Future Reflections  Fall 2006

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Making a Difference: 2006 NFB Science Academy Best Yet!

by Mary Jo Thorpe

When you work in summer programs for blind youth, you sometimes find yourself wondering if all the blood, sweat, tears, and long hours with little sleep are really worth it. Does what we do really make a difference to those students we serve with our programs? Do they go home with more than just cute souvenirs, new pen pals, and sunburns? I was staring at my computer screen, trying to think of a new angle for an article about the Science Academy, and considering these very questions when my phone rang. After one long conversation, the phone rang again. Ironically, before I could even begin writing, I received calls from mothers of two of the students who attended the program this summer. They did not call to report a missing cell phone charger or a backpack that got left behind. Instead, each mom called to thank me for the opportunity the NFB gave her child to come and participate in such an extraordinary program. The moms described how their children could not stop talking about the cool things they got to see and do. One mom told me that her son had never before shown the slightest interest in electronics. However, at the Academy he had the chance to work on the circuits team to build a rocket payload and since then he has developed a passion for the subject. The other mom told me how her daughter rambles on-and-on about the neat tactile star charts and the awesome planetarium show she attended. One mother’s voice caught as she expressed the great joy she feels as she witnesses this new burst of confidence and enthusiasm in her child--all because of his participation in the Academy. After those calls, there was no more staring at the computer screen; I was ready to write.

This summer was our third, and possibly our best, Science Academy yet. The challenge in 2006 was to make things bigger, better, and more exciting than in the years before. Easier said than done, of course. But with the help of our great education staff at the Jernigan Institute, fabulous instructors from NASA and the community, and dynamic facilitators from our NFB membership, we pulled it off.

The 2006 Rocket On! class: front row, left to right: Duncan McLaurin, Jordan Richardson, Mary Fernandez, Jenny Suchan, Carrie Modesitt, and Adam Puckett; back row, left to right: Mika Baugh, Trevor Saunders, Billy Casson, Brittany Savage, Jim Baker, and Tashia Schmelling.The first Academy session this year began on July 14, with the Rocket On! group of twelve high school students from nine different states. This year’s team definitely proved themselves to be the most energetic and enthusiastic team in the academy yet. Even at the closing ceremonies, after many late nights, one eighteen-hour day, and a 2:00 a.m. wake-up call, they were still as enthusiastic and energetic as they were on the first day. Right from the beginning these students proved they were natural cheerleaders as they participated in the challenge activities at a local ropes course. The students were able to literally “hang out” as they participated in activities such as walking along a telephone pole forty feet off the ground. These activities were used to foster teamwork and confidence--necessary elements to the overall success of the Academy. This was a new idea that we implemented into this year’s schedule, and it proved to be quite a hit--except for the fact that we all wished we could have spent more time at the course.

During the opening ceremony, the 2006 students were issued their mission--which they chose to accept--to prove that the third time really is a charm. They were challenged to build and launch a rocket that would beat the altitude of the first two rockets and that would deploy all three parachutes. Lastly, they were challenged to successfully recover the rocket in one piece--all feats that eluded the 2004 and 2005 Academies. The 2006 team met the challenge. The flight was perfect: the altitude achieved was the highest yet at over 5,900 feet, all three parachutes deployed on time, and the rocket was retrieved intact.

But the mission would not have been the success it was without the incredible teamwork of the Nose Blowers, the WASA, and the Logyx. You see, each academy is divided into three teams: the trajectory team, the circuit team, and the recovery team. Each team has specific assignments--just the way real NASA scientists work. To help build a spirit of trust and enthusiasm, the teams are asked to come up with a team name and compose a team slogan.

Here’s what Jennifer Suchan, a high school freshman from Maryland, said about her circuit team: “My team was named WASA, a play on NASA that stands for the Whozit Aeronautics and Space Administration. For those who don’t know, Whozit is the NFB’s mascot (logo). Our slogan was: We are WASA, / An association with NASA./ We’ll get your ship wired / Before we even get tired. / WASA, the Whozit Aeronautics and Space Administration (cheer).” The other WASA team members were Jordan Richardson, ninth grade, Minnesota; Tashia Schmelling, ninth grade, Virginia; and Trevor Saunders, tenth grade, New Jersey.

Mary Fernandez uses an electric screwdriver to complete a task in preparing the rocket for flight.At the press conference (yes, we held a real press conference--just like NASA), Adam Puckett, a sophomore from Virginia, introduced and described the mission of his team: “When you hear the name Nose Blowers, probably the last thing to come into your mind is a rocket recovery team, but guess what? That’s exactly what we are. Our team members include Brittany Savage [ninth grade, Virginia], James Baker [ninth grade, New York], and Mary Fernandez [tenth grade, New Jersey]. Our instructors are Charlie Lipsett and Anna Muaswes. Our mission was to make sure that the nose cone deployed in order to release the parachute, so that the rocket would be recovered intact.”

Nose Blower team member, Jim Baker, concluded his team’s report at the press conference: “The recovery team successfully accomplished its part of the mission. We were successful because of our thorough testing, hard work, and dedication. The nose cone deployed and the parachutes released on time. Thus, we accomplished what we promised in our slogan: We’ll blow your nose off with CO2/ The parachute will pop out and come back to you!”

The Logyx trajectory team did not come up with a slogan, but they made up for this omission with their acute “logical” abilities and outstanding performance in accurately predicting the trajectory of the rocket. Mission director, Mika Baugh, a sophomore from Indiana, led the team composed of Billy Casson, eleventh grade, New Mexico; Carrie Modesitt, twelfth grade, Missouri; and Duncan McLaurin, eighth grade, Wyoming.

It was hard to say good-bye to such an enthusiastic group of students, but there was no time to be sad. They had barely been gone a week before we welcomed a brand-new group of middle school students for our second Science Academy session, Circle of Life. You can imagine the high our education department was on after the Rocket On! session, so of course we hit the ground running with high expectations for another successful week. This group’s recipe for success included ten bright, fun-loving students from eight states, several dozen blue crabs, a pair of chest-waders, and as many stars as you can get your hands on! The 2006 class included Karen Arcos, seventh grade, California; Ellen Bartelt, seventh grade, Wisconsin; Nicholas Cocchiarella, eighth grade, Minnesota; Elizabeth Conlin, sixth grade, Virginia; Edgar Gonzalez, seventh grade, Utah; Robert Hooper, ninth grade, Ohio; Minh Tam Ha, sixth grade, Massachusetts; Cody McFarland, eighth grade, Ohio; Anne Naber, eighth grade, Minnesota; and Nola Parker/Hubbard, eighth grade, Louisiana.

The 2006 Circle of Life class and facilitators: front row, left to right: Edgar Gonzalez, Karen Arcos, Minh Tam Ha, Anne Naber, Lizzie Conlin, Ellen Bartelt; back row, left to right: Robert Hooper, Kris Sims (facilitator), Cody McFarland, Tim Paulding (facilitator), Nola Parker/Hubbard, Nick Cocchiarella, Mark Riccabono (project manager), Mary Jo Thorpe (lead instructor), B.J. Sexton (facilitator), and Anna Muaswes (facilitator).We added several new activities in our Circle of Life 2006 Science Academy program. One of the new endeavors was a Star Party we held on the deck off the dining room of the National Center for the Blind (our facility in Baltimore). The students began the evening by participating in several activities with noted astronomer and author of several tactile astronomy books, Noreen Grice from the Boston Planetarium. We also had special guests from the West Minster Amateur Astronomical Society. This Baltimore-based organization allows groups like ours to use their telescopic equipment for star-gazing while the members, all of whom are amateur astronomers, give presentations on a wide range of space-related topics. We arranged for the pictures taken by the telescopes to be converted into tactile images through the use of special thermoform paper and a Swell-Form machine. Unfortunately, the weather was not as cooperative as we would have liked, but the students were still able to see a few images. In addition, they spent the rest of the evening tactually examining the telescopes, using balloons to learn about supernovas, and discussing the volume of space using nylon-covered buckets with marbles that represented our galaxy. Sound intriguing? The following day the students visited the Maryland Science Center and attended a show at the planetarium lead by Noreen Grice. We had prepared tactile star charts and planet spheres in advance so that they had hands-on materials that allowed them to follow along with her presentation. The students also enjoyed visiting several of the other exhibits at the museum.

This year’s class definitely proved they were real troopers as they endured field trips and activities on three of the hottest days on record here in Baltimore, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees, and a heat index of 110-112 degrees. A trip on the Snow Goose around the Patapsco Bay with water-bottle toasts every twenty minutes and a dip in the river in chest-waders made the situation a little more bearable.

Nick Cocchiarella takes a turn at steering the Snow Goose on the bay.Thanks to great instructors from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), the students were able to get up-close-and-personal with a variety of marine life such as fish, oysters, and crabs. Through these hands-on activities, they learned about the ecology of these environments and the impact they have on our own lives. One of the students particularly enjoyed this program because it was the first time he had ever personally touched and explored so many creatures and objects from the natural world. Practically his only experience with the natural world had been from books and verbal descriptions. It was exciting to see him right up next to the guides, wanting to be the first to stick his hands in for a look at the latest collection from the seining nets or oyster dredge. Prior to coming to the Circle of Life, this particular student had attended a very popular, summer camp, noted for its level of fun and excitement. He repeatedly told the facilitators that he thought nothing could ever top that week, but that the Circle of Life had done it! He said that he wished he could rewind the week or wake up to find out that it hadn’t started yet so that he could start it all over again.

I am sure I speak for each of the students when I say that it is hard to choose just one thing that was the best part about the week. Whether it was the hike around the SERC reserve with ecologist Charlie Davis, building windmills with students from Johns Hopkins, answering pop culture trivia questions with local NFB chapter members, eating crabs and dancing all evening with members from the NFB of Maryland at the annual Crab Feast, or the ever popular shark dissection; there was something for everyone this year. To capture all the highlights and stories from the week, the students made a CD complete with inside jokes, funny phrases from the week, favorite memories, and even the occasional spoof on some of the facilitators. Some sang songs or acted out short skits while others chose to speak off-the-cuff. However, no one captured the week quite as succinctly as Karen Archo, a seventh grader from California. The printed copy of her song does not do justice to her recorded version, but it does convey some sense of the dynamic, life-changing nature of this week. Here are the words to Karen’s song:

The Science Academy’s lots of fun, / a lot of fun. / You learn great things: / touching dinosaurs at the Science Center, / learning about the Solar System, too. / Hiking and fishing and handling crabs, / dissecting sharks, / learning with soil, / none of these things made me get any scabs. / Riding and driving the Snow Goose on the bay, / this took place on Wednesday. / Talking to blind adults taught me a lot / about what to expect in the years ahead. / Hopefully, I’ll learn as much in the last few days, / just like the ones that have already passed. / The NFB is the place to be /when you want something to do and see. / Come to the NFB, / come to the NFB / where there is always something to do and see. / Come to the NFB!

To the students it may seem like the overall goal of our Science Academy is merely to have fun and do cool stuff. But there is so much more to it. In the NFB, we have high expectations of blind people and, over and over, through a thousand different subtle ways, we conveyed that message to the students. We showed them nonvisual techniques and tools for achieving tasks they never thought possible. We modeled for them how independent blind people behave and function in the world. We gently, but firmly, insisted that they use their canes at all times--no sighted guide! They bussed their own tables, fixed their own baked potatoes, helped set-up and breakdown tables for the cookout, and much more. Most importantly, we introduced them to blind individuals and fostered mentoring relationships. And in thousands of subtle ways, the students let us know that we made an impression: the comments about how “cool” it was that all the facilitators were blind and the pride in the voice as a student described how she could dissect a shark under blindfolds.

So, anyone who asks me about my summer had better be prepared for a dissertation. The twenty-two students in the 2006 class were some of the brightest, most talented students I have ever met, and I am proud to have been their teacher, mentor, and friend for the summer. But the relationship does not stop there. In the NFB, we strive to extend our network of mentorship and support to each other beyond the confines of one-time events. The Rocket On! students have been added to a special listserv where they can continue learning from their blind mentors and peers, as well as make new friends of the blind students from the 2004 and 2005 Academies. The Circle of Life students will routinely receive mailings and priority invitations about other NFB youth events. All of the students will be connected with blind leaders in their communities and states, and, as a consequence, many will be invited to speak at NFB state conventions or be given other opportunities to develop their leadership abilities. And in the years to come, I have no doubt that many of these students will come back to Baltimore to be instructors, mentors, and friends to the next generation of blind youth. Yes, what we do in the National Federation of the Blind does make a difference!

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