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Helping the Blind to See Science and Math
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.

Robert Shelton

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

Pictures are a big part of learning about Earth and space. What if you couldn't see a picture of a hurricane or Mars? Did you know that nearly 100,000 U.S. students are blind or have lost some of their eyesight?

Robert Shelton works for NASA. He knows how hard school can be for kids who cannot see well or cannot see at all. He lost most of his eyesight at age 11. But that didn't stop him from liking science and math. Robert had been good at science and math before going nearly blind. And with help from his parents and teachers, he kept working hard at both subjects.

Robert was so good at math that he later became a math teacher. These days, he makes computer programs that help blind students with science and math. One of the programs is called Earth+. It turns colors in a picture into different sounds. To hear these sounds, a person moves the cursor across the picture.

Here is how Earth+ works. A person who is blind might want to look at a picture of a hurricane in Earth+. That person would hear one sound when moving the cursor over white clouds. He or she would hear another sound over blue water. And still another sound would be heard over brown land. The sounds help people who are blind to imagine what the picture looks like.

MathTrax is another computer program that Robert helped create. It uses sounds and words to explain what a graph looks like.

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

Tools such as Earth+ and MathTrax are not just for those who are blind. Even students with perfect eyesight often have trouble with science and math. Sometimes it helps to look or think about a picture or problem in a different way. Using your ears, instead of eyes, may be just the trick to making science and math less confusing.

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies