Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An exciting end to 2013!

This year has been one amazing journey!  We kicked off Feeling the Stars (we've run the program an average of once a month now since it premiered, with more bookings in place already for next year!), the program has gained interest in other states, and best of all, a new audience of kids have been inspired to seek careers in Space Science!

I'm excited to share a couple more things that have happened this month to close out the year on a very happy note.  First and foremost, Lighthouse for the Blind Saint Louis has generously given us more money to begin tactling Phase II of Feeling the Stars.  Phase II will enable us to reach a larger portion of our audience who may be blind or have low vision.  We will be able to purchase tactile Astronomy books that can be used with our shows or by visitors before and after the shows.  We will also be able to create a Braille exhibit guide and audio tour that visitors will be able to use to help them explore the exhibits more independantly as well as gain a more meaningful experience through detailed descriptions.  These guides will start in the Planetarium, but they will eventually branch out to the other galleries in the entire Saint Louis Science Center!  Once again, the generosity of LHB Saint Louis has been just phenominal!  I cannot thank them enough for their kindness and support and excitement over the last two years!  

We also got to run Feeling the Stars for The Little Star That Could for our first family that was not part of a school group.  The little boy was SO enthusiastic about space, and he very much wants to become an astronaut one day.  It was very cool to work with Jacob* and his family (including an eager little sister who wanted to do everything her big brother did).  The children were incredibly smart and the family seemed very appreciative that the experience existed.  It was quite different working with just one family.  It enabled me to allow each child to hold both Big Daddy and Mr. Angry Blue-White Star at the same time and then Little Star immediately afterwards to gain a true appreciation of the difference in temperatures.  I got to talk more one-on-one with the kids as well which was cool.  Jacob has a little vision so he used one of our iPads to watch the show which his mother said worked well for him.  Jacob's sister, used one of the tactile follow-along books so she could have something as well (Jacob's sister has sight).  Each child also hung on to one of the plush characters during the show as well.  I was happy to hear that they are going to try to find more for Jacob and his siblings to do that will help him have more meaningful experiences back home in their own museums.  I hope they are able to find the interactions they need back home and that we might be visited by the family again here in the future.  A big thank you to Jacob and his family for spending so much time with us here in the Planetarium and working with us!

Finally, Little Star and I would like to thank you all for your support.  Hearing from you is inspiring!  We wish you all the best in 2014!

It is an overcast and cold afternoon.  On the left side of the image on top of a white pole of about six feet in height sits Little Star.  He is a yellow star that is about the size of a baseball.  He has big white eyes the size of nickles with brown around the black pupils.  He has a small oval nose and plump cheeks.  He has brown eyebrows and a tuft of blond hair.  He has rays coming out from him that are also yellow.  Little Star is also smiling.  Behind Little Star is the James S. McDonnell Planetarium.  It is a white building in the shape of a hyperbaloid of one sheet, which looks like a cone, but instead of narrowing at the top it flairs back out again to a circle that is not quite as wide across in diameter as the circle of the base.  There is a big gold bow around the Planetarium for it's 50th (and golden) anniversary year.  There is a small bare tree of about seven feet to the right of image.
Little Star says "Thank you and Happy New Year!" from outside the Planetarium on the last day of the Planetarium's 50th Anniversary Year

*Names have been changed to protect privacy 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Double the groups, double the fun!

The Saint Louis Society was back today with a lot more kids to explore the Science Center.  They came in two groups to experience the Feeling the Stars program.  I was excited to see so many new and eager faces as well as a couple I met the last time in each group today.

I had several kids who eagerly volunteered knowledge of what average meant (and who explained it more succinctly than I did in one case).  It was really cool to get to work with all these kids and most of them enjoyed the show at least "a little bit" (kids are very honest and to the point which is fantastic because they do not hesitate to tell me what they do and do not like).  Many of the kids however also said they very much enjoyed the program and the show.

Devon* was back as well for the show.  I met Devon the first time the Saint Louis Society came and was excited to hear he wanted to use one of the tactile books again.  As soon as I handed him the book he immediately opened it and started reading it aloud again.  After the show I was very excited to hear him singing loudly about stars.  I hope he and the rest of the kids will continue to come back and see us in the future again.  

I love that I have the opportunity to work with so many visitor who are so passionate about Space Science, and I truly hope that I will continue to see these kids in the future at the Planetarium!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Visit from Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments Saint Louis

Due to the nature of this post dealing with child visitors, there will be no pictures.

Today we had a visit from the Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments.  Children ranging from five years of age to fourteen experienced both the Feeling the Stars Program as well as an adapted version of our Boeing Space Station Kickstart tour.  The kids were great about jumping into the program.  They answered my questions and asked a lot of their own and volunteered stories.  The kids seemed to gain a lot from the tactiles as well as the show.  The program runs smoother and smother every time as well!

The kids from DG also got to experience our Boeing Space Station Kickstart which is a program school groups can book.  The program takes visitors through our space station exhibits, explaining how astronauts eat, sleep work and even use the bathroom in space.  The kids all got to touch space food, try using tools while wearing spacesuit gloves, and they even had to practice using a space toilet (a chair with a cardboard target and a positioning device) just like real astronauts have to practice before going into space.  The kids and adults alike giggled and cheered each other on or commiserated when a "mess" would have been made.

By the end of our time together a lot of the kids were exclaiming that they wanted to work for NASA when they grew up; as an astronaut or as a scientist or in Mission Control.  I related to them that they should strive to reach those goals and that there is a woman right now working in the ISS Payload Mission Control in Huntsville, AL who is totally blind.  I also reminded them that if they wish to acheive those goals that they need to study hard in school, especially in Math, Science and also in English and Foreign Languages (it is the INTERNATIONAL Space Station after all).  Many of the kids exclaimed that they would.  I hope they do.  I hope to hear that they are working for NASA 10 or 15 years from now.  I saw a spark in them that tells me I will.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Working with sister organizations

I had the joy of meeting with many of my colleagues from the other Saint Louis Zoo-Museum District (ZMD) institutions today to share Feeling the Stars with them.  It was great to hear what they they have already done in terms of Universal Design and what they would like to do.  

Each institution has done something to help visitors with exceptionalities.  The Saint Louis Art Museum has special tours, the Missouri History Museum has Brailled many of their exhibit labels in the past, the Zoo has an amazing pictorial tour map for visitors who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the Missouri Botanical Gardens has guided tours and a few line drawing tactiles.

The group experienced the program just as the visitors would, pausing to ask questions as we went.  The Botanical Gardens was especially excited to get started making their own tactile books and has planned to come back in the future to see how the EZ-Brailler thermovac machine we have works.

It was really uplifting to meet with colleagues from around the city and see how they all are really trying to make a difference for all of their visitors too.  Here's to Saint Louis' cultural institutions becoming more and more accessible to all visitors!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Feeling the Stars at the Great Lakes Planetarium Association Conference 2013

I went to my first professional Planetarium conference last week to present my paper that led to the creation of our Feeling the Stars program for The Little Star That Could.   It was a fantastic three-and-a-half days of learning entirely about best practices in the Planetarium and museum field.  We got to discuss what we do for our visitors and we talked a bit about how Universal Design is the best route as helps not just its intended audience.  

Little Star also got to make a couple early debuts and meet some colleagues outside the Planetarium world.  The conference paired at times with the Illinois Association of Museums (IAM) as well, so he met many professionals from museums, zoos and NASA as well. 

Little Star sits on a silver metal fence railing in a very brightly lit room.  The walls are an off white and there is a tall silver metal garage door in the background.  Little Star is yellow and about the size of a baseball.  He has big eyes, brown eyebrows, a small nose and plump cheeks, with a tuft of blond hair and spiked rays coming out from him.  One ray is flopped over on top of his head and it gives him the appearance of having a raised eyebrow.  Coming towards him is a very tall male giraffe.  Only part of the giraffe's neck and head can be seen.  The giraffe has a long slender face and incredibly long neck of probably at least 5 feet.  He stands probably a good 20 feet tall and has beautiful medium brown spots all over that look a bit like stones with white dividers between them.  He has small ears and two small straight horns on the top of his head. He also has a short black mane.
Is that giraffe going to eat me?!  Seriously, he's walking over here!

A blonde woman of about 5' 4" in a purple tshirt and black skirt stands smiling holding Little Star with a man of about 6' 2", graying hair, a gray mustache and who is wearing a blue astronaut flightsuit.  Little Star is yellow and about the size of a baseball.  He has big eyes, brown eyebrows, a small nose and plump cheeks, with a tuft of blond hair and spiked rays coming out from him.
Little Star meets Astronaut Scott Altman, commander of the last servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope

Many of my colleagues told me as well over the first couple days before I presented my paper that they have shown or currently show Little Star in their own Planetariums and that they were curious about my paper.

I was very grateful for their encouragement in the days leading up to my presentation because I was pretty nervous.  I've always loved public speaking/theater/teaching, and speech giving has always come naturally to me.  This was the first time, however, that I presented an academic paper or spoken in front of my colleagues in my chosen field.  So maybe nervous is an understatement - terrified probably sums it up better.

Fortunately, my father had a lot of practice presenting academic papers over the years and helped me prepare for the best and the worst, so at least I had that in my back pocket.  I also had a lot of friendly faces in my audience (which normally scares me more to have people I know listening, but this time it was also nice).  

When the time came, I presented my paper (which I know was recorded and if I find a copy I will try to post here).  I covered all the details I could in my ten minutes; making sure to discuss why reaching out to visitors who are blind/have low vision is important, how it fits in with elementary school science standards, how the program works and the results of the first couple of runs of the program.  

A blonde woman in a light purple shirt stands behind a tall podium made of light colored wood (the podium is only about a foot shorter than she is).  She holds a model of the Zeiss Universarium Mark IX in her right hand as she speaks into a microphone.  Behind her on the wall are two photos.  The one on the left is of the Zeiss projector in the entire exhibit which is a The black box casework sits at about 34" by 34" by 34".  On the front wrapping around the corner to the right side of the casework is the curved single sheet hyperboloid shape of the Planetarium in white.  On the top of the casework is the black dome with all the stars of white rivets sits upon the purple wall and grey carpet.  In the middle is the Zeiss model.  The teal oval StarBall on stilts sits on the two smaller black wedges and the teal eight planet projector vertical boxes sit on the long black wedge.  Next to it on the carpet sits a small white exhibit text panel of about three inches by one-and-a-half inches.  It has Braille and large print marking the StarBall as exhibit one and the Planet Projectors as exhibit two to correspond to the other exhibit text.  To the right of the model is the exhibit text.  There are three visible rectangles of large print and Braille text framed by black.  The image on the right is an up close picture of the model: The black dome with all the stars of white rivets sits upon the purple wall and grey carpet.  In the middle is the Zeiss model.  The teal oval StarBall on stilts sits on the two smaller black wedges and the teal eight planet projector vertical boxes sit on the long black wedge.  Next to it on the carpet sits a small white exhibit text panel of about three inches by one-and-a-half inches.  It has Braille and large print marking the StarBall as exhibit one and the Planet Projectors as exhibit two to correspond to the other exhibit text.
Talking about the 1:40 Scale Model of the Zeiss Universarium Mark IX and Orthwein StarBay of the McDonnell Planetarium

A blonde woman in a light purple shirt stands behind a tall podium made of light colored wood (the podium is only about a foot shorter than she is).  She holds the tactile star character of Mr. Angry Blue-White Star in her right hand as she speaks into a microphone.  Behind her on the wall is a picture of all the star characters: On a piece of wood sits a set of the star characters, complete and ready for their first program.  They sit in a row ranging from coldest star to hottest star going left to right:  Big Daddy the red star is made of satin, has a large nose, small eyes, sunglasses and a black goatee and is the size of a softball; Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star is the size of a cantaloupe and has old, half closed eyes, a hooked nose, a couple moles (one on his nose and one on his large chin), and big fluffy white eyebrows and a big white mustache; Little Star the average yellow star is the size of a baseball and is made of a quilted yellow cotton with ample cheeks, a smile, brown eyebrows, a small nose and big eyes and a tuft of yellow hair at the top of his head; Pearl the white star is the size of a basketball, is made of white velvet, has a large pointy nose, white hair in a bob fashion, oval feminine eyes with eyelashes and dainty brown eyebrows and a weary smile; Mr. Angry Blue-White Star is made of light blue denim and is a bit bigger than Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star, with glaring eyes, a very large nose, a grimace for his mouth and furrowed white eyebrows.
Presenting all the tactile and microwavable star characters

A blonde woman in a light purple shirt stands behind a tall podium made of light colored wood (the podium is only about a foot shorter than she is).  She is speaking into a microphone.  Behind her on the wall is a picture of some of the pages of the Tactile Follow-Along Twin Vision Book: The book is open to a page later in the tactile book.  On the right page is the image of the character of the planet, Mars.  He is a circle of about 3 inches with raised eyebrows, relaxed eyes, a large nose and a wide open smile.  Below him are images of Mars' moons, phobos and demos as well as Valles Marineris, the canyon on Mars.  Each image is labeled in large print and at the top of the page in large print is the caption, "Little Star meets Mars."  At the bottom of the page on the left is "Page 43."  The page on the right contains the same images raised up from the Braillon page.  Each is labeled in contracted Braille as is the caption at the top of the page.  Page 44 is in Braille on the bottom right side of the page.
Talking about the tactile follow-along book in twin vision

When I was done there was some time for questions and I braced myself not knowing what to expect.  I had three questions posed to me:

Q) "Is this program available to other Planetariums?"

A) My goal was to have the program available to other planetaria world wide once I got it going at my own.  The time for it to start making its way into the world is quite soon now, I think!

Q) "
Who makes the tactiles and would it be possible to get a set of the star characters and/or a book?"

A) I currently am the only one making all the components of the program.  I would be happy to make some for you but in all honesty it might take me a while.

Q) "Could you explain Lighthouse for the Blind - Saint Louis' role a little more?"

A)  LHB was absolutely wonderful in providing insight into the program and giving advice on what would and would not work.  The support they provided, both financially and otherwise had been incredible.  They are the reason that the program was able to take off and start reaching its target audience.  Without LHB, this program would still be a dream that I turned in as a paper my first semester in grad school.

And then my time was up.  It went far better than I expected!  I received nothing but kind words and excitement that matched my own about my program.  Several of my colleagues have now expressed interest in having the program at their own Planetariums and I hope that very soon we can make that happen!  It was absolutely amazing to have the program recognized so highly by my colleagues!

The other really cool thing was that I got to meet representatives from Audio-Visual Imagineering (AVI) - the company that re-produced The Little Star That Could in 2005 to update the changes to Pluto and make the show full-dome.  They were incredibly kind and it was a lot of fun to show them what I'd made.  Later in the day after my presentation, they also offered to help me with Feeling the Stars!  Hopefully this really does mean that soon there will be more Planetaria with my program, reaching out to their own visitors in need of the adaptive elements!  I was so excited and moved by everyone's generosity, excitement and kindness!

I know I end a lot of my posts with thank yous, but I could not have gotten the program to where it is without the people I thank...

I have to thank Seiler Instruments for your generosity in helping me get to GLPA, for believing in me and my program and most importantly, for believing in my Planetarium.  I also want to thank my mentor, John, as well as Brian for your continual encouragement and support of me and my program and Bill and Eric for your support and for covering for me in my absence.  Thank you to Ann and Wilfried from Carl Zeiss too for taking time out of your busy schedule to listen to my paper!  Thank you to my parents for your continued support - especially my dad for helping me prepare for my presentation.  And finally, to all my colleagues from GLPA who have given me so much encouragement to continue with my work - I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Little Star makes more friends

Due to this post talking about children, there will be no pictures.

Today, Little Star had some visitors come for the Feeling the Stars program from the Saint Louis Society.  Only one of the seven children who came had low vision, but all of them had an exceptionality.  Their group leader asked for the program due to its tactile nature, as she thought the kids would benefit from it.

The children all touched the model and the tactile stars, enjoying the different touchable sensations.  The stars were very popular, especially Big Daddy (because of his "cool shades") and Mr. Angry Blue-White Star.  They also noticed the temperature differences too.

Even though all the children could see the projections on the dome, they all received a tactile follow-along book to use during the show.  The books may have gone over best of all!  The kids loved studying both the raised images and reading the printed text on the large-print pages.

The kids enjoyed the story, picking out favorite characters and recognizing some they met in the plush characters before the show.  They also really liked the stars and when the outlines of the constellations would appear in the sky.

A very special moment occured during the program as well;  I was informed by one of the teachers that the book worked better than we expected for one of the little boys.  Devon* has Autism, and I was told he is for the most part, non-verbal.  When he received the book, he turned to one of the counselors who were sitting with the kids and started reading the book aloud.  We aren't sure what about the book encouraged him to start reading to the counselor but it was a reminder that we never can predict perfectly what will truly benefit our visitors.

This is why Universal Design is SO important in the Museum world and the field of Education.  The more options to access information a person has, the more likely they are to succeed and gain meaning.

The Feeling the Stars program may have started as a program for visitors who are blind or have low vision, but today taught me that its potential to reach so many more audiences expands past its original audience.  I thank the Saint Louis Society and all the wonderful children I was privileged to work with this morning for opening up even more doors for different audiences to come and explore the universe with The Little Star That Could.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Learning from kids at Space Camp - SCIVIS Year Two

Little Star made his way back to Space Camp this year again this year  for the Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCIVIS).  We were with high school kids this year, so he mostly hung out in my bag, but he made a few apperences.  Even the high school age kids thought he was a great idea and useful (high praise indeed!).

In a wooded area with many large green trees is a telephone pole that can be climbed if one is in a harness.  Coming down from the pole are the safety lines which are grey and orange.  Sitting in the safety lines is yellow Little Star.  He is about the size of a baseball, has big eyes, a small nose, plump cheeks and a smile.  He has a tuft of blond hair on top of his head and rays coming out from him.  The lines holding Little Star are dangling about four feet off the ground.  In the background are two of the crew trainers for the ropes course.  One is a tall man of about 6' 2" wearing a light blue shirt and the other is a slightly shorter man in a dark blue shirt.
Little Star wants to climb the Pamper Pole just like the fearless vonBraun Advanced Space Academy team before him... too bad he doesn't quite fit in the safety harness...

The kids helped me a lot this year though by teaching me how to give better description of objects, how to give better directions (i.e. when directing someone around a star chart verbally) and they helped me figure out how to create better tactiles.  The young adults I worked with were patient with me in helping me to figure out how to best get the ideas of our live planetarium shows across to them when using a tactile star chart.

Furthermore, I got some incredibly helpful pointers from some very kind TVIs and O&Ms this year as well for how to create more effective star charts.  Once again, simpler is better.  It was suggested that I make several charts showing just a few constellations at a time, and then one overall chart that shows how they all fit together.  All of a sudden, every problem I'd had was solved and what I was trying to explain made more sense to those experiencing my explanations   Hopefully with the knowledge I gained, I can make some leaps ahead with adapting our next show - our Live Sky Tonight show!