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Opening Blind Eyes to Science
11.11.04
 

Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.


Fourteen-year-old Steven and 12-year-old Amelia are blind. Yet they had little difficulty at a science camp this past summer. They were able to read the temperature with a thermometer. And they measured precipitation with a rain gauge.

Their secret?

Steven and Amelia were using a talking thermometer and a rain gauge with Braille markings. There were other special tools also. NASA has been working to introduce these tools to those who can't see.

Besides Steven and Amelia, there were 10 other kids that attended the one-week camp. All of the kids were blind and between 11 and 14 years old.

A 14-year-old blind boy named Steven is digging in a container of soil at the Maryland Science Center
Image to right: Fourteen-year-old Steven digs for dinosaur fossils at the Maryland Science Center.
Credit: National Federation of the Blind


The camp was run by the National Federation of the Blind. Part of it took place at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The campers visited Goddard's pond and forest area where they observed the soil, vegetation, weather and birds.

It was the first time many of the kids had used observing tools made for people who rely on senses other than sight. Like sound or touch.

"I didn't know they existed," Steven said. "It was amazing to see the technology."

There were two kinds of talking thermometers. One was for the air and the other was like a meat thermometer that could be stuck down into the soil. There was also a talking compass and a talking sensor that analyzed soil color.

The rain gauge was a cylinder with a floating Styrofoam plug. The plug moved up or down depending on the volume of water. It was attached to a plastic measuring scale with Braille marks on it. Braille is a type of raised writing that blind people read by running their fingers across it.

A blind, 12-year-old girl named Amelia (left) and her instructor Robin House kneeling down and touching the soil on the ground
Image to left: Twelve-year-old Amelia (left) and instructor Robin House examine the soil at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

NASA scientist Elissa Levine is the person who's been leading the effort to find these blind-friendly gadgets. Her work is aimed at making it easier for the blind to take part in programs like GLOBE. Kids from all over the world participate in GLOBE by taking measurements of the land, air, water and living things. Levine thought it would be great if blind students could participate as well.

The campers did other cool stuff besides their trip to NASA. They dissected a dogfish shark and dug for dinosaur fossils at the Maryland Science Center. They explored seashells with a blind shell expert, Geerat Vermeij. And they took a boat ride on the Chesapeake Bay.

Of all the sciences, Earth science is one of the easier ones for blind people to study. That's because Earth science is always happening all around us. For example, you can go outside almost whenever you want and listen to birds or touch the soil.

A tube-shaped instrument marked in Braille and used to measure rainfall amount
Image to right: This instrument was used by "Circle of Life" participants to measure rainfall amount. The measuring scale is marked in Braille. Credit: Science Activities for the Visually Impaired Project, Lawrence Hall of Science

Some kids and adults think that blind people can't do as well in science as sighted people. But Steven and Amelia disagree. They say that blind people just learn and do things in a different way. Their way isn't better or worse. It's just different.

"There are a lot of tools out there that blind people can use to investigate science. Blind people can pretty much do anything, but they just do it differently," Amelia said.

Steven looks at it this way: "Blindness doesn't have to be a barrier. Being blind doesn't stop you from having a brain and doing science."

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Related Resources

GLOBE
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Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy
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Questions from Kids about Blindness
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies