User Name:
print-friendly version

Education Newswire: November/December 1998

Insight to Visual Impairment

How do you teach astronomy to a visually impaired student? I was confronted with this question in my “Descriptive Astronomy” course this semester. The student had previously taken my course “Life in the Cosmos,” which touches on some astronomy, and decided to come back for the full course. I was rather uncertain about what additions I might have to make to my usual course preparation, but it turned out I had little to worry about.

The availability of astronomy texts on CD-ROM has greatly aided visually impaired students. Rather than depending on having the book read and taped, the CD can be directly read using software that will run on most PCs. My student informed me that he uses software from Productivity Works. Their line of products includes pwWebSpeak, a non-visual browser; pwTelephone, an open telephone browser for the Web; pwEMail, a basic email package for visual and non-visual access; SoftVoice, a software-only speech synthesizer for use with pwWebSpeak; and many more applications.

These products make texts available to visually impaired students and enable them to access the internet. But an added benefit is the independence the packages give the student: No longer are they dependent on human readers. They don’t have to worry about a new edition of text being used. They can use all the review and interactive material now available on CD-ROMs that can’t be included in a written text. Supplemental materials distributed in the class can easily be scanned and read by the software.

But still, a visually impaired student studying astronomy? It suddenly struck me that there is absolutely nothing unusual about this because, in fact, when it comes to astronomy, we are all, in a sense, visually impaired. The visible spectrum, as we often preach, is such a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We are all blind to the vast amount of information available at all the other wavelengths. It is the nature of astronomers to nonetheless explore these hidden forms of radiation and discover what they might reveal of the universe. And in the process, we all require translational methods to understand, even visualize, what can be found at these wavelengths.

Kepler Revisited

It was exactly two years ago, in the third installment of the “Newswire” column, that I reviewed a website and interactive software related to extrasolar planets and their detections. It had been put together by the Kepler Mission, a proposed satellite mission to detect extrasolar planets. I was disappointed to discover about a year ago that this mission had not been chosen to fly. But as you may know, the original Kepler did not make his discoveries on his first attempts, either. This past summer the Kepler Mission was resubmitted to NASA.

In that column two years ago I stated in reference to freely available Mission materials: “This software is fun to run, easy to use, and does not take a lot of time to try.” It may be targeted to high school and first year college students, but I really enjoyed trying it myself. With new planets being discovered all the time (as of this writing, we are up to 16 planets, 11 brown dwarfs, and a variety of proplyds and planetary disks outside the solar system), this simulation of planetary searches is still the best I have found. And fortunately for all of us, the interactive software has been upgraded. It runs on Macintosh computers and is self-contained; a Windows version is not yet available. Authored by Dr. David Koch, NASA Ames Research Center, the package may be down-loaded from In addition to scientific and engineering information relating specifically to the Kepler Mission, the Mission’s website has educational material on topics such as planet detection, conditions for habitable planets, and even a biography of the original Kepler.

To further explore the topic of extrasolar planets, check out the website called “The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia” at This is a site in France, authored by Jean Schneider, Observatoire de Paris. It keeps very up-to-date information of discoveries and has numerous links to ongoing and future projects.

Playing During Astronomy Lectures

Paul Francis and Aidan Byrne, faculty members at the Australian National University, have been experimenting with using role-playing exercises during lectures to teach undergraduate (particularly first-year, non-physics major) astronomy and physics courses. The basic idea behind their novel program is to break students into competing research groups, each with a briefing sheet containing part of the knowledge necessary to solve a problem of physical or astrophysical interest. The groups must compete and collaborate, sharing information in the process, to piece together a complete solution of the scientific problem. A full account of their experiments to date, their successes and failures, along with four of their “ready-to-run” exercises, have been placed on the web at The exercises include topics such as star and planet formation and the runaway greenhouse effect (both for first-year astronomy students). The researchers are interested in sharing their experiences with other astronomy educators and learning about any similar experiments underway elsewhere. For communication or more information about the ANU experiment, contact Dr. Paul Francis via email at or via post at Mt. Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories, Private Bag, Weston Creek Post Office, Weston Creek, ACT 2611, Australia.

Science in the Radio Studio

Earth & Sky Radio Series, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, presents the 1999 Young Producers Contest for grades K-12. Students record a 90-second science program on cassette. The five winning teams will receive U.S. Savings Bonds and their shows will be played on the Earth & Sky radio program around the world. For more information access the Earth & Sky website at, email the program at, or send them a facs at 512.477.4441. The deadline for all entries is 15 December 1998.

The Truth Behind Star-Naming

So, you’re thinking of buying a star name for a gift during the upcoming holidays? A star named Morgano for grandpappa Morgan or Nancyelos for your mother, Nancy? Not a bad gift for $50-$100, huh? Think again. The businesses that advertise a registry of star names really only want one thing: your money. If you are indeed interested in finding out more about star names, however, check out the International Astronomical Union’s Commission 5, Designations and Nomenclature of Celestial Objects, at Follow the links from there. And here’s a suggestion for a stellar holiday gift: Take your money and make a donation to the ASP Education Fund in the name of the person you’re giving the gift to. It will do a lot more good!

LEO P. CONNOLLY is a professor in the Department of Physics at California State University in San Bernardino. He attended the Project ASTRO workshop in June 1996 and started a partnership last September. His email address is