Seeing the Unseen: GLAS Education

Many things we want to observe in the world are hidden or obscured, making it difficult for us to gather data. For example, polar ice scientists who want to measure the depth of ice around our arctic regions to gauge ice loss and investigate climate change. But it isn’t as simple as going to Antarctica and putting down your tape measure--they need to use tools such as radar and sonar to probe the depths of the ice. This exact scenario inspired the creation and accessibilization of our next activity: Seeing the Unseen. 

First created as an activity by former high school teacher, Tim Spuck, now of Associated Universities Inc. this activity teaches students about how we probe the polar surface.  April Bahl has modified this hands-on experience and made it blind and visually impaired-friendly!  April worked with her brother, Tim Fahlberg who teaches science at the Wisconsin School for the Blind. Tim has been working with GLAS Education for many years and is on our board of directors.  This is a great activity to do with any-age students, and is easy to make--all the materials can be bought on Amazon or are generally utilized in classrooms. 

Cardboard box with tactile 6x8 grid on top labeled 1-6, A-H; Corresponding grid platforms have cubes that mirror the unseen formation inside the box.The general idea is this: groups of students get a box with a tactile grid and measurement key on top, complete with Braille labelling. Each of the cells of the grid have a small hole that you can fit a small wooden dowel in. This wooden dowel is their probe. Inside the box is some mystery environment, constructed of MathLink cubes (or any other cubes you can stack together) arranged in a random formation to represent the surface students are trying to investigate. Students insert their probe into each cell and measure how far the probe goes down before hitting the surface of the mystery shape.  While holding the dowel at the point of furthest insertion, the student withdraws the dowel and compares the inserted length to the tactile key on the top right of the box and reads the number out loud.  A second student then places that number of cubes onto a separate grid, effectively trying to recreate the mystery environment that’s inside the box. In the end, students open the box and compare their construction with the cube environment inside the box. This activity is a great conversation starter about how to get information about an object without being able to directly detect and observe it.  The activity also sparks the realization that not everything in the sciences can be or should be measured visually. 

You can find instructions for how to build your own mystery boxes and a video of BVI students engaging in this activity HERE.

Tactile cardboard grid with cubes stacked to various heights to represent the unseen formation.

The video below shows a group of students first trying a not-very accessible (general educational class) version of this activity, then the same students using the accessible tactile box and tactile grid.