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May 18, 2006 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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Blind students experience the universe via Yerkes Observatory’s Project SEE

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The University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, in Williams Bay, Wisc., will present its third annual Space Exploration Experience for the blind and visually impaired students from Aug. 15-17, 2006.

Photo by Kyle Cudworth.

The University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory will present a seminar on its Space Exploration Experience (SEE) Project for the Blind and Visually Impaired at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at the Wisconsin Lions Club State Convention, which will meet at the Marriott Hotel, 1313 John Q. Hammons Drive, in Middleton.

Yerkes, based in Williams Bay, Wisc., will offer the third annual SEE summer academy from Aug. 15 to 17 for students to learn about the universe through hands-on investigations. The Lions Club has helped support SEE since the beginning. This year the Williams Bay and Genoa City clubs will support the project with a $1,500 donation. The seminar at the state convention will encourage other clubs statewide to broaden support for the program.

“Sighted people can go to the planetarium, look, listen and get a lot out of it. They can go out on a clear night with even a low-powered telescope and see so much. But none of this is true for someone with a vision impairment,” said Olivia Smithmier-Bohn, a SEE participant and freshman at Memorial High School in Madison. “Why shouldn’t it be true? Astronomy is so neat, why shouldn’t visually impaired people have the same opportunities as sighted people to learn about phenomena in our universe?”

Since the program began in 2003, students from Madison, Stevens Point, Edgerton, Sauk City and elsewhere in Wisconsin have participated. Throughout the academic year, Yerkes provides after-school events at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville, or the planetarium at Memorial High School in Madison.

Most astronomy requires long exposures using cameras, and modern astronomy explores all wavelengths of light, most of which are invisible to human eyes. Students at Yerkes look through telescopes, use cameras, explore the technology involved in studying infrared light, and conduct research on celestial objects of interest.

Their Yerkes experience includes a lesson on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared telescope project. “With SOFIA we can point out that we’re looking at infrared radiation, but none of us can see that,” said Yerkes Director Kyle Cudworth.

The students, who stay at nearby Aurora University during the program, image objects using telescopes at Yerkes or elsewhere via remote control. “Last summer they were able to use a two-meter telescope in Hawaii in the morning after the sun came up here,” said Vivian Hoette, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Yerkes. But the observatory’s own telescopes provide a more personal connection to the cosmos.

“No matter what their degree of sight or blindness, the students all want to have the light of a star or a planet fall in their retina. Maybe they can only sense a little bit of light with absolutely no features, but it’s very important. They all need to get their eye up to that eyepiece and have the light of Venus or Saturn or Vega fall on their retina,” Hoette said.

And thanks to a special machine donated by the Williams Bay Lions Club, the students can convert their images into a tactile, three-dimensional form that they can explore manually. They also collect information about the objects by interviewing astronomers and planetarium professionals. Then they write a report about their objects that is written with large print or in Braille.

“This is all combined into a SEE the Universe book that is authored by the group,” Hoette said. “On the last day of the experience, we invite the Lions Club and the students each take turns getting up and presenting their objects.”

Three alumni of Project SEE now attend college. One of them was selected to intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last summer. “Her career goals center on technology and her internship responsibilities were to help make JPL web pages accessible to the blind and visually impaired,” Hoette said.

The SEE Project was originally funded from a NASA grant obtained by DePaul University astronomer Bernhard Beck-Winchatz as part of the Initiative to Develop Education Through Astronomy and Space Sciences (IDEAS). A long list of organizations have helped build Project SEE, including NASA, the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the National Center for Blind Youth in Science, the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, You Can Do Astronomy LLC, Madison Unified Metropolitan School District, DePaul University’s NASA Space Science Center for Education and Outreach, and Hands-On Universe.

“The SEE Project is a vivid example of what can happen when a team comes together under the assumption that blind youth ‘can’ do rather than ‘can not’ do,” said Mark Riccobono, manager of educational programs for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. “By combining experts who are passionate about astronomy with blind mentors and those skilled in working with blind youth, this project exemplifies what we promote through the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute.”
Last modified at 01:28 PM CST on Friday, May 19, 2006.

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