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Helping the Blind to See Science and Math
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student questioning if El Niño occurs anywhere besides the Pacific Ocean. The researcher investigating connections between Arctic ozone depletion and global climate change. The citizen scientist interested in how changing land cover and use affects animal migration patterns. And the businessperson projecting future needs for harvest, delivery and storage of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all connected by their curiosity about Earth system processes. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Maps and satellite images are synonymous with modern-day Earth and space science education. With recent, if not real-time, graphics available all over the Internet, it's hard to imagine students not looking at pictures of hurricane clouds, Jupiter's Red Spot, or simply a classic weather map as part of the learning experience.

Yet seeing well isn't possible for students who are blind and visually impaired. Nearly 100,000 such students live in the United States, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

Robert Shelton

Robert Shelton develops learning tools to help students who are visually impaired understand mathematics and science concepts. Image Credit: NASA

NASA's Robert Shelton knows firsthand the educational challenges faced by students who can't see or have significant vision loss. He lost most of his eyesight at age 11. But he didn't let that stop him from pursuing science and mathematics -- subjects that prove difficult for many students.

"I was one of those problem kids who didn't have a whole lot of use for school. I had always been good at science and math, and after the initial shock wore off, the loss of my vision served as a wake-up call that I should maybe get a whole lot more serious about my education," Shelton said. "I was incredibly fortunate that the people around me -- parents, teachers, counselors -- saw science and math as stepping stones for me as opposed to stumbling blocks."

Formerly a college math professor, Shelton directed the NASA Learning Technologies team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston until a recent shift to Johnson's Simulation and Graphics Branch. He applied his personal and professional experience to help his team develop computer programs that not only make science and math more accessible for the visually impaired but also offer all students an alternative way of looking at what are often complex topics.

"To make a product usable for, say, a blind student, one must consider what message the product is intended to communicate," Shelton said. "This focus on the intent and message as opposed to the simple mechanics of the product forces the designer to cut to the chase, and often makes the science content more accessible to everyone."

Earth+ is the most recent computer program Shelton's team has released. The program assigns different colors on a map or satellite image to different sounds, which the user hears as he or she moves the cursor across the graphic. For example, a person viewing a satellite image of a hurricane in Earth+ would hear one sound when the cursor is over white clouds, another sound over blue water and still another over brown land.

The sounds help blind and visually impaired people create mental pictures of the map or image. Users can navigate using either the mouse or cursor keys.

"If you use the cursor keys, you can be extremely accurate, down to the pixel -- perfect for exploring small features," Shelton said. "Using the mouse allows you to sweep over vast areas to get an idea of large general features such as land masses. There are reference tones which signal latitude and longitude, so even though you are using a mouse, you have a sense of where what you hear is coming from on the map."

Shelton cautions that Earth+ doesn't replace the need for tactile maps but should be used in conjunction with them.

"Tactile graphics is the 'gold standard' for displaying visual information to a blind person. However, tactile images are normally paper or plastic, and they cost money and time to produce," Shelton said. "Earth+ doesn't replace tactile. It supplements it with content which cannot be anticipated in advance, such as a hurricane that might be churning through the Caribbean right now."

Three graphs and a data table

MathTrax is a graphing tool for middle school and high school students to graph equations, do physics simulations or plot data files. Image Credit: NASA

MathTrax, another tool Shelton and the NASA Learning Technologies team developed, is a graphing calculator also geared for the visually impaired. The program works by graphing a mathematical equation and then describing the graph with sounds and words.

Products like Earth+, MathTrax and other technological advances have made science and math increasingly accessible to the blind and visually impaired. In some ways, Shelton says, the challenges faced by those with disabilities can position them to excel in science and math.

"Science and math can be challenging for a wide cross-section of students, independent of physical ability. They are essentially mental pursuits which force us to understand things in different ways than we might normally do," Shelton said. "Many disabled people develop exceptional problem-solving skills just to cope with the challenges of ordinary life. In the world of science, the crucial insight often is simply to look at the same information from a new angle. People who deal with a disability on a daily basis may just take that slightly different approach that proves to be the key."

Related Resources
Earth+   →
MathTrax   →
Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy   →

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies