Astronomy is for Everyone 2010

Astronomy is for Everyone at Yerkes Observatory

Multi-Sensory Exploration of the Universe

Published in The Beacon July 30, 2010

By:  Katherine Watson

     Staff at Yerkes Observatory and teachers from nearby schools held an event with activities geared toward third- through eighth-grade students and their families. Activities were specifically designed for participants who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hard-of-hearing. The event took place at the observatory on Friday, June 25 and Saturday, June 26. Eleven students signed up for and attended the event along with their parents.

     "Our mission at Yerkes is to prepare activities that everyone can do," said the observatory's Director of Educational Outreach, Vivian Hoette. "There is a myth that just because a person can't see or hear, they can't do astronomy. We wanted to disprove that myth. I thought that the students felt comfortable and engaged because the activities were designed in a multi-sensory manner." Tactile images and Star Finders were produced using a Swell-Form Graphics Machine and Swell-Touch Paper, which was funded by The Williams  Bay Lions Club. The tactile images were provided to the blind participants so they could work alongside their sighted peers. Constance Gartner and Colleen Keating from Wisconsin School for the Deaf (WSD), Delavan, Wisconsin, were on hand to interpret for the deaf students.

Participant (from right) Josie Gorell of Elk Mound, Josie’s mother Lori Gorell, and participant Ellie Wiemer of Waukesha, make a confectionary nebula after they learn about The Carina Nebula from The Hubble Tactile Image during a weekend seminar at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay.  (Photo furnished)


 Activities on Friday included observing Saturn through the 40-inch refracting telescope, which is the largest refracting telescope in the world. Participants made Star Finders, and learned about different kinds of telescopes, such as radio and reflecting telescopes. They also took pictures of the moon using the 24-inch reflecting telescope.

     Astronomers often use spectroscopy to separate starlight into the individual colors of the spectrum in order to learn about a star's composition. On Saturday, students learned about spectroscopy and made spectroscopes.

    Participants later took an audio tour of a tactile image of The Carina Nebula. The image was prepared in part by Hubble astronomer, Max Mutchler.   The students then recreated the nebula using cotton candy, liquorish, and other confectionary items.

     Mutchler later gave a presentation via video conferencing and talked about his work with The Hubble Space Telescope. He also discussed his discovery of Pluto's moons, Nix and Hydra, and as well as his work to make Hubble images accessible to the blind.  Fourth grader Josie Gorell, a blind student from Elk Mound, told Mutchler "I really like the picture of the Butterfly Nebula", referring to the latest Hubble release of a tactile image.  Josie happened to be wearing a Butterfly tee shirt which she was proud to show Mutchler via web cam!

     A pizza lunch was provided by Novaks’ Restaurant located in Fontana. Afterward, students learned about the phases of the moon, went on a Solar System Walk to get an idea of the size and scale of our solar system, and used tactile graphs and rulers to learn about the expansion of the universe.

     The event concluded with the participants making Gem Constellations, and tracing the paths of infrared rays using audio cues, since the infrared cannot be seen with the naked eye.  Of course no event at Yerkes can end without one last look through the telescopes, which is how Saturday came to a close.

     "I think my favorite thing would be when we made the candy nebula," said WSD freshman Anna McCartney who is hard-of-hearing. "I found it really interesting touring the nebula tactilely. Sometimes when I just look at a picture, I don't always recognize it, so I thought actually being able to feel and see it [at the same time] was pretty cool and made it more memorable." McCartney hopes to work as a dental hygienist, but she says her experiences at Yerkes have encouraged her love of astronomy. "There's always something you can learn more about, and this opportunity will help me in the future with acceptance in to college and a job," she said. While the students enjoyed the event, their parents were also pleasantly surprised.

     "I didn't know what to expect coming here," said Lori Schultz, the mother of hard-of-hearing participant, Lyssa Matsche. "I just really enjoyed seeing that no matter what disability you have, everyone can enjoy astronomy. I learned a lot and had fun."