SCIVIS: Reaching for the Stars at Space Camp

Authors: Hillary Keys, Early Childhood Deafblind Consultant, Outreach Program, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), Texas Deafblind Project, and SCIVIS Chaperone; Jim Allan, Accessibility Coordinator, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) and Texas SCIVIS Coordinator; Lisa Gray, Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TSVI), Dallas ISD, and SCIVIS Chaperone

Keywords: space, aviation, Expanded Core Curriculum, SCIVIS, Space Shuttle, International Space Station, Mission Control, extravehicular activity, EVA, Aviation Challenge, cockpit

Abstract: The authors describe how students who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind have the times of their lives at Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, or SCIVIS. Learn about the amazing ways that all the areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) are addressed at SCIVIS, and find out how the internationally famous NASA Space Camp and VI professionals provide access to the camp curriculum.

10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…We have lift-off!

Six students sit in Mission Control. Two white canes lean against the corner just inside the door. Everyone wears a headset, computer screens span one wall, and the adjoining control panel has braille labels on every switch, knob, and button. Students read from and refer to large print and braille Mission Control instruction manuals and scripts. Meanwhile, in the space shuttle Challenger cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot communicate with Mission Control, their crew, and one another. Braille, large print, and magnification devices are everywhere. 

This is Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, SCIVIS! During one week each fall, students from around the world who are blind, low vision or deafblind descend on Space Camp at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Like hundreds of other young people throughout the year, they are there to attend Space Camp. However, this particular week is a little different from the rest. Teachers of Students with Visual Impairment (TSVIs) and Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS) coordinate, chaperone, and support camp staff to ensure access for these students during their week at Space Camp. 

Space Camp staff members present the same programs as during all other weeks of camp, and there is a non-stop whirl of activities. Expectations are HIGH, and the students exceed them. Campers work together as teammates, encouraging and helping one another. Pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones, these young people realize they can set their mind to something and achieve it. One student wrote of SCIVIS:

It pushed me to face my fears, like my fear of heights. I went farther than I thought I could and I am proud of myself. I know that as I leave high school and start my life, I will be able to face my fear of the unknown and be ok. 

These students return home after their week at Space Camp with confidence and pride in their accomplishments. In short, SCIVIS changes lives.

The SCIVIS curriculum is based on the National Science Education Standards, and students engage in a variety of hands-on activities while meeting new people and having fun. Students also practice many skills of the Expanded Core Curriculum for Students with Visual Impairments (ECC) while at Space Camp, including literacy skills, orientation and mobility (O&M), communication with teammates, negotiation and project coordination, team building, and teamwork. They also develop leadership skills to prepare them for college, careers, and life. 

SCIVIS students participate in either Space Camp or Aviation Challenge. Space Camp focuses on the history and future of space travel. Through hands-on activities and simulated missions, students are immersed in space related activities. They act as the pilot and copilot in the cockpit of a Space Shuttle, conduct experiments as scientists in the International Space Station (ISS), and act as members of Mission Control. Near the end of the week, they participate in the culminating extravehicular activity (EVA) mission. Elementary students can attend Space Camp beginning in the fifth grade. Middle school students attend Space Academy, and high school students attend Advanced Academy. 

Aviation Challenge is a military-themed program focused on aviation skills, teamwork, and the history and future of flight. Campers pilot and copilot fighter jets in flight simulators and experience what it’s like to take off, fly, participate in “dog fights” with other jets, and hopefully land the jet safely. This culminates in a Top Gun competition. The military aspect of Aviation Challenge emphasizes teamwork as students learn to work together as a unit through marching drills, team building activities, escape and evade simulated missions using military-style tactics, and survival skills such as building a temporary shelter in the woods. Elementary students beginning in the fifth grade attend Mach I; middle school students attend Mach II; high school students attend Mach III. 


Expanded Core Curriculum

SCIVIS activities address all nine areas of the ECC. Students use assistive technology to access all the environments and learning materials at Space Camp and Aviation Challenge. Low-vision devices and 3-D models of almost everything at SCIVIS are readily available. Students practice following directions, cooperation, and teamwork skills that are needed in most jobs. They learn about careers in space via a conference call with NASA professionals who are visually impaired. Compensatory access skills involve more than just reading scripts or directions in a student’s preferred literacy medium. Effective communication, an essential part of activities at SCIVIS, requires both listening and speaking skills. Organization skills, reasoning, and awareness of time are crucial to functioning as part of a team, as are environmental and spatial awareness.  

Pushing the limits of a student’s orientation and mobility (O&M) and independent living skills is just part of the day-to-day experience at SCIVIS. Figuring out how to negotiate the cafeteria and make it to the team table with all their food still on the tray while 199 new friends do the same may take more than one try. Many other skills come into play when these campers learn how to live together with their new friends in the Habitat, a mostly metal, space station-themed dorm. They must make their bed, independently find the shower, make it back to the correct dorm room, ensure that they grab their own clothes and not their roommate’s, and identify their cane by the door when there are four nearly identical canes in the same spot.     

Walking at least 10,000 steps daily at Space Camp is the norm for campers, as is trying new recreation and leisure activities. AREA 51 is a wooded area where they work together to overcome elements of the ropes challenge course that includes, for some, climbing a wall and zip lining. Water activities are always a favorite. Aviation Challenge houses water activities including swimming, rafting, and zip lining into the water. Some groups get to try SCUBA, different gravity and movement simulators, extravehicular activities (EVAs), and building and setting off rockets.

However, the “pamper” pole might be the most exciting high ropes obstacle and is only available to high school students. According to legend, the name comes from the type of underwear recommended for taking on the 32-foot wooden pole. The goal is to climb to the top of the pole using the metal brackets that act as a ladder and then stand up on top of the small flat plate. It sounds simple, but the pole wobbles, the plate spins a little bit, and there is nothing to hold onto at the top. An individual camper, wearing a climbing harness and supported by a double belay system, climbs as their teammates call out encouragement and keep the belay ropes taut. Not everyone makes it to the top, and that is okay. This is about so much more than completing a difficult task. It is about finding the boundaries of one’s comfort zone and pushing it a little, or even breaking through it and building self-confidence, trusting in teammates, and succeeding at something rarely accomplished by most people. 

Students learn so much about themselves when participating in the pamper pole activity. They learn about their ability to control their reactions to events, they discover the freedom to take risks and achieve goals, and they experience the honest results of their choices. Being the commander of the orbiter or space station, the flight director, an EVA specialist, mission scientist, or taking point in escape and evade missions also provide students with opportunities to learn about themselves. They assume leadership roles which demand decision-making and self-determination. Sometimes it means knowing when to ask for help or asking for a different magnifier, print size, grade of braille, or problem-solving help from teammates during a mission.

A 2X3 foot wooden base sits flat on the ground. Three wooden dowel rods, two tall and one short, are attached perpendicular to the base. String, representing ropes and cables, is attached between the tops of the taller poles. There are also strings from the tops to the ground to show how the poles are anchored. Legos are used to create miniature campers on the model.

A scaled wooden model of the pamper pole ropes challenge

Three tall wooden poles about the size of telephone poles soar toward the clear blue sky with a camper in a safety helmet and harness on belay about to climb on top of a disk attached to the top of the pole.

A camper reaches the top of the pamper pole.

While it’s not taught explicitly, students also practice sensory efficiency skills throughout SCIVIS. Campers use their tactile skills or existing vision, with or without low vision devices, to examine unique, new environments. Throughout the day, students have to listen for instructions, communicate with peers, listen for a cue for their turns during missions, and keep up with their group in the noisy cafeteria. Finding braille labels and the right switches and controls during a mission can even challenge students with the best tactile skills. Unique environments pose unique challenges. 

SCIVIS offers opportunities for students to build both confidence and character, complete challenging tasks, push themselves, conquer fears, try new things, and not let anything hold them back. Perhaps the most impactful part of camp, however, is socializing with peers with visual impairments. Throughout SCIVIS, social interaction skills help campers develop relationships with peers from different states and countries. Campers learn how others face their visual challenges. Successfully completing missions during this week together gives students the confidence to accomplish their goals and dreams at home. 

SCIVIS Coordinator, Dan Oates, believes one of the greatest benefits this camp provides is the social aspect: 

We have a lot of children who come from public or private schools who aren’t around their visually impaired and blind peers. They go through the entire year as maybe the only child in their school or their district. And when they come here, they get to experience what life is like and learn with their peers. It has a tremendous impact on them. 

The Texas SCIVIS coordinator, Jim Allan, said, “In my time at SCIVIS, I’ve learned that the students feel free to be themselves because of the parity with their teammates and new friends.”

2024 will be the 30th anniversary of Texas teams attending SCIVIS. A large group of new and returning campers from Texas would be wonderful! SCIVIS 2024 dates are October 6-10 with departure on October 11th. Students interested in space and aviation can find more information about the camp and scholarships at the Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students website. They can also contact Jim Allan, Texas SCIVIS coordinator, at 512-206-9315 or [email protected].

SCIVIS Tactile Astronomy Lesson for Student who is deafblind

SCIVIS EVA simulator activity

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