Before he went to space camp for the first time this year, Xavier Pagan wasn't sure if it would even be worth it. • "I don't really know what I was expecting," he said. "Maybe sitting in a classroom." • Instead, the 17-year-old Brandon High School student found zip-lining, rock climbing and huge flight simulators. • "It's a week for blind kids," said Pagan, who has trouble seeing anything too far, like a classroom chalk board. "I didn't think we would get to do all that we did."
Seventeen Hillsborough County students in elementary, middle and high school spent a week in late September at the Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
They attended the camp along with kids from 20 other states and four countries. The Hillsborough students held a reunion late last month at the Manhattan Center in Tampa to share their experiences. Because they'd like to attend next year, they're already gearing up fundraising with a holiday wreath sale. The Hillsborough County School District funded this year's trip. In the past, donations have helped as well.
So much of what students learn in science classes relies on visuals, like images of rockets or video of the first moon walk. But for a week each year, with the help of certified teachers for the visually impaired, the Space and Rocket Center adapts space camp with features like Braille, large print, closed captioning and voice output.
They bring in special guests, too. This year, students heard from an astrochemist who works for NASA, and has a visual impairment. Students come away inspired. "Especially our totally blind students," said Maureen Rich, a teacher in the Visually Impaired Program at Colson Elementary School in Seffner, who served as lead teacher for the space camp trip.
"They might read about a shuttle or hear the words 'mission control,' but they have no visual of it. Being able to be in an actual model of an actual flight deck, they get an understanding of those things."
Several students have told Rich their week at space camp is the only time of the year they can relax, she said. It's where they feel accepted, where they don't feel the need to pretend they can see perfectly or that they can do something that they can't.
Instead, they discover all that they can.
Rose McDougald, 10, learned how to mix chemicals to make insulated foam like the type used on rockets. She also experienced a simulation of what it's like to walk on the moon, and climbed a ladder for the first time. Rose was born deaf and has a cochlear implant, which can affect her balance. She also has a progressive eye condition.
"Last year she could not go up that ladder," said Teresa Martinkovic, Rose's teacher from the Visually Impaired Program at Tampa Palms Elementary School. "This year she overcame that fear."
This was Rose's second year at space camp. She came back with a new interest in constellations after watching an IMAX movie about the Hubble Space Telescope, in a theater equipped with personal closed-captioning devices at the seats.
"Did you know the Hubble can't go too close to the sun?" Rose said as she listed some of the things she learned at camp. "It's too bright for the equipment, they might shut down."
She and her father, Campbell McDougald, 44, go out early in the mornings or at night to look at the stars.
"I point out where they are and she tells me what the constellation is," he said.
Rose will go again next year, and her sister Katie, who will be in fourth grade, will go with her. Siblings are welcome if parents pick up the extra costs.
"It's exciting for us. She wants to show it off to her sister," McDougald said. "She's with other kids who suffer from visual impairments. It's a nice way for her to be around her peers."
Meeting other kids from around the country and the world who also have visual impairments is an important part of the experience, teachers and students said.
"At school, we're a minority. There are five of us, and a thousand sighted kids," said Cyriss Vasquez, 15, a 10th-grader at Armwood High School in Seffner. Cyriss has optic nerve hypoplasia. The nerves are too small, which impacts signals sent to the brain. "You go there and people have different levels of vision, but everyone goes through the same stuff."
A long list of activities highlights the action for the high school students at space camp: a 50-foot rock wall, airplane simulators that mimic out-of-control spins, jet pack simulators, water survival lessons, flight simulator competitions, and hours-long space missions where students take on roles like engineer or surgeon, and work together inside a huge model of a space ship to complete assigned tasks.
"Science classes here are visual," said Claudia Sucre, 16, an Armwood sophomore. She has no vision. "Space camp is more tactile. We have a fair advantage in understanding what everyone sees in pictures in textbooks."
For the most part, other kids at school treat them normally, she said. But there is a difference, one they don't encounter at camp.
Her classmates agreed. Armwood junior Vanessa Saucedo, 16, has been to space camp seven times. She has Leber's congenital amaurosis, a degenerative disease. She's shy in school, she said, but outgoing when she gets to camp.
"Meeting other visually impaired people is inspiring," she said. "They can help you in hard times in school because they can relate."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.