[Update: In November the Reach for the Stars team was honored with the 2014 Hands On! Award from The National Braille Press.]
Creating an interactive astronomy book for 10- to 12-year-old students—including those with visual impairments—involves managerial and collaborative complexities only a bit less daunting than those that govern star formation and evolution. That the iBook Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn was released last week, on schedule, is a tribute to the project manager, Donna Faircloth of SAS, and the three co-authors, Ada Lopez and Ed Summers of SAS and Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Perhaps the foremost challenge throughout the project involved the collaboration between the three authors as they sought to convey the fundamentals of astronomy, the latest scientific advances, and the tools that make those advances possible. Why was that a challenge?
Sabbi is as astronomer with special expertise in the Hubble Space Telescope. She knows what happens in the sky, but her cutting-edge scientific duties do not include translating complex information into language and images suitable for schoolchildren.
Finding simple but scientifically correct ways to describe complex subjects like the electromagnetic spectrum and the Hertzprung-Russell diagram involved months of back-and-forth between Sabbi and Lopez—a science curriculum specialist who works in SAS Curriculum Pathways. And while Lopez knows what works in the classroom—and what standards busy teachers need to meet—she isn’t a computer specialist. She doesn’t monitor technical innovations to ask, “How can this raw capability be used to enhance learning?”
Enter Ed Summers, a visually impaired computer scientist at SAS and the driving force behind the production of this book. At every stage in the process, Summers asked (and often answered) key questions: Can technology help us make this information more accessible? Are traditional approaches failing students? Can we develop a better way to learn? Can we do more than simply inform students? Can we inspire them to seek careers in science? A complete listing of the various kinds of expertise that went into the development of this book would test the limits of a blog post. But even the abridged version gives a sense of the project’s collaborative complexity and our commitment to educational excellence and innovation:
- Experts on conveying data with sound (“sonification”) helped create a rich, engaging experience accessible to all students. This is one of the chief innovations of Reach for the Stars. You no longer have to imagine what it might be like to look at and listen to a graph. The implications for visually impaired students are difficult to overstate.
- Software engineers ensured that no dreams died on the drawing board and that all product elements ran smoothly on an iPad.
- National Braille Press produced tactile overlays for the book’s interactive images.
- The Space Telescope Science Institute provided the dazzling Hubble-generated images that appear throughout the book and collaborated with SAS on the first attempt to render an image from Hubble using sound.
- Graphic designers worked with those images and ensured that the interface was visually appealing and easy to navigate.
- A narrator recorded all of the text so that students have the option of listening or reading.
- Audio experts insured that all sound recordings were of the highest quality.
- A video team travelled to the Space Telescope Science Institute so the book could include footage of NASA scientists (including a Nobel Prize winner!) speaking directly to students, encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM fields.
- An emerging technologies lab manager produced printable 3D files for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Tarantula Nebula, and the James Webb Space Telescope.
- NASA provided funding for this groundbreaking Education and Public Outreach project.
- Legal experts and editors ensured that the book was ready for release.
Developing first-rate educational technologies requires a committed, interdisciplinary team. A lot can go wrong. To produce quality products, a company must be philosophically committed to educational excellence. The release of Reach for the Stars is a sign of that commitment by SAS and its collaborators.