Seeing Stars

February 10, 2014 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

Seeing Stars

Both Science Professor Quinn Minor and his student Macarthur Young are fascinated by the stars.

“Originally, I was into physics more than astronomy,” says Professor Minor, “and examining questions like, ‘How did the universe start?’”

Then, he says, at the University of California, Irvine where he earned his Ph.D., “I met a bunch of cosmologists; theoretical astrophysicists, and I realized a background in physics is essential to understanding astronomy.”

Professor Minor’s student, Macarthur Young, also loves astronomy and science. In fact, he taught science at the elementary school level in Brooklyn for nine years—till he lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa in 2008.

“It caused my retina cells to degenerate,” he explains. “I also have a linked condition, progressive loss of hearing, and the overall disorder is Usher Syndrome.”

Strategies for learning

For Macarthur Young, losing his sight, then his teaching job presented what felt like insurmountable challenges.

“I was very, very scared, and went into a deep depression,” he says, “but a therapist realized my potential, and encouraged me to go back to school.”

His first day at BMCC was in Fall 2013.

“I walked into the main plaza and for the life of me, I couldn’t find the front door,” he says. “A young lady helped me and took me all the way to my first class, and my worries about attending school here evaporated.”

He also got in touch with the BMCC Office of Accessibility, and a counselor on staff, Kokou Doumassi—“He’s amazing,” says Young—acquainted him with strategies such as sending a textbook’s ISBN to the publisher, who then provides a PDF version of the book so it can be read aloud with the assistive software, JAWS.

The Office of Accessibility also linked Young with volunteers who act as readers of his classroom materials, and thanks to another software program, Kurzweil, he can scan documents to be saved in an MP3 format, enabling him to listen to them without assistance.

He’s even found a way to write papers.

“I do the research myself, and I have a little bit of vision, so I use a marker to write really large on special paper with thick lines, then one of my readers transcribes it to a digital file, which I can review and edit with assistive software.”

Realizing his true potential

Astronomy, Macarthur Young admits, “is a very visual class,” and when he first started attending, “I wondered if maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew—there was a disconnect between me and material being projected to a screen.”

Right away, he spoke with Professor Minor.

“He asked more questions than anyone in the class. He contributed a lot to the dynamic of the class,” Minor remembers, but Young told him, “I don’t want to just pass this class. I want to realize my true potential.”

The two began to meet regularly. “He would explain diagrams and pictures in more detail,” says Young, and the sessions were going well, but Professor Minor believed that with the right accommodations, his student could excel even further.

He consulted with a colleague, Professor Saavik Ford, “and she had heard of this machine, a swell-form graphic machine that ‘puffs up’ images so you can actually feel them,” he says.

Next, he met with BMCC’s accessibility counselor Kokou Doumassi, who found one of the machines in the CUNY Assistive Technology Services (CATS) department at Queensborough College.

There, Professor Minor met with Assistive Technology Specialist Shivan Mahabir.

“He was incredibly helpful,” he says. “First we photocopied the materials on special paper, then we ran them through the swell-form machine, and any place where the ink is, it puffed up to a 3D image.”

Reading the planets

Professor Quinn also went to Michael’s, a crafts store, for ideas on how to make the material more accessible.

“I got bubble stickers, and Macarthur placed them, for example, to show the trajectory of a planet,” he says.

“I remember the first time I plotted something on a grid,” Young says.

“We were looking at Venus, how it rises and sets different times of the year. Professor Minor brought the swell image copy, I ‘read’ it with my fingers and he explained it to me. I was able to plot every single movement of the planet Venus at different times in its rotation, based on that.”

Because of the class, he says, “I have been able to explain to my friends concepts like, how long the sun is going to live, or what a meteor shower is.”

His background in science and math gives him a certain advantage.

“The other students didn’t have the prior knowledge I had, and Professor Minor was good at reaching out to them, too,” he says.

“He took time to make sure we all understood, before he moved on. Even the big astronomical terms—like ‘planetesimals’, tiny particles that coalesce to form the planets—he made accessible.”

‘I’m ready’

Counselor Doumassi’s advice to blind students is to undergo training with the New York State Commission for the Blind before they start classes.

“That way they’ll be familiar with the assistive software,” he says, “so they can use it right away to keep up with assigned reading materials. Also, the Commission helps them orient themselves with buildings on a campus, and going from one floor or one classroom to another.”

He also urges students with disabilities to make contact with the BMCC Office of Accessibility as soon as they enter the college.

“We’re here to support their success as students and also to work with their professors,” he says.

Macarthur Young has benefited from following that advice.

He’s also been active in the BMCC students with disabilities club, Beyond the Limits, led by David Joseph, a blind student majoring in Human Services.

“He’s one of my best friends now,” says Young, who enjoys the club’s focus on goals and academics.

His own goal is to teach science to blind students in grades one through eight, through the New York Institute for the Blind—using swell-form graphic images and other strategies he’s applying now.

“I love science,” he says. “After BMCC, I really want to do something at Hunter College, to pursue a degree in environmental science.”

While sight loss is a relatively new development in his life, he has already accomplished a great amount.

“Being here, feeling welcome and comfortable, gives my life a purpose,” he says.

“I had a 4.0 grade point average last semester, and I was invited to apply to the Vassar Summer Program this year. If BMCC is any indication of what I’ll experience wherever I go, I’m ready.”