Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Driving Change: The 2011 NFB Youth Slam

by Natalie Shaheen

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Vol. 54, No. 10, November 2011.

On Monday the journalism track enjoyed a presentation by journalist Mario Armstrong.

From the Editor: Youth Slam is the NFB's weeklong summer program for high school students that occurs every other year. The program gives blind students hands-on learning opportunities in the STEM curriculum--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this report Natalie Shaheen, director of education at the NFB Jernigan Institute, attempts to convey the energy and excitement of the program by including a sampling of the Tweets generated by staff and students. Twitter is a popular social medium that provides very brief bits of Internet communication. Whether you want to follow the Tweets on a given subject or intend for your Tweet to be part of the discussion, you have to use the hashtag for that topic. In the case of Youth Slam, the hashtag is #NFBYS11. Parents, teachers, and interested Federationists who wanted to stay in touch with Youth Slam activities searched Twitter using #NFBYS11 to find the Tweets. Those contributing to the conversation included the hashtag in their messages. We have retained the hashtags in the Tweets below.

Time was when turning on the radio or television was the best way to get breaking news. Today news hits Twitter--a social media site--long before it hits any other media stream. During the week of the NFB Youth Slam, July 17 to 23, this principle held true. Students, volunteers, staff, visitors, celebrities, and even people across the country who couldn't make it to the program were Tweeting about NFBYS11 (Twitter talk for the 2011 NFB Youth Slam).

The best way to learn what was happening from one minute to the next during the week of Youth Slam at Towson University is to look at Twitter. A query for NFBYS11 on Twitter yields many Tweets, including the following, which, taken together, provide a window on the events and energy of the program.

July 17

Students in the forensics track examine bones.

NFBScience: "Students arrive today! Let the fun, learning, and empowerment begin.  #NFBYS11"

Maryann Migliorelli: "#NFBYS11 Second morning at Youth Slam. Eagerly awaiting our mentees. Yesterday was full of fun and learning. Much preparation for kids."

Angela Dehart: "Students will start arriving soon! Let the fun begin! #NFBYS11"

After a day and a half of training and preparation at Towson University, staff and volunteers eagerly awaited the arrival of the students. As the 136 students traveled to Baltimore by plane, train, and automobile, volunteers excitedly reviewed the events of the week and the things they had already learned about the students they would soon meet.

NFBScience: "The first students have arrived! #NFBYS11"

The students arrived at the dorm by the busload from the airport and train station. The symphony of luggage rolling down the sidewalk, students talking excitedly about their travels, canes tapping, marshals directing traffic, old friends embracing, and new friendships forming was reminiscent of the first days of national convention.

NFBScience: "Mentors are talking with students about the long white cane and how to use it effectively--expanding their horizons. #NFBYS11"

Since the program took place on a college campus, students got extensive travel experience throughout the week. To ensure that students were ready for the week of traveling, volunteers saw that each student had a cane and gave students who came in with traditional canes the opportunity to try a long white cane for the week. These initial conversations about cane travel were instrumental in setting the tone of independence for the week. As the week progressed, volunteers found time to talk more with students about independent travel as they walked from class to class.

Kriss McCall: "Assuming my own Slammer made it in one piece. Eagerly following your Tweets to live the excitement from a distance. at NFBScience"

Space and engineering tracks built a geodesic dome.

Students traveled to and experienced the entire Youth Slam without their parents by their sides. This was more difficult for the parents than it was for the students. Parents recognized that their teens would grow and learn so much over the week that they wanted to be there to observe the growth firsthand. Since they couldn't be with their children, parents stayed in touch through modern technology such as cell phones and social media.

Mark Riccobono: "The biggest group of blind people ever doing the marshmallow challenge is #NFBYS11."

After everyone enjoyed dinner, the program started with a kick-off event that included the marshmallow challenge. Each pod (one blind adult and three blind students) received twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of string, one yard of tape, and one jumbo marshmallow. The object was to build the tallest free-standing structure possible, ensuring that the entire marshmallow sat at the very top. The pods had eighteen minutes to complete the challenge. The tallest tower built at Youth Slam was twenty-eight inches high and was built by a pod of women. This activity got the students' problem-solving juices flowing and allowed the pods to come together as teams.

Mario Armstrong: "Looking forward to giving a presentation to young students at the national NFB Youth Slam tomorrow--see y'all soon. #NFBYS11"

Mario Armstrong, a TV and radio personality whose segments air regularly on CNN, NPR, and The Today Show, is a resident of Baltimore. In advance of coming to the program to speak with students in the journalism track, Mario was following all the buzz about the Youth Slam on Twitter.

July 18

Students in the forensics track examine and identify footprints.

Shanae Bethea: "This is awesome! We are at Youth Slam. #NFBYS11"

Even early morning wake-up calls couldn't dampen the students' enthusiasm. Everyone was off to breakfast by 7:00 a.m., if not earlier, and the students still found time to Tweet first thing in the morning!

NFBScience: "Dr. Maurer, president of the NFB, just finished speaking to the students at the #NFBYS11 opening ceremony."

NFBScience: "Now Mark Riccobono is talking to the students about the NFB Blind Driver Challenge. He was the first blind man to drive a car! #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "Students say they want to ride in the blind drivable car. So we are setting it up. Students will ride in the car on Friday. #NFBYS11"

Monday morning's opening ceremony was packed with a lineup of impressive speakers. The students welcomed everyone with applause; but, when President Maurer and Mark Riccobono were introduced, the ballroom erupted in cheers, chants, and applause from the students. The young people couldn't wait to hear what these two influential men had to say. As the students learned about the history and current status of the NFB Blind Driver Challenge from Mark Riccobono, the energy was palpable. As Mark wrapped up his comments, the students started chanting that they wanted to ride in the car. Mark then told them that they would have that opportunity on Friday at the NFB Jernigan Institute. The students could hardly believe what they were hearing. As Mark left the stage, the students cheered, "Ric-co-bo-no, Ric-co-bo-no." The program was off to a great start!

NFBScience: "#NFBYS11 participants in their first track sessions: chem, robots, space, bio, engineering, news, cs [computer science], nanoscience, forensics, and geoscience."

Pumped up from the opening ceremonies, students headed off to their first track sessions. Before the program, students chose from one of ten STEM disciplines (referred to as tracks throughout the program) to study throughout the week. The students spent fifteen to seventeen hours learning and engaging in activities related to their chosen disciplines over five days.

Amy Lund: "Enjoying the teacher track at Youth Slam 2011.  #NFBYS11"

Before they began to investigate nanos, the students in the nano track started the week working with clay.

In addition to the ten STEM-focused tracks for the students, this year's Youth Slam also featured a track for teachers of the blind. In this track teachers learned about best practices in teaching blind students in various subjects, particularly how their blind students can function nonvisually in the STEM classroom. Teachers received direct instruction from fellow educators and also spent a good deal of time observing the students' learning activities.

Angela Dehart: "Students in the journalism track are learning all about social media. #NFBYS11"

James Bybee: "CNN's Mario Armstrong talks to the journalism track at youth slam. #NFBYS11 <http://boo.fm/b415724, via Audioboo app"

The journalism track started its week with a bang; having a celebrity guest speaker on day one was pretty exciting. Students spent the rest of the week learning about the various media available to today's journalists: print, television, radio, and social media. Each pod picked a medium and a subject and created a news piece by the end of the week.

NFBScience: "In the nanoscience track students are doing a mini me activity to learn how small the nano scale really is--it's nonvisual. #NFBYS11"

Before students in the nano track could start doing science at the nano scale, they needed to know how small these objects are. To do this, students measured their bodies and then created models that were one tenth their size. These models were called "mini me." The students then made a model that was one-tenth the size of their mini me, a "mini mini me." They then pondered how many more times they would have to divide by ten to get the dimensions of a mini me at the nanoscale with the knowledge that a nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter.

Friday morning, all the students visited tables in Pit Row.

NFBScience: "Students in the forensics track are currently looking at skeletons and learning to tell the difference between the bones of males and females. #NFBYS11"

Throughout the week forensics track participants learned how to interpret and identify various forms of forensic evidence. They worked extensively with real bones, determining the age and sex of a skeleton based on the features of the bones. By the end of the week the students were able to solve a mock crime.

NFBScience: "The space and engineering tracks are working together to build a geodesic dome. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "The dome is complete. #NFBYS11 <http://twitpic.com/5s8hcy>"

The space and engineering tracks collaborated throughout the week to build a Mars habitat equipped with a building (the geodesic dome), roads for hovercrafts that would deliver supplies, and much more. The dome they built on the first day became a cornerstone for their work the rest of the week.

NFBScience: "The robotics track is building sumo bots. Later the robots will fight. #NFBYS11"

The robotics students programmed LEGO Mindstorm robots to do all kinds of crazy things. They had robots fighting and playing dodgeball. Nope, it wasn't magic; it was all in the programming.

July 19

NFBScience: "Day two. Today students attend short sessions in addition to their tracks: recreational math, mineralogy, Blind Driver Challenge, and others. #NFBYS11"

To provide the students a diverse STEM experience, the teens attended four short sessions throughout the week when they weren't in their tracks. In these sessions students got a quick and exciting introduction to various STEM disciplines. The mineralogy session was run by Dr. David Vanko, the dean of the College of Science and Math at Towson University. Dr. Cary Supalo also ran a short session, which the vast majority of the students attended. In this session, Dr. Supalo guided the students through several experiments in which they collected data using the LabQuest, a product of Vernier Software and Technology that has been made accessible with JAWS through Dr. Supalo's work.

Students in the forensics track wore head-to-toe suits during their Pit Row demonstration.

NFBScience: "Students in the journalism track are picking topics for audio and blog documentary productions: life at Youth Slam, minimum wage, education, technology, YS tracks. #NFBYS11"

Angela Dehart: "In the journalism track pod 30 has decided to do its documentary project on education of blind students. #NFBYS11"

Day two, and the journalism students are already picking the topics they will use for their documentaries.

NFBScience: "Biology track is learning how to use micropipettes to measure accurately for their experiments. #NFBYS11"

The biology track performed genetic transformations as part of a genetic engineering investigation. To complete these experiments successfully and nonvisually, the students used various techniques, including micropipettes. This piece of mainstream lab equipment is great for measuring liquids very accurately. Though not designed for blind students, micropipettes work well nonvisually.

NFBScience: "Forensic track cleaning footprints with toothbrushes so they can match the prints to shoes. #NFBYS11 <http://twitpic.com/5sm3ip>"

The students in the forensics track always had their hands in something messy. Learning is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

NFBScience: "Nano track experimenting with the nanomanipulator, a haptic interface connected to an atomic force microscope (AFM)--really cool stuff! #NFBYS11"

Things at the nanoscale are so small that no one can see them. Scientists who work at the nanoscale use atomic force microscopes to gather data about samples they cannot see. The AFM has a probe that scans the surface of the sample to collect the information the scientist is looking for. With the nanomanipulator demonstration students were able to interact with pre-programmed samples of nano materials through a haptic device. Students held a stylus that was connected to the computer by a multi-jointed arm. As the students moved the stylus around, they could explore the sample and feel the same forces the probe of the AFM encounters. The students couldn't wait to share this extraordinary learning experience with people who visited their class.

Jeffrey P.  Bigham: "Youth Slam CS track: great chat with at vick08 [apparently one of Jeff's friends] on computing and accessibility, and first real-world navigation test with students' code. #NFBYS11"

Students in the computer science track (CS) worked with Mac computers and iPhones to write accessible iOS applications that directed them to landmarks and people. They used their applications to play games, including scavenger hunts and GPS tag. Whoever said, "Geeks don't know how to have fun?"

Natalie Shaheen: "Some good goalball here at the YMCA . . .  Back to Towson. #NFBYS11"

The learning and fun didn't stop at 5:00 p.m. when classes adjourned. Students spent each evening participating in lots of exciting and challenging recreational activities. Some of the options were familiar, like goalball and yoga, while others were unique: minute to win it, murder mystery, and rec-it.

July 20

Mark Riccobono drives student Luke Hayes in the blind-driveable car.

James Bybee: "Just got to watch a bunch of blind people in chemistry mix dangerous chemicals. Youth Slam is so cool! #NFBYS11"

The young people in the chemistry track handled all sorts of chemicals and learned how to do so safely from Henry Wedler, a blind chemist. Students learned the science behind making artificial flavors for common foods. Students also worked together to make bio fuel to power fans.

NFBScience: "Engineering track just ran a hovercraft on a thirty-ft track with sensors so blind drivers know to turn and stop. #NFBYS11 <http://twitpic.com/5t05we>"

One of the many projects the engineering track worked on was creating roadways for hovercrafts to travel on to get supplies to the geodesic dome they built earlier in the week. The students built these roads using PVC pipe. They used standard window alarms as sensors to alert the blind driver to points along the track where he would have to turn or stop.

NFBScience: "Blind forensics instructor talking about alternative techniques she uses in field. She says slate and stylus is best for taking notes because of dirt. #NFBYS11"

The blind instructors at Youth Slam impart all kinds of wisdom to the teens, the most important of which is how they do their jobs as blind people. Cheryl Fogle, a blind archeologist, told the students that she uses a slate and stylus in the field to take notes because she doesn't want dirt getting into her electronics.

Tyler: "In journalism listening to a guest speaker, really interesting, talking about media stuff and how twitter is useful as a news feed. #NFBYS11"

Tyler, a student in the program, joined Twitter after learning about it in the journalism track and used it to report on the program throughout the week.

NFBScience: "Biology track testing bacteria grown last night. #NFBYS11"

After genetically modifying a colony of bacteria, the students in the biology track let it grow overnight. In the morning they examined their samples to see if their experiment had worked. When the experiment did not work, the students had the opportunity to learn what had kept the bacteria from doing what they had expected.

NFBScience: "Dr. Don Thomas, professor at Towson University and former astronaut, is speaking with the space track. #NFBYS11"

Students and instructors listened intently as they learned about life aboard a shuttle from someone who has actually been to space. Students wondered aloud if they might be the first blind people in space.

Tyler: "I'm about to use Mark Riccobono's, the blind driver's, guitar for a talent show. Awesome! #NFBYS11"

David Brown: "Just sittin' in the talent show at the NFB National Center. #NFBYS11"

Wednesday afternoon and evening the Youth Slam came to the NFB Jernigan Institute. In the afternoon students attended the Slam Seminar. Sessions at the seminar included NFB training center panel, blind science professionals panel, accessible math, question and answer with Dr. Maurer, blindness advocacy, and an Apple products talk. As the two students above mentioned in their Tweets, after dinner students and volunteers showed off their gifts in a talent show.

July 21

Mark Riccobono drives students past the park that is across the street from the National Center for the Blind.

James Bybee: "Dissecting a shark was cool. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "Students are dissecting dogfish sharks in Smith 373. This morning pods 11, 13, 23, 24, 27, 30, 33, 34, 35, and 38 were cutting up. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "This afternoon pods 1, 5, 8, 20, 39, 40, 43, 44, and 47 will be exploring the dogfish with Mark Riccobono. #NFBYS11"

Thursday was shark dissection day. A number of the pods participated in a short session in which they dissected a dogfish shark. The session was co-taught by a biology professor from Towson University and Mark Riccobono. Mark instructed the students on the nonvisual techniques blind people can employ to dissect specimens safely and efficiently, and the professor explained the biology of the dogfish shark. The students, the instructors, and Smith Hall smelt like dead fish long after the dissections were over.

July 22

Friday, the last day of the program, was jampacked with exciting events. Participants spent the morning at Pit Row. In the afternoon students once again visited the NFB Jernigan Institute, but this time the event was Driving Change: The Final Lap.

NFBScience: "Tracks are setting up their booths in the Pit Row, an event in which they get to teach their peers what they learned all week. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "Students in the nano track are walking around Pit Row in bunny suits like those worn in clean rooms. #NFBYS11 <http://twitpic.com/5tz8w4>"
NFBScience: "People are being interviewed live at the journalism track booth. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "People are crawling into the geodesic dome built by the space and engineering tracks . . . Once they get in, they can stand up inside. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "iPhones in hand, students in the CS track are explaining how they used GPS apps to play tag. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "It sounds like learning here at the Union. Students are having fun learning from each other. #NFBYS11"

At Pit Row each track set up and staffed a booth where students got to share with their peers all of the knowledge they had acquired through the week. The tracks didn't pull any punches; they brought all sorts of interesting material to show their friends. The Tweets above describe just a few of the exhibits that were available for the students and volunteers to view. The students had a blast learning from and teaching their friends. The adults who wandered into Pit Row were astounded by all the knowledge the students managed to acquire in just a week.

NFBScience: "Volunteers just led the students in singing 'Glory glory Federation.' #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "Tracks are doing chants. The students are pumped up. #NFBYS11"

After Pit Row the energy level of everyone in the ballroom was through the roof. An impromptu pep rally seemed in order. Volunteers led the students in singing Federation songs, after which the tracks started a cheering competition to see who could cheer and chant the loudest for their track. The students could be heard throughout the Union.

Mark Riccobono: "I am about to take my first drive on city streets. The NFBJI is the center of innovation. #NFBYS11"

NFBScience: "Students are getting rides around the block in the blind drivable car. The young folks are having a blast. #NFBYS11!"

David Brown: "The full force of the week just hit me. In the USA it is legal to pay people with disabilities subminimum wages, and we don't like that. #NFBYS11"


Friday afternoon's Driving Change: The Final Lap was the event the students had been looking forward to since Mark announced on Monday that they would be riding in the NFB BDC car. In addition to riding around the block in one of the Blind Driver vehicles, an enormous enough opportunity to constitute a whole event in and of itself, students also participated in several other activities indoors: bumper cars, tire-changing, car art, constructing rubberband cars, and watching a blind bikers' stunt show. The event wrapped up with inspirational remarks from Federation leaders, after which David Brown, a student, Tweeted about how powerful the program had been for him.

July 23

Amy Lund: "Leaving Towson University. Great experience! #NFBYS11"

David Brown: "Don't you hate it when you have to say good-bye to everyone you met and go home? #NFBYS11"

On Saturday morning exhausted and tearful students and volunteers boarded buses for BWI and Penn Station. Everyone was already talking about the next Youth Slam and what they would be doing then. Until next time, "Slam That!"

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