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Visually Impaired Students Touch the Stars with New Hubble Book
Visually Impaired Students Touch the Stars with New Hubble Book
4 Jun 2001
(Source: NASA Headquarters)

Donald Savage
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1547)

Nancy Neal
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
(Phone: 301/286-0039)

Roxanne L. Brown
De Paul University, Chicago
(Phone: 312/362-8623)

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore
(Phone: 410/338-4514)

RELEASE: 01-108

Students who in the past have not been able to experience some of NASA's spectacular discoveries now have a unique opportunity to touch the stars.

Some of the most majestic space images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope are now part of a special Braille book that combines tactile illustrations with striking images of planets, star clusters and nebulae, as viewed by Hubble.

The book, "Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy," is the brainchild of Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an astronomer and faculty member at DePaul University, Chicago. He undertook the project to allow visually impaired students the same opportunities as those who are sighted to engage themselves in space science.

Teaming up with astronomer and author Noreen Grice, Beck-Winchatz developed this much-needed space science resource book for the blind with a $10,000 Hubble Space Telescope grant for education programs.

In 1999, Grice published "Touch The Stars," a book with touchable pictures based on drawings of constellations, comets, galaxies and other astronomical objects. "I was fascinated by Grice's book," recalled Beck-Winchatz. "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 is based in Boston, originally began experimenting with techniques to make astronomy more accessible for the visually impaired 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 physical challenges.

To allow both blind and sighted readers to enjoy the Hubble 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 in Colorado Springs. 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, or thermoform, machine. The tactile thermoform pages, placed in front of the color HST images, make these images accessible to readers of all visual abilities.

The book is for middle school students, high school students, and adults alike and is 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 a second edition.

For Beck-Winchatz, 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."

Photos of students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind examining images from "Touch the Universe" are available on the Internet at: http://analyzer.depaul.edu/ttu

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Last Updated: 8 Jun 2001