camp, the Rocket On! camp included the partnership of NASA, which provided the materials and the facilities for the rocket launch, which was the climax of the camp. Among the NASA personnel involved was Phil Eberspeaker, chief of the Wallops Sounding Rocket Program. Along with Robin House and electrical engineer Dr. Michael Gosse, he led instructional discussions with the campers on Monday and Tuesday. The students learned about the history of rocketry, Newton's laws, basic rocket physics, and basic electronics.

Dr. Robert Shelton, a blind mathematician from Johnson Space Center, demonstrated the use of a new software instrument that he developed, the Math Description Engine (MDE) Graphing Calculator, which uses nonvisual techniques to convey information to the user. Professor Bernard Beck-Winchatz, DePaul University astronomer and faculty member, also made presentations to the campers.

Action Reaction team makes sure that the rocket is properly loaded onto the launcher.
Action Reaction team makes sure that the rocket is properly loaded onto the launcher.

After initial instructional sessions that included all twelve campers working together as one group, the facilitators divided the campers into three separate teams. Each team was responsible for a different part of the rocket launch. The Circuiteers were responsible for the payload; the Ego Squad was responsible for the trajectory; and the Action-Reaction team was responsible for launch pad operations.

On Wednesday the campers made the three-hour trip from Baltimore to Wallops Flight Facility to perform last-minute preparations for the launch. They arose at 3:00 a.m. on Thursday morning--launch day--and reported for duty at 4:00 a.m. Stress levels were understandably high because the launch window was small--from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. Also potentially uncontrollable factors could hinder the successful launch of the 10.5-foot rocket. For example, the experimental rocket had a hybrid motor that had never before been used at Wallops. During preliminary testing some of these motors exploded. Although the cause of the explosions had been identified and supposedly remedied, the possibility remained that the rocket still might explode during the launch, despite the fact that teams had done everything in their power to prepare for a successful launch.

In addition to the possibility of an explosion, a high wind could also be a barrier. But the launch went according to plan, and the rocket reached an altitude of 4,900 feet just twenty seconds after takeoff. A small error did occur during the rocket's descent, however, which prevented the main chute from opening and caused the rocket to slam into the water and break apart. Much of the debris was recovered, though, in time for the campers to examine the damage.

NFB President Marc Maurer congratulated the campers upon their return to the Jernigan Institute at the National Center for the Blind. President Maurer and other NFB staff watched the entire launch from the Jernigan Institute, thanks to a live Web cast from the Wallops Web site.

During a Friday-morning press conference at Goddard Space Flight Center, Director Ed Weiler delivered the opening remarks. Then the campers discussed the mission from their points of view.

This past summer twenty-four blind youngsters, representing sixteen states, learned firsthand that they have everything it takes to succeed in science. Expectations were high, and success was achieved. But the fact that the 2004 camps are over does not mean that the mentoring process is finished. The camp facilitators have begun a follow-up program including a listserve through which the campers can remain in contact with their assigned mentors, involved NASA employees, and camp facilitators. A familiar expression these days is, "It isn't rocket science." On the contrary, this is quite literally rocket science, and success for blind people in this field is obviously possible. The campers at the 2004 NFB Science Camps realize this now, even if they didn't before.

The objectives of the 2004 NFB Science Camps were certainly met. But, according to Mark Riccobono, the ultimate goal is to provide a National Center for Blind Youth in Science as a facet of the Jernigan Institute. It will offer a clearinghouse for educational resources--a centralized collection of resources related to blind youth--that can be accessed by the blind youth themselves, their parents, science teachers, special education teachers, and others in order to learn how best to teach science to blind students. It would appear that this larger, long-term goal is well on its way to fruition and that it is only a matter of time until more and more blind youth will begin successful careers as the scientists of the future.

Circle of Life camper Andrew Wai, from Harleysville, Pennsylvania, sums up the positive results of the 2004 NFB Science Camps, providing further proof of the effectiveness of the program in teaching these students the truth about blindness: "Science Academy has given me confidence in myself because I was able to see a lot of blind people who have been successful in science. Probably without this camp I would never get to meet such people."

For more information about the application process for next year's camps, contact Mark Riccobono at <[email protected]>, or visit the NFB's Web site at <>.

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