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Making Astronomy Accessible to the Blind – Students Partner with Professionals to Build New Software Tool


If intelligent life without sight exists on some distant planet in our galaxy, these lifeforms would still explore the universe; how? This is a guiding question for Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA), a new research initiative supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation – STEM + Computing Partnerships (STEM+C) Program.

During a visit to Yerkes Observatory, students from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired explore 3D printing and how the sense of touch can be used to explore astronomical images. Through the IDATA project, students from the Center and elsewhere across the U.S., will work with a team of professionals to design and develop Afterglow Access, a new software tool that will expand accessibility beyond touch, making the universe more accessible to those with visual impairments.

During a visit to Yerkes Observatory, students from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired explore 3D printing and how the sense of touch can be used to explore astronomical images. Through the IDATA project, students from the Center and elsewhere across the U.S., will work with a team of professionals to design and develop Afterglow Access, a new software tool that will expand accessibility beyond touch, making the universe more accessible to those with visual impairments.

You might remember seeing those early images from the Hubble Space Telescope? Spectacular pillars of greenish gas and dust giving birth to new stars and planets, incredibly detailed spiral arms in galaxies millions of light-years away, but not once did you look through the telescope and see these images with your own eyes. Today, these amazing astronomical images are generated by computers with light gathered from distant objects using telescopes and a variety of detectors. This light is converted into numerical data and computers use that data to generate the images we see. In reality, we are all “blind” to this data, we choose to convert these numbers into images. What if we turned it into sound or something we could feel through touch? If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a song worth?

Modern astronomy relies on computers and computational thinking for nearly every aspect of collecting, analyzing, and presenting data. Visual interfaces commonly used for these computational processes present unique challenges for blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals. While BVI individuals are severely underrepresented across all fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the lack of vision-neutral tools in astronomy further increase the barrier-to-entry for BVI individuals.

Research suggests that astronomy topics, participation in authentic scientific research, exploration of astronomy topics, and experience with computer science as a part of broader applications of STEM can be powerful motivators for individuals to pursue STEM learning and career opportunities. IDATA project investigators from Associated Universities Inc., University of Chicago – Yerkes Observatory, TERC in Cambridge MA, University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and Skynet at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill,  hypothesize that teaming up BVI and sighted students, teachers, and professionals in the design and development of astronomy software and instructional modules will result in more accessible tools for astronomy investigations, powerful educational experiences, and lower the barrier-to-entry for BVI (and all) individuals interested in astronomy and related careers.

Over the next three years the project team will engage BVI and sighted students and their teachers from both mainstream and specialized schools for the blind in the project. Annually IDATA engages 20 teachers and 200 grades eight through twelve students in the project. While half of the participating schools will be located in Southern Wisconsin and the Chicago area, the remaining schools will be selected from across the United States and its territories.

IDATA students and teachers will participate in user-centered design/universal design (UCD/UD) processes to iteratively developing and testing software and learning modules, improving the accessibility for educational and professional uses of astronomy tools. The project builds on the success of prior NSF supported research, including the development of Afterglow, the Quorum programming language, and the Skynet Junior Scholars portal that supports collaborative astronomy investigations with the Skynet international network of telescopes.

The research will advance knowledge about students’ learning related to computational thinking, the role of computation in astronomy, and software design, as well as how participation influences students’ attitudes and beliefs about who can engage in STEM and computing. The accessible software and instructional modules produced in this study may be adopted by a range of BVI and sighted individuals, but may also be transferrable to other similarly visually-intensive domains such as satellite, geophysical, and medical imaging.

Recruitment of schools, including teachers and students, is expected to begin late March 2017. For more information or to receive updated news about IDATA, please contact IDATA project PI Tim Spuck at tspuck@aui.edu, or IDATA Project Educator Kate Meredith at katemeredith@uchicago.edu, or sign up at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/IDATA_BVI.

 

IDATA project partners include:                           

Associated Universities Inc. (Tim Spuck, STEM Education Development Officer and IDATA PI, Nicole Broodie, Assistant Grants and Contracts Administrator and IDATA Assistant)

University of Chicago – Yerkes Observatory (Dr. Al Harper, Director of Yerkes Observatory and IDATA CoPI; Kate Meredith, Director of Education Outreach at Yerkes Observatory, and IDATA Project Educator)

TERC – (Dr. Jim Hammerman, Director of TERC’s STEM Education Evaluation Center and IDATA CoPI)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Dr. Andy Stefik, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and IDATA CoPI)

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (Dr. Dan Reichart, Director of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network and IDATA CoPI; Josh Haislip, Skynet’s Senior Systems Engineer and IDATA Software Development Lead)

Logos Consulting Group, LLC (Bret Feranchak, Principal Consultant for Research, Evaluation, & Strategy and IDATA External Evaluator)

 

IDATA External Advisor Board Members include:

Clara Van Gurven, Jerrigan Institute at the National Federation for the Blind,

Ed Summers, SAS and the North Carolina Commission for the Blind,

Dr. Kathryn Williamson, West Virginia University,

Dr. Luisa Rebull, California Institute of Technology,

Dr. Russ Laher, California Institute of Technology,

Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced, International Astronomical Union.

For more information contact Tim Spuck, IDATA PI at tspuck@aui.edu or 814-758-9527, or Kate Meredith, IDATA Project Educator at katemeredith@uchicago.edu or 262-245-5555 ext. 836