The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Rocket On!: Excitement, Challenge, and Growth

by Matt Maurer

From the Editor: Dr. Matt Maurer is the brother of NFB President Marc Maurer. He is on sabbatical from his teaching job at Butler University in Indiana. Here is his report on the Rocket On! Science Academy camp last summer:

Heather Hammond and Kyle Conley pose with the tail section of the rocket in the foreground. 

Heather Hammond and Kyle Conley pose with the tail section of the rocket in the foreground.

In July I was privileged to be part of the facilitation team for the Rocket On! Session of the 2005 Science Academy, which was conducted by the NFB in partnership with NASA. The Academy was open to blind high school students from around the country who have an interest in science. It was the second year for this project, which coupled instruction from NASA scientists with facilitation and mentoring from NFB members. Additional instruction was delivered by other selected presenters.

The eleven students assembled in 2005 comprised an exceptionally talented group from around the country. In my work as a professor of education, I have had the opportunity to work with many varied groups of students. This group was as talented as any I have met. Yet each member of the group came with his or her individual challenges.

By the end of the program it was clear that the Academy had been wildly successful, not because the launch was successful, but because a tremendous amount of learning and growth had occurred. That growth was not simply about science; it included personal growth on the part of each individual student--growth in self-confidence, self-awareness, travel skills, attitude about blindness, teamwork, and myriad other areas.

In science they learned about electrical circuits, rocket motors, parachutes, stars, and materials science, to name a few of the topics they studied. Given that blind learners often have a relatively weak experience in science, that learning was important. That importance notwithstanding, the personal growth was even more important, because the odds are that few of these students will choose to become rocket scientists. For those who do not, the science learning that occurred becomes interesting and broadly useful background knowledge. I trust that each of these students will go on to do something important in the world, and their personal growth will serve all of the students intimately and powerfully.

Yet another area of growth was the development of their philosophy of blindness. These students each came from different circumstances, they had amassed vastly different experience sets, and they have had different kinds of mentoring in their lives. Only a few of the students had already had much in the way of blind role models. Some students had done little thinking about blindness, while others had done more but without much expert guidance. Some students had even developed significant misconceptions about the general capabilities of blind people. The thinking they did during the Academy coupled with the guidance they received while doing that thinking produced some noticeable results. I could see a cohesive, positive philosophy developing in most of the students, and in a few I could see an existing philosophy being reinforced or sometimes challenged.

Nijat Worley works on the rocket's electronics with NASA electrical technician Jim LaGarde observing his work.

Nijat Worley works on the rocket's electronics with NASA electrical technician Jim LaGarde observing his work.

In addition to the learning and personal growth, another important outcome was the development of personal relationships. Many connections were formed among the students, the facilitators, the presenters, and the NASA staff, some of which will last. In addition, the relationships that were formed could potentially become an entree for the students into an important community. The Academy certainly introduced the students to the NFB, and it gave each student several people as primary contacts within the NFB. It also gave the students a few NASA contacts that could allow access to that scientific community. In addition, the NFB established an email list for this year�s and last year�s students. The participants themselves are and could continue to be the core of an interesting and potentially useful community.

With all the emphasis I place on the personal development that occurred, one might wonder if the science element of the Academy was all that important. It was tremendously important because every student left the Academy with the idea that, �If I wish, I can become a scientist.� That idea alone is worthy of all the time, effort, and expense invested in this project.

Given the great success of this Academy, one might ask what made it so successful? The key elements of its success include:

· The small number of students
· The number of blind people involved
· The high credibility of instructors and presenters
· The close contact with NASA scientists
· The instructional design
· The personalities of instructors and facilitators
· The high expectations for the learners
· The student mentors
· The students

One of the most important choices in the design of the Academy was to keep it small. It was designed for about twelve students, and this year eleven attended. That small number allowed the facilitators and presenters to make intimate connections with each student. No student could hide, and no one got lost in the shuffle.

Another important issue was the high number of blind people involved in the project. All but one of the facilitators was blind (which meant I was a minority of one on the team). Some of the presenters were blind, and the students had an opportunity to meet with a group of blind NASA employees. The high ratio of blind to sighted adult participants coupled with the relatively small student group gave the students ample opportunity to connect intimately with a blind person and receive a wide range of modeling and mentoring. Many of the students had previously had little or no opportunity to have that sort of relationship with a blind adult. So many blind individuals were involved that several times the visual acuity of the adults was not explicitly defined, and the students sometimes got it wrong. That was gratifying because it illustrated to them that being blind versus being sighted is not the great distinction that is often assumed.

The fact that the presenters all had very high qualifications to teach their subjects helped with the student engagement at the time of instruction, and it helped add enthusiasm for the entire project. Working with a university physicist, for example, got the students� attention, and it made them more excited about the entire program. Working with the NASA scientists was particularly powerful in this regard. When each student was partnered with a NASA scientist for the launch, not a sleepyhead appeared in the room, even though the students were in fact operating on very little sleep due to the 3:00 a.m. wake-up call.

The design of the instruction was an important element of the success of Rocket On! The goal of launching a rocket was probably the single most important element of the design, which kept the students focused individually and helped them pull together as a group. The flow of the instruction from morning until night and from day to day also contributed. The days were very intense, filled with a wide range of activities. This maintained the students� attention. There was little time for minds to wander; and, although there were a few nodding heads from time to time, that problem was minimal. Even though the time we spent together was packed with activity, the facilitators took time for issues as they arose in the group. For example, more than once issues related to blindness arose. We made time in the schedule to discuss these issues and to come to some resolution.

The choice of instructors and facilitators was also important. The group of adults who worked with these students was uncommonly flexible. Changes were made on the fly, people jumped in when needed, and above all the adults were all sincerely interested in working with the students, talking with them, explaining, and clarifying. If a gap developed, somebody figured out a way to fill it. In addition, very little in the way of overblown egos surfaced among the adults. They were all highly credentialed, and in a group like this egos are often a problem. Each adult involved seemed truly committed to the growth of the students. Many intimate connections were made between students and adults. Along with the learning a lot of banter, teasing, and jibing permeated the session. This set a tone that was at the same time serious and playful. That combination is powerful for learning--too playful and little gets accomplished, too serious and students disengage from the learning. The personalities of the adults made the tone and flow of the Academy particularly effective for student learning.

All of the adults clearly had high expectations for the students. In many programs the words �high expectations� are prominent, yet during this Academy little was said on the subject. Instead we all lived those expectations. They were implicit in the way the Academy was structured, they were implicit in the way adults interacted with students, and they were implicit in the requirements of student behavior and performance. As is so often the case, the students rose to the expectations of the facilitators and instructors, and in some cases they exceeded those expectations.

Two students from the previous year were selected to act as student mentors. This was helpful in creating an ongoing culture of this Academy. Even though some of the activities were refined from last year, it was important to establish a mode of operation for the Academy. The students from 2004 helped create that thread of continuity. They also provided some important maturity and peer mentoring for the 2005 group. The student mentors were living examples of what is expected of a Rocket On! participant.

The most important element making this Academy successful was the students themselves. Each time I enter into a learning situation like this I am reminded of the old saw--�you can lead a horse to water, but you can�t make it drink.� All we could do was to provide the learning opportunities; the students had to choose to participate. These students drank--they drank deeply.

I would be remiss if I closed without some mention of the feelings that were created by this experience. The students were challenged, and not just academically, but also personally. These challenges produced a significant level of stress on many of the students. Yet within this challenging environment substantial joy was generated. I experienced a tremendous level of joy while working with these students, and I believe most of them felt the same. We worked hard, but while we were at it, we enjoyed each other�s company. As I remember these intense few days, I can�t help smiling. This was a bright, powerful, and fun group of young men and women, and we can look forward to hearing more from them as they mature.