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.   
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. We are working to expand opportunities and facilitate access to the Internet for blind and low vision adults and children.
  6. 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.
  7. We hope to provide educational facilitation and enhancement to profoundly challenged low vision or blind children.
  8. We plan to develop age-appropriate texts/field guides for young and adult blind and low vision populations.
  9. 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.
  10. 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him ever-more-outdated and decreasingly vivid visual images of his family 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.).

The Need

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.

Blind Adults

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 
severely limited.

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

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.

Long-term/Terminally Ill

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.


Preliminary testing/planning

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:
  1. Structuring the organization (Incorporating, establishing a Board of Directors and bylaws, initial staffing, and the structuring of ongoing operations). - Accomplished
  2. Locating further funding sources. - Ongoing
  3. In depth planning. - Ongoing
  4. Enhanced design and expansion of the prototype interactive field. - Ongoing
  5. Testing of expanded materials and reexamination of directions. - Ongoing
  6. A World Wide Web site would be developed and established at this time. - Initial site established.
  7. Completing tax-exempt status process. - Accomplished
  8. Developing a newsletter. - In progress
  9. Progress evaluation and long-range planning - Accomplished/Ongoing
Funds were used during this phase for:
  1. Wages, salaries, and contracts, including the project direction staff, clerical assistance, legal assistance, additional programming, and birdsong preparation.
  2. Phone and office supplies, including computer software and hardware.
  3. Travel (director, other staff)


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:

The following specific tasks are intended to accomplish the goals listed 
  1. Expand development of birding software and companion software, both for onsite use and through the Internet.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Phase III - Expansion of Offerings/Feedback

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, 
info@nhest.org e-mail