The sophisticated technology of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have made it possible to bring awesome images of planets and galaxies into the classroom. Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer and faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, wanted visually impaired students to have the same opportunities to engage themselves in space science. With the help of astronomer and author Noreen Grice, he has developed a much-needed space science resource book for the blind.
Using a $10,000 HST grant earmarked for educational programs, Beck-Winchatz and Grice have created a Braille and large print book that combines tactile illustrations with colorful images taken with the HST. The book, “Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy,” includes spectacular images of planets, nebulae and galaxies.
A year ago, Beck-Winchatz, who also serves as associate director of the NASA Space Science Center for Education and Outreach at DePaul, applied for an HST research grant to conduct a quasar survey, which involves studying galaxies that have black holes. He took advantage of the opportunity to apply for an educational grant component, which is available to all scientists who have secured a NASA research grant. Beck-Winchatz remembered that in 1999 he had examined a book on astronomy for the blind that impressed him quite a bit. The earlier book, entitled “Touch The Stars,” was also created by Grice. Its tactile pictures are based on drawings of constellations, comets, galaxies and other astronomical objects.
“I was fascinated by Grice’s book,” recalled Beck-Winchatz, who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Washington. “I thought it would be intriguing to create similar tactile pictures based on real Hubble Space Telescope images, but I didn’t think this could possibly be a new idea. There are 10 million visually impaired people in the United States, it seemed outrageous that these resources would not be available before now.”
Grice, who holds a master’s degree in astronomy from San Diego State University and is based in Boston, originally began experimenting with techniques to make astronomy more accessible for visually impaired people more than 15 years ago after having observed a group of blind visitors at the Charles Hayden Planetarium in Boston. Ever since that experience, she has worked on ways to make science more accessible to the blind and other people with disabilities. She began developing tactile star maps and, over the years, has become recognized as an expert in the field of accessible astronomy.
To allow both blind and seeing readers to enjoy the HST images in “Touch the Universe,” Grice developed clear tactile overlays for each image. The overlays were sent to Benning Wentworth, a science teacher and astronomy enthusiast at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. His students evaluated each image for clarity and provided important suggestions for needed changes. “Based on the students’ comments, I was able to revise the images and make aluminum master plates,” said Grice. With the final plates, plastic overlays were produced in a heat vacuum (thermoform) machine. The tactile thermoform pages, placed in front of the color HST images, make these images accessible to readers of all visual abilities.
“Touch the Universe” is designed for use with middle school students, high school students and adults, alike. The book is also expected to attract the attention of mainstream educators, a number of whom already use Grice’s first tactile book in science classes. Four hundred copies will be printed in the first run, and the book will sell for slightly above production cost so earnings can offset future updates and production of the second edition. Beck-Winchatz indicated that he, Grice and Wentworth are anticipating a huge demand. For him and his two collaborators, helping to create such a valuable resource tool has been rewarding.
“Scientists often live in ivory towers,” said Beck-Winchatz. “It is only through partnerships like this that we get to share what we are doing. However, educational endeavors like this one require money. The grants for education from NASA’s Office of Space Science allow us to branch out of pure science and use some of the results of research to affect the lives of the general public, and in this case, the blind and visually impaired.”
For more information about this project or to order a copy of “Touch the Universe,” please feel free to contact: Bernhard Beck-Winchatz at 773/325-4545 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noreen Grice can be reached by e-mail email@example.com.
Editors’ Note: Photos of students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind examining images from “Touch the Universe” are available for downloading at http://analyzer.depaul.edu/ttu.