Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA), officially known as “Research Supporting Multisensory Engagement by Blind, Visually Impaired and Sighted Students to Advance Integrated Learning of Astronomy and Computer Science,” was designed to make data available to sighted, blind and low vision researchers. IDATA was supported by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation from 2017 to 2020. Research was made possible with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s STEM+C program. The program resulted in the creation of Afterglow Access software and curriculum and educational materials developed by GLAS Education. Kate Meredith, GLAS director, was intimately involved in the project as the IDATA Project Educator.
IDATA grew out of Skynet Junior Scholars (SJS). SJS’s goal was to build online lessons to teach students about astronomy and request images the Skynet telescopes. Students, sighted and BLV, who participated in IDATA, explored sonification of data and 3D printing for tactile images. The students also worked with a team of professionals to develop Afterglow Access, a computer sonification tool that overcomes barriers to learning. IDATA engaged 20 teachers and 200 students annually in grades eight through 12 from schools in Southern Wisconsin, the Chicago area, and from across the United States. Much of the research was done at the University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis.
Everyone should have the opportunity to analyze data from the stars independent on their own. Among the IDATA Teacher collaborators were local educators Tim Fahlberg, a member of the GLAS Board of Directors, and Kara Rowbotham, a GLAS volunteer and science teacher at Williams Bay High School.
IDATA Student collaborators included GLAS McQuown Scholars Alex Scerba and Brianna Thompson.
IDATA Undergraduate Mentors included former GLAS scholars and interns Tia Bertz, Katya Gozman, Chris Mathews and Alex Traub.
IDATA external advisors included Prof. Doyal “Al” Harper of the University of Chicago and Dr. Nicolas Bonne, who is leader of the Tactile Universe public engagement project.
The accessible software and instructional modules produced in this study are usable by a range of BLV and sighted individuals, and may also be transferrable to other visually-intensive domains such as geophysical, and medical imaging. IDATA resulted in more accessible tools for astronomy investigations, and lowered the barrier-to-entry for BLV (and all) individuals interested in astronomy and related careers.