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Research Supporting Multisensory Engagement by Blind, Visually Impaired, and Sighted Students to Advance Integrated Learning of Astronomy and Computer Science

Overview:

Computing and computational thinking are an integral part of everyday practice within modern fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As a result, the STEM+Computing Partnerships (STEM+C) program seeks to advance new multidisciplinary approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the integration of computing in STEM teaching and learning, and discipline-specific efforts in computing designed to build an evidence base for teaching and learning of computer science in K-12, including within diverse populations. In the case of astronomy, computing and computational thinking (CT) are used for nearly every aspect of collecting, processing, and analyzing data. Yet, few educational resources exist to support students in learning astronomy in the computationally-intensive way that it is practiced. Furthermore, the predominance of visual interfaces that support computing processes present unique challenges for blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals. The dearth of vision-neutral tools in astronomy and computer science introduce additional barriers to learning and workforce entry for BVI individuals. To address these challenges, this project will develop, implement, and study an innovative educational program that provides BVI and sighted students with opportunities to learn how to apply computing and computational thinking to design fully-accessible astronomical tools and to use those tools for their own astronomy inquiry. Investigators hypothesize that students' participation in both the user-centered design/universal design process and in the use of the resulting tools for astronomy inquiry will foster learning and broaden interest and participation in the high-barrier disciplines of computer science and astronomy. Led by investigators at Associated Universities Inc., the project team includes astronomers, computer scientists, software engineers, education developers, and learning scientists from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory, TERC, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Approximately 200 BVI and sighted students near Yerkes Observatory and across the nation, will be involved with and benefit from the project. The demographically diverse student population will help the project achieve significant broader impacts, by assuring that the research findings and developed tools and resources reflect the needs of a broad diversity of people and places in which they learn. By enabling multi-sensory engagement for data acquisition, processing, and analysis processes, the developed tools will improve access to astronomy and to other visually- and computationally-intensive domains such as satellite, geophysical, and medical imaging.
This project will address a daunting challenge to developing STEM literacy in students - integrating teaching and learning of key ideas and practices of science and computer science in authentic, innovative and effective ways - while instilling the societal value of computational tools that increase access for all. Key components of the education intervention include a) inquiry-based curricular modules and facilitated activities that teach computing in the context of astronomy; b) a scaffolded process of user-centered design/universal design that underscores computational thinking practices in the context of optimizing astronomy tools to be fully-accessible to all users; c) student-driven, authentic astronomy research; and d) BVI and sighted astronomers and computer scientists as mentors and role models to the community of learners. The intervention will address relevant disciplinary content, practices, and computation as specified in Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core State Standards for mathematics, and K-12 Computer Science Standards. The project will engage 20 teachers and 200 students from mainstream and specialized schools for the blind over three years. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of student and teacher assessments, surveys, interviews, work products, and user' computer log files, and classroom observations will be used to determine the effectiveness and broad utility of the approach for integrating physics and computing The student-level research questions focus on how students' understanding and use of computational thinking develops in relation to astronomy and the specific astronomy tools they use; and how students' participation augments their interest, self-efficacy, and understandings of who can participate in astronomy and computing. The teacher-level research focuses on teachers' capacity to integrate astronomy and computing and to support BVI students' learning in their classrooms. The project will provide the first longitudinal study of student learning and behaviors in the context of integrating astronomy and computer science. It will deepen understanding of how multisensory computing inputs and outputs support learning for BVI and sighted students. The project will begin to inform the field about how BVI individuals can participate in the workforce at the intersection of high barrier-to-entry disciplines, astronomy and computer science. The project team and advisory board members will disseminate findings to their respective professional associations and networks, including the American Astronomical Society and the American Geophysical Union, and through traditional means, such as papers in peer-reviewed journals and conference presentations. The accessible tools and educational resources produced in this study will be freely available to K-12 teachers nationwide and could be widely adopted by BVI and sighted individuals in astronomy and other visually-intensive domains.