National Federation of the Blind
2008 Junior Science Academy
This summer, the NFB Jernigan Institute opened its doors to thirty families from across the country for its first ever Junior Science Academy (JSA). Celebrating its fifth year of successful science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, the NFB Jernigan Institute ventured into new territory in an effort to empower younger children with the skills necessary to pursue study in STEM subjects.
One parent accompanied each child and the adult participants attended their own programming in conjunction with the children's activities. Blind individuals from across the country volunteered their time to come and serve as mentors to help supervise the children during daytime activities. These individuals served as great role models for the children and their parents. Each mentor had three students for whom he/she was responsible.
This four-day event was jam-packed with activity. The theme for the children's activities focused around Earth and environmental science. In order to help the children better understand why Earth is able to sustain life, the program began with noted astronomer Noreen Grice teaching the students about the make-up of the various planets in the solar system and other phenomena that impact our earth, such as comets. The children then learned about different biomes and weather from two scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
On day two, the JSA decided to--go green--as Caroline McEnnis, a graduate student from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, led the children in engineering activities designed around alternative energy resources. By the end of the day, the children had constructed some method for harnessing energy and producing electricity from each of the four kinds of alternative energies--water, wind, solar, and vegetation.
One of the main objectives of the Institute's Science Academy programs is to explore new ways of making certain activities accessible to the blind. Richard Ladner, a Boeing Professor in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Washington expressed an interest in adapting a curriculum that helps teach children some of the fundamentals of computer science so that blind children could participate in its activities. The program, called--Computer Science Unplugged: Fun with Computing without a Computer,--was introduced to the children. Activities included a variety of games and puzzles wherein principles used by computer programmers were explained.
No summer program would be complete without some kind of outdoor excursion, so we made sure to throw one of these into the mix. The children visited North Bay Adventure, an outdoor recreational site located in Maryland near the Pennsylvania border. Here the children participated in a nature hike, held snakes and turtles, and took a little dip in the Chesapeake bay to cool off. North Bay also provided some of the children with what may have been the biggest confidence booster of the whole week--the zip line!
Let's not forget that our parents had some great experiences of their own during the program. Parent sessions ranged from topics on multi-sensory learning to writing goals for IEPs. For many of the parents, this was their first introduction to the NFB, and the first time this kind of information about blindness had ever been shared with them.
Experiential activities also played an important part in helping parents learn the value of nonvisual techniques. Parents wore sleep shades as they learned to prepare a Jell-O salad, travel with a cane, and even use a chainsaw. Several of the parents reported that the best part of their sessions were the panels of blind adults. The panelists discussed things they felt their parents did well as a parent of a blind child, and gave suggestions of things they wish their parents would have known or done in respect to blindness.
The last morning of the program wrapped up with a lot of excitement and a few tears. There was a lot of sharing of contact information with newfound friends for both the parents and the children. During the closing ceremony, several of the students shared some of their favorite activities of the week as well as--what they want to be when they grow up. It was exciting to hear that our future has such great aspirations.