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Opening Blind Eyes to Science

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.

A 14-year-old blind boy named Steven is digging in a container of soil at the Maryland Science Center
Steven and Amelia are blind, yet both were able to read the temperature with a thermometer and measure precipitation with a rain gauge at a science camp this past summer.

Their secret?

Image to right: Fourteen-year-old Steven digs for dinosaur fossils at the Maryland Science Center.
Credit: National Federation of the Blind

Steven and Amelia, along with 10 other blind students ages 11-14, were using a talking thermometer, a Braille-marked rain gauge and other tools identified by NASA for use by the visually impaired.

The tools got their first major test in July at the end of the weeklong "Circle of Life" camp put on by the National Federation of the Blind and sponsored by NASA. On the camp's final day, students visited the pond and forest area of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where they made observations of the soil, vegetation, weather and birds.

For many of the kids it was the first time they had used observation instruments specifically geared toward the senses of sound and touch, rather than sight.

"I didn't know they existed," said Steven, now a ninth-grader at a science-oriented high school in New York. "It was amazing to see the technology."

Elissa Levine standing in front of mountains
Image to left: Elissa has been working to help make the GLOBE program more accessible to the blind. Credit: NASA

Goddard soil scientist Elissa Levine has been leading NASA's effort to introduce various blind-friendly gadgets to the visually impaired community. Her work is aimed at making activities such as GLOBE -- a NASA-sponsored science education program in which K-12 students around the world take measurements of soil, land cover, air, water and living things -- more accessible to the blind.

"I have been working with the GLOBE program for many years and am aware of how effective it is as a learning experience, which made me interested in seeing if it would be as effective for blind students as well," Levine said.

The new instruments include two kinds of talking thermometers -- one for the air and a "meat thermometer" that can be inserted into the soil. There's also a talking compass and a talking sensor that analyzes soil color. A graduated cylinder with a floating Styrofoam plug serves as a rain gauge. The plug moves up or down depending on the volume of water and is attached to a plastic measuring scale marked with Braille.

Unlike other sciences that are sometimes more abstract, Earth science provides plenty of convenient opportunities for interactive, nonvisual activities, such as listening to birds or rubbing soil between one's fingers.

"The best thing about Earth science is that there is a natural laboratory right outside the classroom door," Levine said.

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 right: Twelve-year-old Amelia (left) and instructor Robin House (right) examine the soil at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: National Federation of the Blind

Promoting interest in science -- Earth or otherwise -- among the more than 93,000 estimated blind school-age children in the United States is as much about educating teachers as it is kids, according to the camp's lead instructor, Robin House, who says teachers often underestimate the potential of blind students.

"Many times blind students are left out of sciences and math because some educators think, 'Oh, this is too difficult, they couldn't possibly grasp these concepts,'" said House, who herself is blind. "The idea of this particular camp was a little bit of exposure in all the areas of science to get kids going, 'I can do science, I can do it. I can become a scientist if I want to.'"

In the days preceding their visit to Goddard, the campers dissected a dogfish shark and dug for dinosaur fossils at the Maryland Science Center, explored seashells with blind shell expert Geerat Vermeij, took a boat ride on the Chesapeake Bay, and listened to sounds from space with blind physicist Kent Cullers.

The camp was the first step in the National Federation of the Blind's initiative to create a National Center for Blind Youth in Science. A second camp held in August -- "Rocket On!" -- challenged blind high school students to develop, build and launch a 12-foot rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

A tube-shaped instrument marked in Braille and used to measure rainfall amount
Image to left: This instrument was used by "Circle of Life" participants to measure rainfall amount. The measuring scale is marked in Braille. Credit: Lawrence Hall of Science

For 12-year-old Amelia, the "Circle of Life" camp was a rare chance to experience science up close and personal.

"We don't usually get to have so much hands-on activities when we're with a classroom. We have to touch stuff to be able to know what they really are like," Amelia said. "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."

In addition to having the right kinds of tools, House says it is critical to the success of blind students that educators help dispel misconceptions among sighted students as to what blind people are capable of.

"Sometimes it might take a little bit longer, maybe there's a different way that the blind student has to go about doing something," House said. "But that's what science is really about anyway -- trial and error, trying things, taking risks."

Steven has a simple, straightforward message for both students and teachers:

"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
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Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy
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National Federation of the Blind
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies