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Blind students use other senses to explore space

(Published Friday, June 13, 2003 10:42:29 AM CDT)

By Chris Schultz/Gazette Staff

WILLIAMS BAY-None of the students had been in an observatory before.

It's a fair bet most have never seen starlight, either.

Seven students from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville visited the University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory on Thursday for a presentation, a tour and pizza-but also to experience a universe that most of us know nothing about.

The students were a group of four sixth-graders who had just studied astronomy in teacher Kelly Bailey's class and three high-school students with an interest in astronomy. The group included sixth-graders Angelica Hope, Paul Kowald, Tauri Ramsey and Kris White; junior Grace King; and seniors Chelsea Reilly and Jessica Raichle.

The visit was part of the Space Exploration Experience Project for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a collaboration involving Yerkes, DePaul University and WCBVI.

The program is funded by a grant through NASA.

Also involved is a program called, appropriately enough, the Hands On Universe. The program, through the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Hall of Science, is designed to help teachers and students study the universe both in the classroom and with astronomy professionals online. It includes Internet links, so students and teachers can study the sky with online telescopes around the world.

Bailey said that as far as he knew, this was the first time students from the center had ever been at the observatory. It wouldn't be the last visit, he added.

The center is working with Yerkes to develop teaching aids for an astronomy curriculum that can be used by the blind and visually impaired anywhere.

"Everyone thinks of astronomy as a visual science," said professor Bernhard Beck-Winchatz of DePaul University, Chicago.

Beck-Winchatz said that DePaul is developing programs that make science more accessible to everyone, especially those who might be considered physically or economically handicapped.

The Williams Bay Lions Club formally presented a key piece of equipment in that effort to Yerkes on Thursday.

Lions President Rick Pfenning and other Lions members presented a Swellform Graphics machine to the observatory.

The Lions Club bought the machine for $1,000, along with $75 worth of the special Swellform paper-about 100 sheets. The purchase was the brainchild of Lions Club member Chuck Hoette and his wife, Vivian Hoette, Yerkes education outreach coordinator.

The device takes a simple black and white image on special paper and raises the dark portion up like Braille. Yerkes staff were copying negative image photos of galaxies and constellations and running them through the machine, reproducing images of the universe that the blind students can "see."

Soon they were running their finger over the Pleiades, star charts and spiral galaxies that have just numbers for names.

The students also experienced Yerkes' pride and joy, the 40-inch refractor, the world's largest lensed telescope. They took the 23-foot ride up to the telescope on the observatory's elevator-floor, which, at 73 feet in diameter, may well be the largest indoor elevator in the world.

There the students got a chance to "see" the lower end of the 63-foot-long refractor. They also got to feel the earth move beneath their hands.

Yerkes Director Kyle Cudworth explained that to remain pointing at the same point in the sky, the telescope has to rotate at the same rate as the Earth.

Then, on to the roof to inspect the rooftop telescopes that can be activated remotely to collect images that can be seen on the Internet. They also got to inspect the 24-inch reflector telescope in one of the observatory's two smaller domes.

The students later said the tour was "cool."

Reilly, 19, of Edgerton, said she's interested in studying astronomy next year at Carthage College.

"I like the telescopes," Reilly said.

She said she was also excited about the images produced by the Swellform printer.

"It's neat to look at a galaxy you can feel," Reilly said.

In the observatory library, Al Harper, a pioneer in airborne infrared astronomy, told the students about a device he made called the "squealer."

"In terms of infrared, we sighted folk have no special advantage," Harper told the students. "Our eyes can't detect infrared."

These kids know something about undetectable light. It's just a matter of detecting things in other ways.

Determining whether a telescope is pointing at an infrared object is not easy, Harper said. The squealer simplified things for the astronomers. The device, which was connected to the infrared camera attached to the telescope, gave off a steady tone. When the camera detected infrared, the tone changed in pitch, cluing astronomers that they were looking in the right direction.

Sitting at a table in the observatory library, the students built squealers of their own from a kit developed by Vivian Hoette. Using touch and curiosity, students deftly hooked up photoelectric cells to speakers. The room was soon filled with the sound of sunlight.

Included in the kits were infrared remote control handsets. The photoelectric cells are also sensitive to infrared. The remotes' light makes a warbling sound. There was enough warbling in that room to drive most radios, televisions and garage door openers crazy.

Students also got to "see" a model of the 747 SP, which will take SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) aloft sometime next year. Harper and technicians at Yerkes are among those building infrared cameras that will be used in the 747's telescope.

Harper later said that he is not aware of any visually impaired astronomers now. But professor Edwin Frost went blind while he was director of Yerkes in the 1920s and '30s, he said.

The disability did little to slow down Frost's ability to work as an astronomer, Harper said.

One of the reasons for this program is to find ways to inspire sight-impaired students to study astronomy, Harper said.

With the use of computers and aids that use other senses, like the squealer, "there's no reason a sight-impaired person could not pick up (astronomical) information," Harper said.

"We finally got the university to realize that this is a wonderful venue for education outreach," said Jim Gee, Yerkes manager.

As a research university, it took the University of Chicago a while to realize the education potential at Yerkes, he said. Gee predicted that in five to 10 years, education outreach will be the most important activity at the observatory.

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