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://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John Hull (in Touching The Rock) decides that he is not going to carry with him ever-more-outdated and decreasingly vivid visual images of his family and his surroundings as they were the last time he saw them.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 lives.

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 recreation.

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 surgery.


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 expertise.

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:

  • 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 above:

  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, e-mail

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