UW News

July 6, 2011

To touch the stars: Online lessons, models bring cosmos to the blind

UW News

Sarah Loebman, left, and Natalie Ramien were part of a UW team that designed a tactile version of astronomy for middle school students who are blind.

Sarah Loebman, left, and Natalie Ramien were part of a UW team that designed a tactile version of astronomy for middle school students who are blind.Mary Levin

The universe is an overwhelming concept for anyone to grasp. But if you are blind and unable to see the images from telescopes that are available to the sighted person, the task is harder still. Blind students need a way to “touch” the stars, and thanks in part to a curriculum designed at the UW, some of them will have it.

Touch the Stars, is, in fact, the name of an astronomy text written in Braille by Noreen Grice. What the UW team has done is create online lesson modules from the book, augmented by some additional material and some all-important tactile extras.

For example, a lesson on the solar system features small models of the inner planets, each the proper size in relation to the others. To keep them from rolling out of place while the student is working with them, theyre connected to each other with rope. And although the website cant dispense the models themselves, team members plan to post photos of all of them. The site also contains instructions as to the sizes of each and how to construct them.

“We tried to make everything as low-cost as possible,” said Sarah Loebman, an astronomy graduate student involved in the project. “And we tried to be as detailed as possible in our descriptions.”

The work was made possible through a “SEED” grant (Simple Effective Education and Dissemination) from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific with funds from the Planck Mission of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology.

Loebman was recruited for the work by Ana Larson, director of the UWs Jacobsen Observatory, along with Natalie Ramien, who recently earned her bachelors degree in astronomy. The idea was to build a series of five learning modules aimed at middle school students.

“The idea is, they could be used together at a five-day camp or separately, to augment other classes,” Loebman said.

Another former UW student, Virginia Player, worked to ensure that the curriculum would help meet the Washington Essential Academic Learning Requirements in astronomy.

The solar system model is just one example of the ingenious methods the UW team used to make astronomy come alive for those without normal vision.  An exercise illustrating light travel time makes use of different sized models of plastic snakes.

“The idea is that a source of light can change but it takes time for us to notice the change,” Loebman said.  “Our activity involves three students and a teacher:  The teacher represents someone on Earth, and each student represents someone on a space station spaced one light year apart (a light year is the distance that light travels in one year). The teacher tells the student he/she is going to take a ‘picture’ of a newly-hatched snake and send the picture to the first space station. The teacher asks the students how long it will take for the ‘picture to reach the first student. Instead of using a two-dimensional picture, however, the teacher passes a small model of a snake to the first student.

“Then the teacher ‘takes a photo’ at the snakes first and second birthdays. Each of these successive ‘photos’ is represented by a larger and larger plastic snake that is successively passed from person to person. We ask students if the snake (a type that lives about three years) will still be alive by the time, for example, the third person receives the first birthday picture.  Students learn that given the finite speed that light travels at, it takes a while for us to detect changes.”

Styrofoam is used in another exercise to illustrate different types of galaxies. The team simply cut the Styrofoam in different shapes to represent the galaxies.

One of the things the original Touch the Stars book didnt discuss is dark matter, a concept the UW team thought was important to include. But how to get the idea across?

“We detect the influence dark matter exerts on stars and gas, but we cant directly image dark matter ourselves,” Loebman said.

To explain this, the team taped two flat pieces of Styrofoam together, with magnets inside. The students slide a magnet across the surface, and feel the pull from the magnets inside.

“We ask them, ‘What do you think is causing the pull you feel?” Loebman said. “We guide the discussion until they conclude that magnets inside the Styrofoam pieces are most likely responsible. We ask them what they could do to definitively conclude that magnets are the source of the attraction.  They may say they want to rip the Styrofoam pieces apart to find the magnets, but we then ask them what they would do if they couldnt rip the Styrofoam apart.  Would they still conclude that magnets are most likely responsible?  What additional experiments could they conduct to disprove this argument?”

The process illustrates how scientists sometimes build a case for something they cant directly see or touch through inference from indirect evidence.

Loebman and other members of the team had help in designing the lessons from two blind students, Abigail Traverse and Nicole Torcolini.

“The blind students were incredibly helpful, in particular in relation to how we thought about breaking up the different lessons,” Loebman said. “They helped us design learning objects so that they wont roll away, that theyll fit in front of a person, that there arent too many at once. We also learned to describe to them the textures they would feel before they did it because their fingertips are very sensitive.”

Sometimes the designers scaled down their ambitions after working with the blind students, but sometimes it was the other way around.

“We thought about having them make a comet with dry ice and some other things, and we didnt think theyd be able to do it,” Loebman said. “But we tried it anyway and they loved it. It turned out to be one of the favorite activities. So our perception of what theyd be able to do wasnt always accurate.”

The UW team presented their curriculum at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. For Loebman, who has loved the TA aspects of her graduate program, its been one more chance to teach.

“I enjoy the personal connection and seeing people get excited about astronomy,” she said.