Donald Savage Headquarters, Washington (Phone: 202/358-1727

)

June 3, 2002

Bill Steigerwald Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. (Phone: 301/286-5017) RELEASE: 02-103 LIBERATING THE UNIVERSE: MAKING ASTRONOMY ACCESSIBLE TO ALL STUDENTS A pioneering NASA education program strives to make astronomy accessible to all students, including the disabled. The program brings together existing Internet technology and other tools to open the Universe to students who would otherwise be denied the experience due to their physical or cognitive challenges. The effort is funded by NASA through the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Baltimore, with the participation of the elementary school system in Howard County, Md. "We discovered that our program benefits all students, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, because it capitalizes on the innate curiosity of children, and it is carefully tailored to their development level," said Dr. Carol Grady, a National Optical Astronomy Observatory researcher stationed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Grady is the Science Lead for the program, and became involved after her son, who has special needs, expressed an interest in her work with the Hubble Space Telescope on planet formation and stellar evolution. "The advances in astronomy over the last hundred years are one of humanity's greatest cultural achievements, and I did not want kids like my son to get the message that activities like this are not open to them," said Grady. "This can happen so easily that it's inadvertent -- for example, if someone sets up a telescope in a field with rough terrain, it automatically rules out participation by those in wheelchairs." The team uses existing Internet technology and simple tools

because teachers are under constant time and budget pressure. Many schools already have computers with Internet connections, so the program leverages existing technology investments. The new approach is that the technology is tested, evaluated and combined in a way that enriches the learning experience for all students and is easy for teachers to implement. For example, a basic astronomy lesson is that the Earth is spherical. Current educational approaches simply give this information to students, either in a lecture or a book. However, disabled students may not be able to easily read the book or comprehend the lecture. Instead, Grady identified Web cameras around the world that show live pictures of the local landscape. She has a teacher ask the children to look at the pictures and note the time and whether it's day or night. Then the teachers ask what shape would best fit their observations. Since the lesson is based on pictures, students who have trouble with text or lectures can participate fully. Because the lesson begins with observations and leads to a conclusion, it teaches the scientific method and kindles the children's natural inquisitiveness, benefiting all. "Since reading and writing is emphasized in all curriculum areas, modifications and alternatives need to be provided for students who have difficulty with reading and writing," said Nancy Farley, an Occupational Therapist with Howard County Public Schools. Examples provided through the program include devices to assist visually impaired students, such as spheres with the continents raised, and technology that enables students to hear the text on Web sites and other reading material. "The technology also helps break down the writing tasks into more manageable steps for the students. As a result, the students are less reluctant to engage in the interactive activities in the space science curriculum since the reading and writing tasks are no longer overwhelming to them," said Farley. The team chose elementary-school-age children so team members could get assistive technology to them before frustration with their disability led the students to give up attempting

to learn. Additionally, classes for such students tend to be smaller, so more time and attention can be devoted to testing new learning approaches. Other schools, such as the Prince George's County school system in Maryland, have expressed interest in the program, and the techniques can be adapted to other subjects. "The project is the result of interdisciplinary collaboration, including general educators, special educators, assistive technology specialists and scientists," said Farley. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by AURA for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. Images and more information are available at: http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/20020603hsted.html - end -