Exploring the World of the Zenith Accelerated Learning Academy for Students with Visual Impairments

Authors: Yolanda Shaw, Family Engagement Specialist, VI Outreach Program, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)

Keywords: accessible science, accessibility, STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum, three dimensional (3D) tactile models, sonification

Abstract: TSBVI’s Family Engagement Specialist interviewed Mary Rickle, Co-Director of the SciAccess Zenith Accelerated Learning Academy, about a newly developed science program for students who have visual impairments.

Question 1

Yolanda: Can you describe the SciAccess Zenith Astronomy Mentorship program?

Mary: The SciAccess Zenith Mentorship Program is a mentorship program for students with visual impairments in grades 8–12 who are interested in space science. Our students engage with professionals in the field of physics, astronomy, and aerospace engineering and work with real accessible data. As well, Zenith students collaborate on three different levels: one-on-one mentoring with an Ohio State student, small group mentoring, and large group/cohort discussions. In addition to working on small activities throughout the semester, students showcase their knowledge at the end of the semester in the SciAccess Research Symposium.

Question 2

Yolanda: How does this program differ from the science classes a student with a visual impairment might receive in school?

Mary: Although physics is heavily integrated into middle school and high school curricula, many aspects of space science are not. To give our students an introduction to many different subfields of space science, Zenith is broken up into three phases: Astronomy, Physics, and Aerospace Engineering. In each phase, students can work with real data, listen and ask questions to leading professionals, collaborate with their peers on activities, and learn about opportunities available to them.

Question 3

Yolanda: Who and why was it decided that a science program should be designed for individuals with visual impairments?

Mary: The SciAccess Zenith Mentorship program is an official branch off a larger initiative called SciAccess. The SciAccess Initiative was established by Anna Voelker in 2018 and aims to inspire, develop, and promote innovative approaches to equitable science access. SciAccess consists of multiple branches to achieve this goal, namely: The Annual SciAccess Conference, Mission AstroAccess, Astronomy Without Borders Working Group, and The SciAccess Zenith Mentorship Program. Each component aims to serve members of the scientific community who may be underrepresented or marginalized. Students with visual impairments are often underrepresented and discouraged from space science due to misconceptions and lack of accessibility. Zenith aims to challenge these misconceptions and provide our students with the resources to fuel their curiosity along their path to becoming scientists.

Question 4

Yolanda: What adaptations or modifications were made to accommodate students with visual impairments? Provide some examples such as audio sources, electronic info, tactual graphics, high contrast colors for models, etc.

Mary: Zenith utilizes a variety of different mediums to accommodate a large range of learning preferences. We teach using three-dimensional (3D) tactile models, sonification, large print, and tactile graphs. In past semesters, we used 3D models of black holes, galaxies, Mars Rovers, and even the night sky. All of our 3D printing is done through See3D, a non-profit organization that manages the printing and distribution of 3D printed models for people who are blind. As well, we teach students to interpret data using sonification. Sonification is the process by which data is turned into sound. Our students listen and interpret data from exploding stars and colliding particles. Much of our sonification comes from Particle Collider and the open-source code Transient Zoo Project created by Locke Patton. In addition, our sonified data is typically paired with large print and tactile graphics. In the past, we have printed through Ohio State and other private braille printing companies such as Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. We aim to reach the needs of any learning preferences our students possess.

Some of the Zenith classes were virtual, and others were in-person. In the virtual semesters, materials were shipped directly to the student (Note: additional information on program organization and materials is provided in the questions below).

Question 5

Yolanda: What were some of the goals, hopes, and intentions in the outcomes for the program?

Mary: Our goal is to challenge misconceptions and serve the underrepresented students with visual impairments in space science. Our organization promotes academic growth for these students by providing access to higher education resources and connections. Weekly academic presentations, cohort discussions, one-on-one mentor meetings, 3D prints, and sonified data will give students the opportunity to learn about accessible space science. Our organization provides virtual mentorship for students (grades 8–12) from Ohio, across the country, and around the world. Students who are interested in space science will have the opportunity to meet others who share their passion for astronomy, physics, and aerospace engineering and will be paired one-on-one with mentors from Ohio State’s undergraduate and graduate programs.

Question 6

Yolanda: Did you learn anything from helping design the program, especially the mentoring portion that you were coordinating? Did you learn anything from the students in the mentoring program?

Mary: In our rapidly changing world, we learned the difficulty of navigating our program in an online format. Despite the obvious challenge of technology, the online format forced us to look for new and realistic ways to support our students mentally as they traverse a range of hardships. The mental health of our students is the highest priority, and we continue to seek resources to help students both in and out of the classroom. Although our program is currently only one semester long, we strive to equip our students with lifelong professional skills and encourage them to think about what opportunities lay ahead of them. We continue to learn more about how to support our students’ unique paths. This can take a variety of forms, such as providing internship, job, scholarship, and college information.

Originally, Zenith was planned to be an after-school activity at the Ohio State School for the Blind with the inaugural year in 2020. We are steadily moving towards this goal and hope to be fully in-person in the Fall of 2022. Currently, we are in a phase of program development to achieve this. To date, we have run two fully virtual semesters of Zenith. Based on student feedback, we strive to increase collaboration amongst students and expand to other areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). We are continually inspired by the curiosity and drive our students possess and actively seek ways to nurture this.

Question 7

Yolanda: What gems of wisdom would you like to provide to the families of students with visual impairments and the professionals who teach them?

Mary: We are continually inspired by the curiosity, drive, and natural scientific inclination our students possess. Each student’s experiences and interests create a diverse cohort from which other students and mentors can benefit. We encourage our students to ask questions regarding resources and opportunities available to them in addition to questions about course content. We do our best to foster a welcoming environment that promotes self-advocacy and creative and scientific growth. Our goal is to not only leave students with a better understanding of our universe but also encourage them to find their place in it.

To find out more information about our program, please see the testimony from one of our students, Charlie, in the following article in TX SenseAbilities, “Zenith Astronomy Program,” or visit the website of The SciAccess Zenith Mentorship Program at Ohio State University.

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