Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1991

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by Charles J. Duveen

How can we give blind and partially sighted children a clear competitive edge over their normally sighted peers? How can we develop education that will provide these children with the tools they need to demonstrate confidence in their abilities while showing the public their true potential for meaningful employment? How do we begin setting our sights beyond equality and place blind children at a distinct advantage in school and eventually in the workforce?

Some may think this goal to be lofty and unrealistic. But for any parent, teacher, school and community leader involved in the training of blind children, this is exactly the goal we must strive to achieve in the 90s. We are developing a program that I believe will become a leading step in this direction. We call it The Balloon Project.

What is the Balloon Project?

The Balloon Project is a program that requires secondary students to apply math, science, art, writing, and language skills to a technical venture spanning the entire school year. They must design, build, test, and launch a helium-filled vehicle that carries a small motion picture camera. This launch vehicle must release the camera from a height of about 200 ft. and return it safely to a predicted landing point on the ground. The aerial movies, the bearing and elevation tracking data, and other information taken during the launch vehicle flight will be used by the students to analyze the performance of their design. Other student-designed support equipment such as the helium tank Field Transport Vehicle (FTV) and the Wind Measuring Station (WMS) will have to operate flawlessly. And there is more.

To complete this project on time and within the students' proposed budget, they will need to manage each of five program phases:

Phase I: Start-up
Phase II: Research and Development
Phase III: Design-Build-Test
Phase IV: Launch and Retrieval
Phase V:Data Analysis and Reporting

As in any major program of this complexity, the students must establish a project organization. The students will form departments or teams to carry out the program functions: Management, Engineering, Weather and Ground Control, and Communications. And finally, a Safety Review Board composed of four students and one teacher will ensure that all activities, procedures, and equipment designs comply with the stringent safety regulations developed early in the program.

Each of the Program phases has milestone completion dates that are described in a "contract document." Using this document the students will plan the entire project using dependency schedules and budgeted spend plans for each department, They will manage the project and report each month's progress against the planned objectives.

Since we do not provide any designs for the launch vehicle or other support equipment, the students will be using natural creativity and critical thinking skills to come up with their own home-grown designs. We need only coach them through the processes and teach them some relevant applications of subjects they learn in school.

These subjects include:

MATHEMATICS: Such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and logic.
SCIENCE: Such as physics, chemistry, meteorology, environmental science, experimentation, the scientific method. LANGUAGE: Such as Braille, research, writing, presentations, correspondence, interviews, reports.
ART/GRAPHICS: Such as technical drawing, design, modeling, fabrication, commercial art, display graphics.
INFORMATION/TECHNOLOGY: Such as word processing, data base, spread sheets.
SOCIAL STUDIES: Such as coordination with local, state, and federal agencies; presentations to community groups and a school in another state/country.
WORKFORCE: Such as teamwork, safety, budgeting, scheduling, risk analysis, total quality management, accountability, leadership.

These academic subjects are interrelated. They are used in any major design development program that requires many skills and tools to solve technical, managerial, and artistic problems. Blind students will experience these applications in the context of achieving project goals rather than in the isolation of topical classroom teaching.

Braille and Alternative Techniques

As you can gather from the above description, this program has not been designed specifically for blind children. We start with the premise that blind children can accomplish whatever sighted children can. Only the method of reading, displaying, and exchanging information is different.

Since the students will be holding meetings and giving presentations to blind and sighted audiences, they will have to prepare a variety of display media. They must prepare materials which they can read and use, and materials suited for a sighted audience. Obviously, the use of Braille and other techniques of blindness will be important tools in the project.

The demands of the project can demonstrate to the students the importance of literacy skills and alternative techniques of blindness in real life work situations. For example, they must be able to write and read their own: minutes from meetings with action items, assignments, and due dates; brainstorming ideas; Launch procedures; test procedures; safety instructions; check lists; nameplate data; status reports; notes; research materials/information; schedule chart labels; monthly calendar of events; organization charts; and flow diagrams.

One of the largest displays will be a ten-month dependency schedule which is used to plan the entire project. This display will be several feet long and will plot all of the major activities that students must complete to meet the major milestone deadlines. Braille and other tactile labels for the activities, target dates and time lines will allow the students to view the "big picture" and help them develop work-around plans when delays occur.

Teamwork Development

The success of this project relies heavily on the ability of the students to work as a team. This is not as easy as it may sound, especially when you consider the millions of dollars that corporations spend each year on team training. The four project departments will function as teams with clearly defined responsibilities. Each department will receive a grade based on achievement of their scheduled monthly milestones. It will become obvious (with the help of teacher and parent coaching) that working as a team will impact favorably on performance. The early weeks of the project will usually bear this out. Teamwork is perhaps the single most important outcome of the entire program, for if the children learn to work effectively as team members, they will most probably excel in any workplace environment.

Pilot Programs

In 1989 The Balloon Project was piloted at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City. Twenty-one high school students and five teachers worked on the project two days a week. The students were successful in developing a working launch vehicle with a camera platform, a remote control, a digital timing device, a rat trap-activated trigger mechanism, two parachutes, and of course a helium-filled weather balloon.

Were there problems? Most assuredly, but the teachers, the administration, and I worked hard to overcome them. We learned a great deal about what will work in a school setting and what will not. We also learned that many of the students could better link their academic subjects when applying them to a real set of problems. This is not a new idea; in fact it is well documented in research completed over the last thirty years and is intuitively obvious.

Last September, the Reverend Robert Manthorp invited us to work with blind students at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) New College in Worcester, England for a period of three weeks. These children, aged 12 to 16, were brilliant in their grasp of the technical problems that had to be solved. Collectively they developed some creative answers to our most difficult question: how do we get the movie camera back safely? At our last meeting, a potential launch site had been selected and the first concept drawings for the helium tank Field Transport Vehicle completed.

Two blind professionals were extremely helpful during my trip to England. Mr. Les Ball, a computer analyst from Nottingham and Mr. Andrew Komosa, a teacher from Sheffield, met with me. We discussed the goals of the program and methods of implementing the project for blind children. Both were keenly impressed with the idea of creating practical applications of math and science for blind children. Mr. Ball, who designs and builds his own electronic circuit boards, offered to help develop a teaching module for training blind children to make simple circuits. Although we were unable to secure funding for a pilot program in England, we established strong links that will allow us to coordinate future programs.

In January of this year we visited the Maryland School for the Blind and introduced the project activities with a short demonstration to teachers and students at the school. We discussed calculating the diameter of a spherical balloon by measuring its circumference. A group of students inflated a 3-foot and an 8-foot diameter weather balloon with air and measured the circumference of each. They proceeded to calculate the diameters of the balloons using the formula C = piD. The two hour introduction covered geometry, algebra, leadership, brainstorming, measurement, estimating, teamwork, procedure development, and safety.

Even more impressive were their ideas on how to release the camera from the launch vehicle. A height sensor, a small computer, and a remote control were suggestions from students in less than 90 seconds of posing the question. After working with this group, an observer might have thought that we were dealing with a class of "gifted" children. Although standard test scores may preclude this classification, they were indeed acting like gifted students, and their creative minds were firing off ideas faster than I could respond to them. These children were functioning as a team of problem solvers, addressing every issue that I threw their way. Perhaps we should redefine GIFTED.

Future Planning

We will be working closely with the National Federation of the Blind to develop special materials needed for blind children to participate in this program. The resources of the NFB will also permit networking with blind professionals who can provide guidance and ideas to improve and expand the use of activity-centered learning for blind children. If funding becomes available, we will prepare to start two pilot programs in September 1991. With experience from those pilot projects the program can be replicated and improved accordingly and new projects developed for implementation.


Our goal is to build the confidence and self-image of blind children while empowering them with skills they will need in the current and future workforce. In doing so we can expand their horizons and educate the public to recognize the capabilities of blind people in every professional field.

The Balloon Project and other interdisciplinary programs that we develop will provide work-related skills and experiences usually not developed or encountered until college or on the job. It is our responsibility to give blind graduates every competitive advantage that their schooling can deliver. We cannot start too soon in this endeavor.

The Balloon Project, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization established to design creative educational programs for children with special needs.

Mr. Charles J. Duveen has a Master of Education degree from Adelphi University and experience in teaching secondary school mathematics and science. He spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, after which he joined the management staff of UNISYS, gaining twelve years' vital experience in project management and the working of a highly technical engineering and manufacturing company. Most recently, he has managed and reported schedules and budgets for the design, development, building and prove-out of AEGIS weapon system shipboard radar test equipment valued at over $15 million.

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