Making Astronomy and Space Science Accessible to Blind
Making Astronomy and Space Science Accessible to Blind and Visually Impaired Students
Bernhard Beck-Winchatz (DePaul University), Vivian Hoette (University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory), Noreen Grice
(Boston Museum of Science)
Blind and visually impaired students are often at a
disadvantage when they study science and math because of
the ubiquity of important graphical information, which is
generally not made available in alternate formats accessible
to them. This problem is particularly severe in astronomy
and space science because the objects of interest usually
cannot be examined in the laboratory, and their properties are
difficult to relate to familiar objects on Earth. Like their
sighted peers, many blind students in elementary and middle
school have a natural interest in space, which can motivate
them to learn fundamental quantitative skills. For some this
interest can even present a pathway into careers in science,
math and engineering.
Scale Models of Near-Earth Asteroids
Planispheres are commonly used in
elementary and middle school
classrooms. They allow students to
identify constellations and observe
the effect of Earths rotation and
orbit around the Sun. We have
adapted the Planisphere from The
Universe at your Fingertips for use
by blind students. Stars and
constellation patterns are raised.
Labels are in Braille.
Funded by a IDEAS grant from NASA, the primary goal of
The Space Exploration Experience Project for the Blind and
Visually Impaired (SEE Project) is to develop and test
Braille / tactile inquiry-based hands-on space science
activities and observing programs that actively engage blind
and visually impaired students from elementary grades
through introductory college level in space science. We are
in the process of developing an activity kit centered around
tactile astronomical images and models. Activities are pilottested at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind and
the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Most materials are available on-line and can be converted
into tactile format with low-cost thermal expansion
We are also designing a program in tactile observational
astronomy at Yerkes Observatory for blind and visually
impaired students. Students will take astronomical images
with the 24-inch, 10-inch, and 8-inch telescopes at the
Observatory, and analyze them in tactile format.
Finally, we are exploring the best use of tactile space science
images for sighted people with certain learning disabilities,
young children, senior citizens, and people with different
learning styles during public observing night at the Western
Connecticut State University Observatory.
Ostro et al.
Hudson et al.
Hudson et al.
Ostro et al.
Veverka et al.
Benner et al.
Ostro et al.
Some of the drawbacks of two-dimensional tactile graphics can be avoided with threedimensional models, which allow blind students to perceive spatial structures directly. In
recent years rapid prototyping has become essential in helping mechanical engineers
quickly produce prototype physical models of new designs directly from digital data.
Recently, accurate scale models of near-Earth asteroids have become available. We are
developing a set of activities in which students learn fundamental concepts in Earth and
space science, including the composition of the solar system, the connection between
size, mass, and gravity, the design and use of scale models, the role of meteorite impacts
throughout Earths history, and the danger impacts may pose in the future.
Thermal Paper Expansion Machine
Tactile Lunar Phases
Observing, predicting, and interpreting the phases of the Moon
is an important part of the space science curriculum in grades
K-8. These inverse grayscale images taken with the Yerkes
rooftop telescopes can be converted into tactile format with
thermal expansion machines, and used by blind students in
activities that involve observing, predicting, and modeling the
A relatively inexpensive and easy way to
produce tactile graphics is by using a
thermal paper expansion machine. An image
is transferred onto thermal expansion paper
with a photocopier or a computer printer.
When it is passed through the machine dark
lines and areas are raised up, and allow blind
students to explore the image by touch. The
machine pictured above was donated to
Yerkes Observatory by the Williams Bay
Lions Club for use in the SEE Project. While
it is easy to produce tactile images, the
issues involved in designing good tactile
images can be very complex. Many blind
students have little experience interpreting
two-dimensional renderings of threedimensional objects. In addition, the haptic
perception of humans is intrinsically less
detailed than sight. Thus images have to be
kept simple, without compromising
important scientific content
Summer Programs in Tactile Observational
As part of the SEE Project, blind and visually
impaired students will conduct their own
astronomical observations using the 24-inch, 10inch, and 8-inch telescopes at Yerkes Observatory
in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The students will take
CCD images and convert them into tactile format
with a thermal paper expansion machine. They will
then analyze and interpret their images with Braille
measuring tools. Possible students projects include
creating a lunar calendar, determining the mass of
the Jovian planets from the orbits of their moons,
monitoring variable stars, and tracking asteroids
Touch the Universe A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy
Prior to the SEE Project, some of our team developed a Braille
astronomy book based on tactile representations of Hubble
Space Telescope images. It is available from the National
Academy Press web site, amazon.com, and other commercial
outlets. Touch the Universe enables blind people to see the
universe for the first time through the eyes of the Hubble
Space Telescope. It has clearly demonstrated that there is high
interest in space science within blind and visually impaired
communities. The SEE Project builds upon the experience of
Touch the Universe by creating active space science learning
opportunities for blind and visually impaired students.
Aerial View of Yerkes
National Federation of the Blind Summer Science Camp
Thermal paper expansion machines are best suited for images
that have sharp borders and other high-contrast features in them.
The above composite images of Asteroid 594 Mireille and comet
Linear 2002T7 were created with Hands-On Universe (HOU)
software. HOU is used as an intermediary software for the
development of the tactile images; the HOU curriculum also
informs/guides team members in approaches for analysis of
images that lead to astronomical understandings. The
development of HOU was funded by the National Science
Tactile/Braille diagram of the orbit of near-Earth asteroid
Toutatis. We also created a printed version to aid
educators who do not read Braille.
Adapted SOFIA Active Astronomy Kit
All humans are blind in most parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. NASAs
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has developed an Active
Astronomy Kit with which students can explore invisible infrared light. We have adapted
the light detector activity from this kit for blind students. Students learn that just like
astronomers extend their senses with detectors to measure light from all parts of the
electromagnetic spectrum, they too can access the information carried by light that is
invisible to them, for example by using electronic detectors, by borrowing a lab
partners eyes, or by using their sense of hearing or touch.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
is the largest consumer organization of the
blind in the United States. We are working
with the NFB on a two-week science camp
for middle and high school students, which
will take place during the summer of 2004.
This program will be one of the first major
events at the NFBs new Research and
Training Institute, due to open on January
30, 2004. A major goal of the program is to
develop materials and strategies for
engaging blind students in science, which
can then be exported to other centers and
schools for the blind across the country.
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