Students, teachers craft software to make astronomy accessible to the blind

Student Yerkes
UChicago’s Yerkes Observatory and partners are engaging with blind and visually impaired students to remove barriers to STEM studies.
Greg Borzo
News Officer, Physical SciencesUniversity of Chicago News Office

Today’s astronomers don’t really look at stars or galaxies so much as images produced from data generated by light. If that same data were used to produce 3-D printouts, tactile displays or sound, would it open the study and pursuit of astronomy to the blind and visually impaired?

That’s the kind of question the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory and its partners will try to answer with the help of a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Over the next three years, they will develop Afterglow Access—new software that will make astronomy more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

“Amazing pictures of stars start as numbers on a spreadsheet, and those numbers can be manipulated and presented in myriad ways,” said Kate Meredith, director of education outreach at the Yerkes Observatory and the education lead of Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy, a new research initiative from the observatory. “We won’t consider ourselves successful unless within three years we have developed new computer tools with and for the blind and visually impaired that can be used in real applications, learning situations and scholarly research.”

The National Federation of the Blind estimates that more than seven million Americans are visually disabled. Unequal access to quantitative information and the lack of vision-neutral tools presents them with barriers to study and master astronomy and other STEM subjects, Meredith said.

To overcome this, the Yerkes research initiative will engage blind and visually impaired students as well as sighted students and their teachers from mainstream and specialized schools for the blind. Twenty teachers and 200 eighth- through 12th-grade students are expected to participate annually. Recruiting teachers and students began this spring. While half of the participating schools will be located in southern Wisconsin and the Chicago area, the remaining schools will be selected from across the United States and its territories.

Students and teachers will participate in user-centered design and universal design processes to develop and test software and learning modules and to improve accessibility aspects of astronomy tools for educational and professional purposes. The project builds upon the success of prior National Science Foundation-supported research projects, including the development of Afterglow; Quorum, an accessible programming language; and the Skynet Junior Scholars, a program that supports collaborative astronomy investigations by young explorers using Skynet’s international network of telescopes.

The research will advance knowledge about student learning related to computational thinking, the role of computation in astronomy and software design. In addition, it will help determine how participation influences student attitudes and beliefs about who can engage in computing and STEM subjects.

“Teaming up blind and visually impaired students with sighted students, teachers and professionals in the design and development of astronomy software and instructional modules will create powerful educational experiences, encourage STEM learning, and lower the barrier-to-entry for blind and visually impaired individuals interested in astronomy and related careers,” Meredith said.

Investigators in the program include employees at the University of Chicago; Yerkes Observatory; Associated Universities Inc.; the Technical Education Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Skynet at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.