October 24 , 2003
NASA Scientist Makes Science And Math Accessible
NASA math whiz and computer software designer Robert O. Shelton considers himself lucky, even though he lost his sight when he was 11-years-old. He felt lucky to have parents and teachers who spotted his talent in mathematics and science, encouraged him, and provided tools that helped him pursue his interest.
Shelton was born with congenital glaucoma, a disease that is usually treatable with today's laser surgery technology but was hard to cure in the 1950s, when Shelton was a child. After suffering through 40 operations, he said, "It was almost a relief to lose my sight and have it over with."
"Before I lost my sight, I was a smart kid, but rather sloppy," Shelton said. "My mother told me, 'you're going to have to use different muscles now -- the ones between your ears.' She was tough on me. She said I could do whatever I wanted, but I would have to work even harder because I was blind," Shelton added.
As a child in Houston, Shelton enjoyed working with his father, an electrical engineer, tinkering in the family garage, building things and tearing them apart to see how they worked. After losing his sight, he continued that trend in a new way -- learning mathematical equations and scientific laws that explain why things work. His teachers helped him study advanced mathematics and science and taught him to visualize concepts in his mind.
Shelton earned bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in mathematics from Rice University in Houston in 1971, 1973 and 1975, respectively. While at Rice, he was a graduate intern at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston. He worked with computer scientists and engineers designing the navigation system for the Space Shuttle.
"NASA has always been committed to hiring individuals with disabilities," Shelton said. "They provided me with the help and technology I needed to do the job, and made it seem simple."
When NASA offered him a job working on artificial intelligence systems in 1987, Shelton, his wife and four children returned to Texas. He joined the JSC Software Technology Branch, designing computer technology used to analyze data sent from the Space Shuttle to the Mission Control Center in Houston.
Shelton uses his math and computer expertise to head up JSC's contributions to NASA's Learning Technologies Project. He works on technology tools for teachers and students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The tools are available through Web sites, and Shelton's leadership has ensured sites are accessible to students with disabilities.
"I want blind and sighted students who use the site to find out what they can do," Shelton said. "I want teachers to have easy-to-use, cutting-edge technology tools that make math and science accessible to all students. Most importantly, I want employers to emulate NASA by hiring blind people and using their talents, " he added.
Shelton believes using NASA technology and know-how to reach people with disabilities is a natural match. Improved technology, such as synthetic speech software that reads content, has helped him be more independent as he works.
The Web site is filled with appealing activities: students can build, test and run a remotely controlled rover in simulated environments and compete in skill-based games against other students around the country. The site also offers software tools that make it easier for teachers to manage information related to their science and math curricula. Shelton's creative team is working on a new product that will be available soon: a graphing tool to make NASA science and math activities accessible to people who can't see. It uses tones to help blind people visualize graphs and mathematic concepts.
According to Shelton the unemployment rate for blind people is high and many who are employed are not working at jobs that fully use their education or potential. He hopes the NASA Web site will help students learn valuable skills to improve employment prospects.
Media organizations interested in interviewing Shelton should contact John Ira Petty, JSC Public Affairs at: 281/483-5111.
To access the NASA Learning Technologies Project on the Internet, visit: http://prime.jsc.nasa.gov
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