The video opens with a high resolution color image of a nebula. Image fades to a teenage girl looking in the eyepiece of an eight inch reflecting telescope. She is smiling. An adult male instructor standing in the background is also smiling. Fade to a 40 inch reflecting telescope viewed from a vantage point below a viewing platform. The telescope is pointing away from the camera. The observatory dome is closed but well lit showing the details of the telescope mount and optical tube.

Fade to image of a very crowded star cluster. Stars of may colors are observable, from white to subtle reds and blues. Fade to a smaller cluster that is labeled “M104 Afterglow Sonification.” A blue line progresses from the bottom of the image to the top as the sonification is played showing the corresponding location of the sound on the image. The brighter the pixels, the higher pitched the sound gets.

We think of astronomy as a visual science, but the information captured by telescopes is simply data. We choose to represent these data visually, but there are other ways we can experience them.

0:15IDATA logo: Capital letters I D A T A with the Braille letters below in lowercase with the words “Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy”
Fade to Skynet Junior Scholars logo: a stylized star shape of simple layers zig-zags in white and blue-green next to the words “Skynet Junior Scholars,” in bold lettering using the same colors.


IDATA seeks to explore computational thinking in astronomy and overcome barriers to access for blind and low vision students. IDATA builds on the efforts of a previous NSF-funded project, Skynet Junior Scholars.

Flash to Prompt-6 telescope of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network silhouetted against a sky at twilight. The retracted dome can be seen at the lower edge of the picture. The telescope is an open design with the mirror clearly visible. The scope is pointed upward at approximately 45 degrees.

Fade to a young boy seen from behind looking almost straight up. He is standing at the base of a very large refracting telescope. His arms are at his sides and he is wearing an IDATA T-shirt. The blue telescope pier can be seen in front and to the left of him. The eyepiece is just above his head. A large circular ring for maneuvering the telescope dominates the image. It appears to have a diameter larger than the boy could reach across and is attached to the optical tube. We only see the base of the tube. The brick wall and wood floor of the observatory are seen out of focus in the background, communicating the large size of the observatory space.

SJS worked to make astronomy and robotic telescopes available to young learners, and initiated efforts to improve accessibility for all.


Fade to close up of two tactile graphics made with swell-form paper are on a table. Hands are seen reading the Braille text on the image to the left which is a simple open-type star cluster. The stars are distinct dots. The second image appears to be a cloud of gas with stars. Several of the stars have lines through them. All visible lines are parallel to one another and perpendicular to the text on the page. This picture is trying to show that simple tactile graphics can be made to explain concepts in astronomy. These two images together demonstrate an over-exposed image compared with one that is not.

Fade to a picture of a boy with short hair, wearing wrap-around sunglasses exploring what appears to be a large puzzle piece with a wave form attached. The wave is made of red string and attached with push-pins.
Fade to a black plastic square with a lot of texture visible. This object is a 3D printed tactile graphic of a galaxy core and foreground stars.

Previously, those with low or no vision could experience a limited number of astronomy products, but often encountered barriers when it came to the process of astronomy.


The girl speaking in this section is identified as Elana from the Wisconsin School for the Blind. We apologize that her name is spelled incorrectly on the video. Elana is wearing an IDATA T-shirt and using a Braille note taking device

“I was using a screen reader to navigate the SJS site, which unfortunately I’ve learned is not screen reader accessible. So I’ve mainly relied on sited people to tell me, ‘okay, you are gonna be clicking on this radio button’, ‘oh you’re going to…breadcrumbs…oh ****'” — Elana


Two college students are sitting in a library. The woman on the left has long brown hair, glasses, and is wearing a red Yerkes sweat-shirt. She is sitting on a tall stool and on her lap is a laptop computer that is facing the camera. The screen shows the Afterglow Access software open with a spiral galaxy in view. The man, who is blind, has short brown hair and glasses. He is sitting on a chair next to the woman and is wearing earbuds attached to the laptop indicating that they are using the sonfication tool. Both people appear very happy.

Through IDATA we are inventing software that overcomes these barriers.


A girl with long blond hair and a pony tail is holding a laptop computer that is turned toward the camera. The screen shows the Afterglow Access software open with the display histogram visible. The girl has low vision and is taking part in a camp event. Teachers are seen in the background, looking very focused on the girl and the computer.

By putting people with disabilities at the center of the design process, we empower students and create an empowering tool for exploring astronomical data. This is user-centered design.


On the left is a cardboard box approximately five inches high with a tactile grid containing 48 squares on the top of the box. The grid is labeled with letters, numbers and Braille. The rows are numbered one through six and the columns are labeled A through H. Within each box is a hole. A thin wood dowel is seen inserted into the hole at position 1A. Along the very top of the top of the box is a ruled measure from zero to five, also in Braille. To the right of the box is a second cardboard box with the same dimensions as the first except only half an inch tall. This box forms a platform of 48 squares with the same row and column labels as the other box but instead of holes in each of the squares, there is a colorful block base. This is part of a hands-on accessible activity that is used to help explain CCD cameras. We have a video explaining this activity and how we connected it to CCD cameras here.

The image then fades to a picture of a close-up of the shorter box described above with the center boxes showing colorful block construction made out of unit blocks that connect to the base.

Because computing is essential for modern astronomy, IDATA created curricular resources that taught students the tools of computational thinking.


On the right is an image of Saturn. To the right is a grid of boxes. As a blue line moves from bottom to top over the image of Saturn the grid to the right fills in with numbers that relatively correspond to the brightness of the image at different locations. This visual is intended to communicate how images are related to the numerical data.

Participants learn that the images we love so much are simply numbers in a matrix that can be manipulated.


The word Quorum is displayed. There is a silhouette of the head of a rabbit with its right ear bent forward. This lovely bunny is wearing glasses. There is an example of the Quorum code in a text box.

They use Quorum, an user-friendly programming language, to understand the world of astronomy through data analysis and computation.


Picture shows four students working on laptop computers. Fade to a picture of Josh Haislip, lead programmer for Afterglow Access, at his computer. A large screen shows Afterglow Access in the background. Josh looks very happy. Fade to a picture of two IDATA students engaged in a design activity using a tactile matrix. A laptop is open on the table showing Afterglow Access. One of the students is wearing vision simulation goggles.

As participants master key concepts in astronomy and computing, they grow their capacity to provide design suggestions to software engineers.


Close up of the tactile matrix where students’ design ideas for Afterglow Access are modeled using a variety of materials. Fade to a second picture of students presenting their tactile design matrix to a group. Fade to woman sitting at a computer editing an IDATA video.

Meanwhile, as researchers, we are looking for impacts of the project on students’ understanding of astronomy and computational thinking. And on their interests and attitudes about STEM and who can be successful in those fields.


The young man speaking in this section is identified as Dez from the Wisconsin School for the Blind. He is wearing a grey t-shirt and sunglasses. As he speaks, we see a picture of Dez in front of a large computer display showing Afterglow Access.

“If I would have never joined IDATA, I would have known none of this, like, at all. Coding, I’ve never would’ve pictured that either. The sound, sonificiation, I didn’t know about that either. Going through IDATA I’ve learned so much. Coding I still gotta pick up and I’m getting there.” — Dez


In the dome of the Great Refractor at Yerkes Observatory, a group of 21 IDATA participants is positioned near the telescope in two rows with their backs to the camera. The IDATA logo with Braille letters is visible on each shirt. Pan to a picture of eight IDATA participants from the Wisconsin School for the Blind beneath the Great Refractor posing and looking happy. Fade to 2018 IDATA group picture. Each person is wearing a red IDATA t-shirt. The two guide dogs in the front are not wearing t-shirts.

In IDATA, students with and without visual impairments work together to design and refine tools to help everyone experience the wonder of the stars. They learn how computing can support access, so that they can explore the universe together.


A blind student and a teacher in the dome of the Great Refractor at Yerkes Observatory. The student is looking up at the optical tube nearly two stories up above.

With accessible astronomy tools we’re developing in IDATA, the sky is no longer the limit.

2:54The logos for each of the IDATA Collaborating institutions is shown:
Associated Universities Inc, Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, TERC, UNC Chapel Hill, UNLV and Logos Consulting Group


Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy

DATA is a three year project funded by the National Science Foundation to engage a group of high school age students, their teachers, professional astronomers, software engineers, and design experts in the user-centered design process of data analysis software for astronomy.

Everyone should get a chance to contribute because the universe is SOO big that there is room for everyone!

From Skynet Junior Scholars to IDATA

IDATA grew out of Skynet Junior Scholars (SJS), one of the many accessibility efforts that Yerkes’ programs were known for. The aim of the SJS project was to build online lessons and hands-on activities that students need to learn about astronomy, request images from one of the Skynet telescopes, and answer their own questions about the universe. Although SJS created many ways for students with blindness and low vision to participate, we wanted to do more.

​We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to analyze their data from the stars independent of help from a fully sighted individual. That means that our online software, Afterglow, needs to be transformed from a tool that works only with images to one that does much more. After all, the pretty pictures we love so much start as numbers on a spreadsheet. That format gives us the power to manipulate and present the information in any way we can imagine.

IDATA participants do the imagining in a software design process that puts the user at the center of the action. Along the way, they learn a lot about astronomy and the computer programming that is vital to astronomy.