A free, multitouch iBooks Textbook for iPad is now available to inspire students of all abilities to pursue futures in science. Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn incorporates new, assistive technologies so children with visual disabilities, too, can experience striking deep-space images like never before.
STScI astronomer Elena Sabbi worked with developers to translate brilliant imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope into content any student, including those with visual disabilities, can learn from and enjoy. The development of the iBooks Textbook is funded by a Hubble education and public outreach grant.
“This book allows any child to experience the wonders of space,” Sabbi explained. “We want young students to understand that anyone can be a scientist.” Traditionally, the abundance of charts, graphs and data visualizations has made it challenging to bring math and science to visually impaired students. And their teachers struggle to transition from printed textbooks to digital instructional materials. With accessibility directly embedded into Reach for the Stars, every student in the classroom can use the same book. Educators don’t have to convert the content to special formats for students with disabilities. Ed Summers spearheaded the development of the iBooks Textbook, leading a team of programmers, graphic artists and accessibility specialists. The software engineer and Senior Manager of Accessibility and Applied Assistive Technology at SAS, himself blind, emphasizes that Reach for the Stars is not solely for blind children.
“This is a mainstream book to benefit every student, rather than something limited to a small audience of students with visual impairments,” said Summers.
The iBooks Textbook consists of seven chapters. Children with learning disabilities can touch the audio icon on each screen to hear the text read aloud. Students with visual impairments can use the VoiceOver screen reader available on iPad.
Images, graphics and animations, some of them interactive, highlight every chapter. Prominent star clusters in the Tarantula Nebula, for example, are marked by circles. Touch a circle and hear the name of the feature as a caption appears on the screen.
The iBooks Textbook takes advantage of accessibility features built into iOS including Text to Speech, captioning, a compatibility option for hearing aids, compatibility with refreshable Braille displays, and high-contrast colors for students with low vision.
Another option, “sonification,” uses sound to convey data. For instance, in a diagram plotting the brightness of stars against their surface temperature, touch-generated pitch variations indicate the intensity of a particular star. The brighter the star, the higher the pitch. The star’s temperature is conveyed through either the left or right ear. Hotter stars are on the left of the graph, cooler stars on the right.
National Braille Press has created tactile overlays for all of the interactive images in the book. The tactile overlays contain raised lines and textures that are perfectly congruent with each interactive image. For example, the tactile overlay for an image of dozens of galaxies lets a blind student feel a shape for each galaxy and simultaneously hear a sound that represents that galaxy.
The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, a project partner, will promote the book through its network of teachers and parents.
Prospective users can download the iBook Textbook from the iBookstore and order the tactile overlays from the National Braille Press website. A short video and teacher support page will help jumpstart learning. Users can even download a 3-D model of the Hubble Space Telescope and print it on a 3-D printer.
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