A pioneering NASA education program strives to make
astronomy accessible to all students, including the disabled.
The program brings together existing Internet technology and
other tools to open the Universe to students who would
otherwise be denied the experience due to their physical or
cognitive challenges.

The effort is funded by NASA through the Space Telescope
Science Institute (STScI), Baltimore, with the participation
of the elementary school system in Howard County, Md.

“We discovered that our program benefits all students,
regardless of whether they have a disability or not, because
it capitalizes on the innate curiosity of children, and it is
carefully tailored to their development level,” said Dr.
Carol Grady, a National Optical Astronomy Observatory
researcher stationed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Md. Grady is the Science Lead for the program, and
became involved after her son, who has special needs,
expressed an interest in her work with the Hubble Space
Telescope on planet formation and stellar evolution.

“The advances in astronomy over the last hundred years are
one of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements, and I did
not want kids like my son to get the message that activities
like this are not open to them,” said Grady. “This can happen
so easily that it’s inadvertent — for example, if someone
sets up a telescope in a field with rough terrain, it
automatically rules out participation by those in

The team uses existing Internet technology and simple tools
because teachers are under constant time and budget pressure.
Many schools already have computers with Internet
connections, so the program leverages existing technology
investments. The new approach is that the technology is
tested, evaluated and combined in a way that enriches the
learning experience for all students and is easy for teachers
to implement.

For example, a basic astronomy lesson is that the Earth is
spherical. Current educational approaches simply give this
information to students, either in a lecture or a book.
However, disabled students may not be able to easily read the
book or comprehend the lecture. Instead, Grady identified Web
cameras around the world that show live pictures of the local
landscape. She has a teacher ask the children to look at the
pictures and note the time and whether it’s day or night.
Then the teachers ask what shape would best fit their

Since the lesson is based on pictures, students who have
trouble with text or lectures can participate fully. Because
the lesson begins with observations and leads to a
conclusion, it teaches the scientific method and kindles the
children’s natural inquisitiveness, benefiting all.

“Since reading and writing is emphasized in all curriculum
areas, modifications and alternatives need to be provided for
students who have difficulty with reading and writing,” said
Nancy Farley, an Occupational=3D”rapist with Howard County
Public Schools. Examples provided through the program include
devices to assist visually impaired students, such as spheres
with the continents raised, and technology that enables
students to hear the text on Web sites and other reading

“The technology also helps break down the writing tasks into
more manageable steps for the students. As a result, the
students are less reluctant to engage in the interactive
activities in the space science curriculum since the reading
and writing tasks are no longer overwhelming to them,” said

The team chose elementary-school-age children so team members
could get assistive technology to them before frustration
with their disability led the students to give up attempting
to learn. Additionally, classes for such students tend to be
smaller, so more time and attention can be devoted to testing
new learning approaches. Other schools, such as the Prince
George’s County school system in Maryland, have expressed
interest in the program, and the techniques can be adapted to
other subjects.

“The project is the result of interdisciplinary
collaboration, including general educators, special
educators, assistive technology specialists and scientists,”
said Farley.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is operated
by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
(AURA), Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National
Science Foundation.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by AURA for
NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international
cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency.

Images and more information are available at: