Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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Science Meets Magic in Michigan

by Christine Boone with Expert Commentary by Fred Wurtzel

Christine BooneFrom the Editor: In the summer of 2010 the NFB of Michigan became the second NFB affiliate to sponsor a camping experience for teens that also offered exploration in science. Christine Boone was one of the affiliate leaders who helped bring this exciting idea to reality. In the following article she describes the adventure. This is what she says:

There is a magical place in Michigan called Camp Tuhsmeheta. I never understood the magic until I came to Michigan in 2006 and experienced Camp T for myself in 2007. A long time ago, before the closing of the school for the blind in this state, a far-sighted administrator purchased this 300-acre tract of wilderness for school use. Today this track is all that remains of the once excellent Michigan School for the Blind—the very school that graduated a generation of Federation leaders—Fred, Mary, and George Wurtzel; Allen and Joy Harris; and Larry Posont, to name a few; and these were all classmates of Stevie Wonder.

Many of the trails that crisscross Camp Tuhsmeheta were carved out by these same blind people and their comrades. The raised beds in the vegetable garden, the campfire site, and even the camp store and office were all designed and constructed by blind people. It is this spirit of adventure, energy, and innovation that still characterizes Camp T today, which is fortunate indeed, for the heavy hand of the Department of Education continually threatens the very existence of Camp T.

The idea for Michigan’s first science camp revealed itself to Fred Wurtzel, president emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, sometime in the winter of 2009. Fred himself is a lover of science and possesses considerable scientific acumen though his modesty will never let him admit it. He wanted to share the amazing world of scientific investigation, experimentation, and discovery with school-aged blind youth. The problem was that the one thing that Camp T has very little of was money. How were we going to put on a science camp without money? How could we be assured of having Camp T for a week during the busy summer camping season?

Enter one very generous donor. This big-hearted person, who has chosen to remain anonymous even within the Michigan affiliate, donated $20,000 toward the 2010 summer camping season. Whereupon the affiliate’s newly elected president, Larry Posont, approached the director of Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, OUB, the small non-profit cooperative group that managed the Camp and told him that the Federation would donate enough funds to support three weeks of camp on condition that those three weeks could be planned and taught by the NFB of Michigan. Since this donation would nearly double the summer’s budget, Larry’s offer was accepted with alacrity.

The NFB worked closely with the staff of Camp Tuhsmeheta, creating an effective partnership that would benefit everyone. During one week in June we ran a Braille camp, and a culinary camp took place during a week in August. Science camp took center stage during the third week in July. All of the camp counselors, mentors, and administrative staff (more than half of whom are blind) continued with their usual duties during these three weeks. The Federation chose the curriculum, brought in teachers and experts, and planned each day’s educational activities while the camp staff managed the recreational schedule, meals, and some of the evening activities.

Some of our own affiliate members are excellent Braille readers, while others do fine work in the kitchen. When it came to science camp, though, it was not so easy to uncover the talent we desperately needed. For starters, Fred asked Larry Posont and yours truly, Christine Boone, to assist him in putting together Michigan’s first-ever science camp for blind youth. As I have already mentioned, Fred himself possesses an impressive understanding of all things scientific, and Larry can hold his own. As for me, I am an illustration of why we desperately need to have science camps for our young people. Having attended public school back in the days when strange, now extinct creatures roamed the earth, I was not at all engaged in the science classes being offered. I was allowed to “watch,” and you can imagine how effective that was for a blind kid. The result is my embarrassing dearth of understanding of science. So what could I bring to the planning of a truly brilliant science camp?

Both Ed and Kate, Doug’s and my college-age kids, are majoring in environmental science, and Kate is especially interested in the hardest sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. Because she finished high school here in Michigan, Kate developed some especially close relationships with a couple of her science instructors. Thus it happened that we approached Karen Taylor, honors biology instructor at Portage Central High School, and Karen said that she would be delighted to volunteer as long as Kate worked side by side with her as our second instructor. Karen figured that, having grown up around blind people all her life, Kate would be able to teach her how best to reach our young people, and she was also excited to see what is being taught in science classes on college campuses these days. Karen Taylor had twenty-five years of experience as a high school teacher, instructing chemistry, physics, and biology as both college prep and honors courses. As for Kate, she was delighted for the chance to work with Karen again and honored to be given such an opportunity of collaboration and field experience in an area that she loves deeply. Having completed the first semester of her junior year in the spring of 2010, Kate had already finished a number of courses in her major fields of environmental restoration and water science and geology (hydrogeology).

Thirteen-year-old Science Camp student Steven Crouch investigates soil in a wetland marsh with the help of Karen Taylor, a biology teacher and a science educator volunteer.Fred, Karen, and Kate began to put together a curriculum that took advantage of some of Camp Tuhsmeheta’s best features. A surprising number of biomes exist within these 300 pristine acres. You will note that Christine was not part of the curriculum-development team, though the others did let me listen to their plans so that I would not feel so left out. Science camp taught me that a biome is a particular type of habitat, like a bog, a marsh, a meadow, or a forest. In addition to all of these, Camp T has three lakes within its boundaries, as well as a significant amount of old growth timber. What a playground for a bunch of biologists!

The planning group decided for a number of reasons that this first science camp would focus on the study of biomes. Camp T seemed to lend itself perfectly to the study of organisms in nature. Studying them would require plenty of field work, which would allow us to get the kids moving and exploring the world around them in a way that few blind children ever experience. Finally, campers would be able to run a number of basic tests on soil and water, providing excellent feedback for discussion.

Plans for the camp were well underway when I attended last summer’s NFB national convention in Dallas. One afternoon I found myself sitting in a seminar, listening to our newest Federation PhD, Cary Supalo, talk about his company, Independence Science, and its newly developed equipment allowing a blind scientist to take measurements of soil and water temperature, pH levels, density, viscosity, and all manner of other scientific data independently. He told us how the high school students at the Indiana School for the Blind had alpha-tested the device during the school year and that several of them were actually considering careers in science for the first time.

Listening to Dr. Supalo, I could hardly wait to search him out after his presentation. Could our science camp students possibly be permitted to alpha-test the Talking LabQuest? We didn’t have much time. I should have contacted him much sooner, if only I had known that this LabQuest would be just the thing to distinguish Michigan’s first science camp for blind youth, from any other camp that might be offered across the state. What an honor this would be! But the first day of Camp was just over two weeks away. Fortunately for me, Cary Supalo is a wonderfully generous person. Fortunately, too, he and I were scholarship winners together in 1994, though I was already getting old then, and he was just eighteen. Most fortunately of all, Cary’s partner in developing the Talking LabQuest, Mick Isaacson, was excited about our camp, willing to volunteer his time, and living within driving distance of the Camp. When Mick said that he was available and willing to bring the Talking LabQuest to us and to train our teachers and volunteers in its operation, I knew that this was going to be an incredible experience for everyone involved.

On the Saturday before camp started, Kate and I drove up to Camp T and checked into the Radisson. Readers should know that the Radisson is not what you might think. It is a tent, one of only four or five available, each of which serves as private quarters for volunteers and staff who do not want to stay in the girls’ or boys’ cabins. One of these tents, twice as long as the rest, was fittingly named the Hilton several years ago. Not wanting to feel like second-class citizens, Kate and I promptly named ours the Radisson since it was situated right next to the Hilton.

Volunteers Fred Wurtzel and Melinda Latham had arrived before we did, while our lead teacher, Karen Taylor, and Mick Isaacson, our man with the Talking LabQuest, arrived on Sunday afternoon. Everyone got to work roaming the trails, woods, and streams one more time, just to be sure they had selected the very best sites for the week; organizing the plethora of donated equipment from the Portage Public Schools and the Indiana School for the Blind; going through our list of campers, learning their names and a little bit about each of them; and meeting the wonderful staff of Camp Tuhsmeheta. As soon as possible we all gathered in Mick’s newly made classroom, to learn everything we needed to know about the Talking LabQuest. He trained Karen, Kate, Fred, Melinda, and even Christine in the operation of this small piece of technology that opened many avenues for scientific research for blind people. Karen and Kate were thrilled to discover that the unit was based on the same data-collection program they had used in the past, and Mick was a wonderful instructor.

Along with being a great person, Mick is a music lover, and he brought a guitar, not that he got to play much. Tony, one of the campers, is a gifted guitarist, though his genre is pretty much foreign to some of us older (might I say mature) folks. Tony borrowed Mick’s guitar and graced us with his talents in almost every free moment.

Tony was just one of the great kids from around Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois who attended. Teaching can be gratifying when the kids are heard talking about the gender of trees or how cool it is to explode Diet Coke and Mentos. The campers were incredible. They personified such words as energy, enthusiasm, searching, curiosity, and hope. We knew we were doing a good thing when we heard those all-too-common stories of isolation, loneliness, and alienation that some of them felt in their home schools and how they loved having people around who believed in them and encouraged them to take a risk or get dirty along with everyone else.

Shown here are science camp staff members as they make Braille mix, a variation on the popular trail mix except that all the ingredients are round and can be used as Braille dots. Shown from left to right are Cindy Bennett, Christine Boone, Kate Boone, and Karen Taylor, whose arms appear in the foreground.Every activity in the science, culinary, and Braille camps was designed to include pieces from the Expanded Core Curriculum for Blind Children and the National Agenda and covered science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Our intention was to augment and support home and school learning in the regular school year. Most important, we wanted to open the campers’ minds to the possibility of science, technology, engineering, or math as potential career paths for them as blind people. With plenty of blind role models as teachers, counselors, and support staff, Camp T along with the NFB provides a positive environment in which this process can take place.

Highlights from the Science Camp Schedule

Sunday July 18, 2010

2:00–4:00 Check-in. Ten campers meet their cabin counselors and mentors for the week. For some this is their first visit to the camp, while others have long considered it their summer home.
4:00–5:30 Waterfront and swim tests: The lake at Camp T is approximately thirty feet deep right off the dock, so a large pool has been set in the center of the dock for those whose swimming ability is still developing. The pool is about four feet deep all over. All campers’ goal is to pass the green swim test so that they will be allowed to swim in the lake any time a life guard is on duty.
5:30–6:00 Change.
6:00–7:15 Dinner: Dinner is usually served family style at Camp Tuhsmeheta. Campers must serve themselves, pass both hot and cold dishes around the table, and pour their own milk or water. For Federationists who attended schools for the blind, this skill is old hat, but in these times of full inclusion it is rare indeed that a blind child is permitted to serve himself in public, even when the fare is finger food. Pouring drinks is an even greater challenge for some, while nostalgic counselors and volunteers still recognize the cold steel pitchers that were brought here from the Michigan School for the Blind.
7:30–8:30 Campfire, with introductions all around, lots of songs, stories, and laughter.
8:30–8:35 Flag-lowering: During each flag-lowering ceremony a new camper learns how to bring the flag down the pole and fold it properly for the night. This is a quiet, respectful time and is especially moving after the hilarious hour just spent around the camp fire.
9:30 Lights out

Monday July 19, 2010

8:20–8:30 Flag-raising: once again, during each morning’s raising of the flag, a new camper learns to unfold the flag respectfully, attach it to the pole, and raise it, letting the Stars and Stripes fly over Camp Tuhsmeheta for another day. As soon as the flag is raised, a signal is given to start the Pledge of Allegiance.
8:30–9:15 Breakfast: With more passing of bowls and pouring of juice, but it gets just a little easier each day.
9:30–10:00 Discussion about lakes, rivers, and streams—today’s topic.

Tuesday morning, 9:30–12:00 Science at the stream: The first order of the day is the three-quarters-of-a-mile walk to the culvert. This is the place where the stream runs right underneath the dirt road on which we had been walking. In order to reach the water far below, campers got to climb down a steep hillside nicely covered with trees, brush, and rocks, and certainly with no path, before taking off their shoes and stepping into the icy water of the stream. Their slides were strategically placed in various channels of the water. These would be used later to measure various elements left behind by fast- or slow-moving water. Then each camper used the Talking LabQuest for the first time, to measure both the temperature of that water (about forty-eight degrees) and its pH level (between 5.8 and 6.7, depending upon the spot where it was taken). Several students had never stepped into a streambed before, and most had never traversed such rough terrain. Since not everyone could work in the water at the same time, those who waited up on the road heard a lecture about old growth timber and reforestation. On the way back for lunch, students gathered soil samples for later testing.
12:00–12:30 Wash-up and change.
12:30–1:15 Lunch.
1:30–2:15 Rest period: A forty-five-minute rest period is required each day, according to the Michigan Department of Education. This is not really for the kids at all.
7:30–8:30 Exploding Diet Coke: After a day of hard work it was time for a little easy fun. Anyone who has put Mentos into Diet Coke will know what a blast this can be.

Wednesday morning: 9:30–12:00 Science of the wetlands: Since Camp T has both a bog and a wetland, we trekked to both of them, collecting more soil samples and taking the opportunity for some more off-roading. Many of our campers had never before been allowed to leave the path while walking in the woods. How amazed they were to see what lay beyond the trail’s edge. Naturally some of us had to plow our way through the cattails, just to see how close to the lake’s edge we could get without falling in. This was a great hit, especially when no one with any vision was allowed to come along. I was continually astonished at what our young people did not know. “So, if we swim in the lake from the dock, how can the same lake be over here beyond these cattails?” “If we step off the path, will there be anything to stand on?”
2:30–4:30 Measuring scientific data: Once again we turned to the Talking LabQuest. Campers tested the pH levels in the soil samples taken from bog and wetland today, and from the drier places along the forest trail yesterday. They also collected the slides from the creek and looked at the slimy solution that had formed on the little glass plates that had spent the night in the slow-moving channel of the stream. They discovered that the glass that had rested in the swiftly flowing water did not gather nearly as much slime.
4:30–5:30 Discussion: By this time we had many things to discuss about blindness. The students, so hesitant on Sunday and even Monday morning, were really getting excited about what they were learning. So much was possible for a blind person...who knew?
7:00–8:20 Anointed Archers: This archery club comes to Camp Tuhsmeheta several times each summer, sets up a whole lot of balloons as targets, and teaches campers how to hold and shoot a bow and arrow.

That was not the end of Science Camp, but you get the idea. this was one of the most exciting weeks I have ever spent. Both Fred Wurtzel and Kate Boone are already talking about this year’s opportunities. Our campers were very excited about fire last summer. They told us that nature was a very interesting part of science and a great place to begin learning, but explosions, infernos, and conflagrations--now those would be challenges that blind teens really should experience. What did we think? I think the jury may still be out on that one.

Here is the press release that was prepared by Purdue University, where the Talking LabQuest was developed by Dr. Supalo and his colleague Mick Isaacson:

Software from Purdue Research Park-Based Firm
Assists Blind Students at Michigan Camp

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana--Blind and partially blind students who attended Camp Tuhsmeheta in Greenville, Michigan, for a week in July gained hands-on experience in collecting data in various ecosystems, thanks to software developed by a Purdue Research Park-based firm. When text-to-speech software developed by Independence Science, LLC, is implemented in the LabQuest--a device that collects and stores scientific data such as wind speed and moisture levels--the information displayed on the device's screen is made audible. The text-to-speech software was funded by the National Science Foundation.

"Students affected by blindness and low vision who cannot access the LabQuest data visually now can receive it aurally," said Cary Supalo, president and founder of Independence Science.  During hikes along streams, bogs, and forests students used the LabQuest device and the text-to-speech software to collect and report data while learning about environmental biology.

"The opportunity to use the software that enables blind students to use the LabQuest device and probes was exciting. The campers used the probes to measure pH levels and temperature by themselves," said Karen Taylor, co-science educator at Camp Tuhsmeheta. "For most students, it was the first time they were able to do such data collection. They were impressed with the system and that they could collect the data themselves."

Kate Boone, co-science educator, who studies hydrogeology and soil science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Ginny Beauregard, Great Lakes Watershed Educator from the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Cranbrook Institute of Science, worked with Taylor during the camp. Independence Science provided the LabQuest devices, and the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired provided the probes.

Christine Boone, one of the camp organizers, said the software may have long-term benefits for blind students. "Generations of blind students have sat in classrooms, where their participation in science experiments and learning exercises has been limited at best and nonexistent as a rule," Boone said. "The software from Independence Science for the LabQuest device has the power to change that forever, leveling the playing field for all blind youth as they make their way through primary and secondary education."

The science camp, funded by the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, was the first formal one held at Camp Tuhsmeheta. The success of making science more hands-on for the students may lead to future camps, said Mick Isaacson of Independence Science and Purdue University's Department of Educational Studies. "Future camps with curricula that include other scientific disciplines such as chemistry and physics are being planned for next year. Organizers are optimistic that they will be able to forge collaborative relationships with institutions focused on the education of blind and partially blind students, universities throughout the Midwest and possibly beyond, and other applicable organizations," Isaacson said. "Science camps such as the one at Camp Tuhsmeheta are important, not only for the education of blind students, but also for fostering the belief that they have the capacity to do science."

Fred Wurtzel, another camp organizer, said students' increased enthusiasm for science may impact their career choices. "The Independence Science software is a wonderful window through which blind children may have access to science on an equal footing with their sighted student peers," Wurtzel said. "Our campers were enthusiastic about the equipment, and their increased access to data provided a way to be personally involved in all aspects of scientific investigation. We are all excited to imagine the future for blind persons to participate in science-related careers. The future equipment promises to be even more liberating to blind scientists."


Giving a Dream

One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.

Seize the Future

The National Federation of the Blind has special giving opportunities that will benefit the giver as well as the NFB. Of course the largest benefit to the donor is the satisfaction of knowing that the gift is leaving a legacy of opportunity. However, gifts may be structured to provide more:

NFB programs are dynamic:

Your gift makes you a partner in the NFB dream. For further information or assistance, contact the NFB planned giving officer.

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