08:08 AM

SOFIA Program Supports Astronomy for Students with Sensory Impairments

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Science Center at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, has selected the YAAYS (Yerkes Astrophysics Academy for Young Scientists) and Space Exploration and Experience (SEE) projects at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, to receive funding support for the 2009 calendar year. Resources used in the YAAYS and SEE project are designed to promote active learning in astronomy and physical science by all students, especially those with vision or hearing loss.

Science operations for SOFIA (which is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries a newly developed 2.5-meter - 98-inch - diameter airborne infrared telescope) are managed by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). USRA recently announced that SOFIA is nearing the end of its test phase before beginning a 20-year astronomy research mission for NASA and the observatory is scheduled to make its "first light" observations in the fall of 2009.

'For years the education and public outreach staff at Yerkes Observatory has been doing outstanding work promoting public awareness regarding space science in general and our SOFIA program in particular,' said Dr. Dana Backman, SOFIA's director of Education and Public Outreach. 'Their innovative programs to provide education in astronomy to students with sensory impairments provides a model for other programs around the country, and absolutely deserves our support.'

USRA CEO and President, Dr. Frederick A. Tarantino said, 'Drawing upon our talent and resources within the SOFIA Science Center, we are able to foster science education at a variety of institutions across the United States. Programs such as YAAYS and SEE are attracting our next generation of astronomers and scientists from as wide a community as possible. I firmly believe that the SOFIA/YAAYS collaboration will demonstrate a return on investing in education today for tomorrow's scientific successes.'

The YAAYS program has shown that blind and deaf students have unique talents that make them valuable team members. Blind or deaf team members are adept at operating an observatory computer in the dark, and are not light dependent as the majority of sighted humans.

The Yerkes YAAYS and SEE experiences include lessons about SOFIA, NASA's new airborne infrared telescope mission. Regarding SOFIA, we can point out to students with visual impairments that we scientists are 'looking' at infrared radiation, but none of us can see it, so we're all on a level playing field," said Yerkes Director Kyle Cudworth. Yerkes Observatory is also supporting SOFIA with the development of the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera (HAWC), a far-infrared camera that is being built for use on the flying observatory.

'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 who is blind,' said Olivia Smithmier-Bohn, a SEE participant, who at the time was a first year student at Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin. '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?'

One of the resources used in YAAYS and SEE is Hands-On Universe, developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, that enables students to request observations from an automated telescope or download images from a large image archive, and analyze the data with the aid of user-friendly image processing software. Using a thermal expansion machine, students can convert images into a tactile, three-dimensional form that they can explore manually. Hands-On Universe is, of course, also extremely useful and instructive for students without sensory impairments.

This is the SOFIA Science Center's third consecutive year's grant in support of the YAAYS and SEE projects.For information about SOFIA's astronomical science mission, visit: http://www.sofia.usra.eduFor information about the SEE Project, visit: http://analyzer.depaul.edu/SEE_Project/For information about the Yerkes Observatory Education and Public Outreach activities, visit: http://astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes/outreach/activities.html

SOFIA is a joint NASA and German Space Agency, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) program. The program is managed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center with the aircraft based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility. NASA's Ames Research Center manages SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with USRA and the Deutsches SOFIA Institute (DSI).

Established in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences, USRA is a private, nonprofit consortium of 104 universities offering advanced degrees in space- and aeronautics-related disciplines. USRA's mission is to conduct leading-edge research, develop innovative technologies, promote space-related education and policy, and operate premier science/technology facilities by involving universities, private industry and government.

The SEE project was originally funded by a NASA IDEAS grant to the NASA Data Center at DePaul University in Chicago. The Williams Bay Lions and Lioness Clubs and the Genoa City Lions Club have provided additional funds. YAAYS is funded by the National Science Foundation's Award #0639690 to The University of Chicago and George Williams College, Aurora University, Williams Bay, Wisconsin. HOU was developed with support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.