Natural History Education, Science, Technology
NHEST is an organization designed to bring education in science and natural history to special populations of children and adults, primarily by use of computer technology.
- We have developed an interactive computerized field guide to birdsong for onsite use in teaching bird identification to blind and low vision children and adults.
- We have established a blind-accessible World Wide Web site at http://www.nhest.org to provide a simplified version of our educational software to any and all blind and low-vision persons with Internet access.
- We have begun development of a companion program to teach tree identification through non-visual keys and have developed introductory material for the web site.
- We are conducting an expanding number of onsite programs in nature study, especially on bird song, tree identification, and the way these can be used as an introduction to the study of natural history and ecology.
- We are working to expand opportunities and facilitate access to the Internet for blind and low vision adults and children.
- We are developing a broader based natural science/ecology offering applicable to both adults and children, to include virtual nature centers for the blind on the web.
- We hope to provide educational facilitation and enhancement to profoundly challenged low vision or blind children.
- We plan to develop age-appropriate texts/field guides for young and adult blind and low vision populations.
- We will develop curriculum materials and offer technical assistance to help teachers of the blind integrate the age-appropriate software into the educational plans for their students.
- We are planning expanded offerings of natural history experiences for both children and adults, including a nature center/camp.
The sensory world of the blind is far different from that of the sighted.
This world is devoid of visual imagery, except for static but fading memories
in the case of the adventitiously blind. But the difference lies not just
in the absence of vision, but in the entire gestalt of a world without sight.
John Hull (in Touching The Rock) decides that he is not going to carry with
him ever-more-outdated and decreasingly vivid visual images of his family
and his surroundings as they were the last time he saw them. Nor is he going
to organize his world along pseudo visual lines; he is going to enter an
entirely new realm, one centered about the new sensory world in which he
That same approach must be used in communicating information with blind
children -- and even with blind adults, such as Hull. The sensory world in
which this communication will occur is not just a world without light, but a
world in which touch, hearing, taste, kinesthetic senses, all interact with
each other to complete a whole, a gestalt, which forms the entire interface
between a human mind and the outside world. It is not just the sight-dominant
world in which most of us live -- minus the sight. It is a world with
entirely different sensory interactions, hierarchies of sense, and with
thought and reasoning modes built upon these interactions and hierarchies
that are alien to most of us.
While a wide variety of educational materials exist for blind children,
interactive texts and field guides for the teaching of natural history have
not been developed. Nor have natural history guides keyed to sound and touch
been developed for blind adults.
Experienced bird watchers know that much, if not most, bird 'watching' is
really bird 'listening'. Birds that cannot be seen can be readily identified
by song or call note. The National Breeding Bird Survey requires bird
counters to stand in a specified spot and count every bird they see or hear
for a specified time. In order to do a survey, the counter must be familiar
with a range of vocalizations of a hundred or more of the bird species found
in his/her area.
Recently, in fact, a previously unknown species of bird was discovered in
South America when ornithologists followed an unfamiliar call note.
So there is no reason blind people cannot become skilled bird watchers or
birders ('Birder' the more common term for those who engage in the field
identification of large numbers of species.).
A 1990 UN estimate places the number of blind persons worldwide at nearly 40
million. If those with other disabling visual impairments are added to the
total, the number may reach 160 million according to the World Health
Organization. Of the 40 million blind, almost 60% are age 60 or older.
An estimated half million blind persons of all ages live in the United
States and Canada. Canadian statistics lists the major causes of blindness
as glaucoma, diabetes, senile cataracts, injury, and maternal rubella.
Approximately 100,000 of these persons suffer from glaucoma, and diabetes
alone causes between 12,000 and 24,000 new cases of blindness every year.
Persons who become blind in adulthood through injury or through a disease
such as diabetes are often left with little of the world they once lived in.
They feel alienated, have limited recreational activities (most of which
depend on the assistance of others.), and often feel useless. Even those
used to blindness from childhood find the scope of their activities
With some basic instruction and an interactive computerized field guide to
bird songs -- with all descriptions and instructions geared toward the
special world they inhabit -- blind adults could enjoy recreation they
could engage in at home simply by opening a window. The cry of a gull
overhead, the chip of a sparrow on a lawn, the chatter of feeding swallows,
the caw of a distant crow -- all would become adventures to share with
others, both blind and sighted, who also delighted in this form of
And the blind could perform useful scientific research support.
Once skilled in bird identification, reports by the blind could take their
places with reports from sighted persons in helping to trace migrations
patterns, locating rare species, and generally adding to human knowledge of
bird behavior and movement. It is likely that many of the blind, given this
opportunity, would become highly skilled and important members of the
amateur ornithology community.
Blind children, like blind adults, could learn bird identification and from
there proceed to basic ecology. Why do you hear some birds high overhead?
Why do you hear some in the forest, but others in the open? Computerized,
interactive textbooks for blind and low vision children would not be simply
adapted versions of natural history materials for the sighted. No, the
sensory parameter shift would be profound. All description would have to be
oriented around sensory events with which children are readily familiar.
With designed, provided, and suggested supplementary materials, children
could get an excellent grounding in bird identification which would open to
them an avenue to the interactions in the natural world and their relation
to it. They would have the basic knowledge to understand the importance of
the natural environment to human survival.
It is hard for most to understand the conceptual world in which the
congenitally blind live. A mobility instructor has observed that
congenitally blind children need to be taught such concepts as 'above' or
'in front'whereas sighted children learn them automatically. There is no
integration of the kinesthetic orientation sense with the world around the
individual without special instruction.
The Profoundly Impaired
Children with other problems in functioning beyond the visual, such as mental
retardation, have been seen to find a focus in bird song and to seek this
stimulus. It is likely that the sounds of nature could facilitate learning
by enhancing the environment in which these children exist.
Morale is difficult to maintain for the terminally ill and for those with
long-term confinement due to illness. Birding/nature education would
provide a diversion as well as helping the victims to retain contact with
the natural world, a seemingly important facet of living. The director of
this project remembers identifying several bird species, including Bald
Eagle and Osprey, from his hospital bed while recovering from recent
The keys to nature education and field guide production for the blind are
interactiveness and relation to the sensory world in which they live. The
computer provides the interaction; the tie with the sensory world of the
blind comes from the blind themselves and from educators who work with the
blind. The interactive nature of the computer allows the blind and those
with low vision to take control of their own education and to progress at
whatever rate they can comfortably. Firm ties to their sensory world allow
the experiences, the learning, to be concrete and open to them experiences
not available when the instruction is constructed for the sensory apparatus
of the sighted.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS TO DATE
Interviews with blind education specialists, blind persons, and
birding/nature specialists suggested that the production of nature education
materials for use on the computer by blind and low vision children and adults
had high potential. Initial programming demonstrated the technical
feasibility of the approach. Mist Software Associates of Hollis, New
Hampshire was found to be a source of birdsong recordings and technical
Testing on an informal basis suggested that even profoundly impaired
children can benefit from natural sounds, showing interest and enhanced
attention span. Some children, exposed to these materials, developed new
interests in nature.
Phase I - Initiation - Accomplished/Ongoing
NHEST conducted the first full phase of operation under startup funding from
the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation.
The initiation phase included:
- Structuring the organization (Incorporating, establishing a Board of Directors and bylaws, initial staffing, and the structuring of ongoing operations). - Accomplished
- Locating further funding sources. - Ongoing
- In depth planning. - Ongoing
- Enhanced design and expansion of the prototype interactive field. - Ongoing
- Testing of expanded materials and reexamination of directions. - Ongoing
- A World Wide Web site would be developed and established at this time. - Initial site established.
- Completing tax-exempt status process. - Accomplished
- Developing a newsletter. - In progress
- Progress evaluation and long-range planning - Accomplished/Ongoing
Funds were used during this phase for:
- Wages, salaries, and contracts, including the project direction staff, clerical assistance, legal assistance, additional programming, and birdsong preparation.
- Phone and office supplies, including computer software and hardware.
- Travel (director, other staff)
THE NEXT STEP
NHEST conducted Phase I under startup funding from the Stephen and Tabitha
King Foundation and is seeking additional funding in order to accomplish the
goals identified under Phase I. We describe the continuing program so
defined in three additional phases which can be concurrent in some instances.
The second phase is Program Development/Testing. Third is Expansion of
Offerings/Feedback. Fourth is Ongoing Operation/Expansion/Feedback .
Phase II - Program Development/Testing
The plans for this phase were developed directly from phase I evaluation and
long range planning. It was determined that efforts should be centered on
several fronts simultaneously to accomplish a set of goals:
- Further develop the interactive fieldguide concept and expand programming to cover additonal topics such as trees, amphibians, insects, weather and climate, and astronomy.
- Further develop our web site to offer the widest possible coverage among blind children and adults, including virtual nature centers for the blind.
- Develop outreach program, offering technical advice and assistance to schools and libraries to help them provide access to our materials.
- Develop wider range of onsite programs for those unable to travel long distances.
- Develop facilities and programs for residential 'camp' for blind children and adults and their families using science education to develop conceptual and coping skills.
The following specific tasks are intended to accomplish the goals listed
Phase III - Expansion of Offerings/Feedback
- Expand development of birding software and companion software, both for onsite use and through the Internet.
- Explore and accomplish initial establishment of non-visual virtual nature centers for the Internet allowing online study of the ecological interactions and natural history of differing ecoregions.
- Expand materials, texts, recordings, etc. to deepen our teaching/recreational offerings in birding and tree study and to broaden the set of topics offered. Examples: Weather -- a blind person can gain increased awareness through personal experience of weather and climate and the way these factors influence natural systems. Astronomy/tides. Basic scientific information can be presented much more usefully using cues blind children -- and adults -- can relate to most easily. The feel of the sun's warmth on the face, the feel of the wind, and the sense of touch can serve as an entry point for learning science and the ecological interactions in nature.
- Exploration and possible establishment of a nature center for onsite and/or camp-oriented nature education experiences for both children and adults -- and their families. Especially in the case of children is it important to train family members to interact using cues available to the blind member. And the family members can learn some natural history themselves. People -- blind or sighted -- who have attended NHEST programs or studied our Internet offerings probably know more about the subjects presented than do most Americans.
- Facilitate access to instructional/recreational materials. We want to make computer access available to more people and likewise to expand our offerings of onsite programs.
- Seek funds, materials donations, and volunteers. We need money for travel, salaries, and materials, and operating expenses. We need computers and software for field use. We need facilities for programs and program development/administration. Exact financial needs will vary according results of feasibility investigations, but it is expected that this phase will require a minimum of $300,000 in funds and other donations. We hope to raise at least half of that during the year 2000.
NHEST's offerings would be modified based upon phase II findings. Then the
widest possible dissemination would be sought along with expansion and
evaluation of teaching materials and basic products and programs. Nature
center and other programs would be expanded. Access would be expanded.
Evaluation would be ongoing.
Phase IV - Ongoing Operation/Expansion/Feedback
This phase would continue indefinitely. The basic development work on
materials, software, and programs would be complete. Expansion of
operation would follow demand and evaluation would continue to be ongoing.
Natural History Education Science and Technology (NHEST, Inc.) is an
organization designed to use computer technology and other resources in
bringing natural history education to special populations, particularly
blind and low vision populations of both adults and children.
For further information, contact Dr. Don Tarbet, President, NHEST, Inc.,
402 Atkinson Rd., Bradford ME 04410, (207)327-1453 phone, (207)327-1025 fax,