Space Camp: Where Blind Kids Can Reach for the Stars

Dan OatesHi! My name is Dan Oates and I currently work at the West Virginia School for the Blind as an Educational Outreach Specialist. I have been in that position for 14 years and for the previous 14 years I was an Orientation and Mobility Instructor.

Since 1990 I have had the privilege of working with the staff at the U. S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as a consultant for their programs for special populations. I initially started with the program for the blind and visually impaired called Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCIVIS) and since have assisted with programs for other populations. Most recently, I helped co-found Little People Space Camp, which just aired on The Learning Channel program “Little People, Big World” in April of 2009. Everyone gets 15 seconds of fame and that was mine! Now that it is over and the booking agents haven’t called, I can get back to my life and realize that acting isn’t my strong suit.

SCIVIS provides a camp-like experience for children and adults based around the central theme of astronauts or aviation. There are two possible tracks: Astronaut Training and Pilot Training (based loosely on the “Top Gun” theme). In each track there are programs for children at the elementary, middle, and secondary school level.

Space Camp runs throughout the year with students attending from all over the world. Our program, SCIVIS, occurs during the later part of September each year and attracts between 150-200 students each year. Many foreign countries have sent children in the past—Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, to name just a few.

I am often asked, “Why should my child go to a program just for the blind and visually impaired when they are placed in a ‘mainstreamed’ situation all year long?”

This one takes a while to explain but I’m assuming that a blog allows one the time to do this. When I first became involved in 1990 I learned that the program stressed math and science, and I thought this was a great place to learn those areas of a curriculum. As the years passed and as I got wiser, I began to notice something. Campers from the mainstream setting don’t get to spend enough time with their blind and visually impaired peers, and when they do they really enjoy it. All kids need to spend time with their peers. Blind and visually impaired kids are lucky to have two peer groups—their sighted peers and their blind or visually impaired peers. Spending time with each is important.

So often kids who are in the mainstream environment may be the only blind or visually impaired person in the school, county, or district. I’ve heard more than one child over the years with albinism say, “Look over there, Mom, there’s someone like me!” Powerful comments, and Space Camp gives kids a whole week to explore “someone like me” doing really cool stuff.

Space Camp obviously isn’t the only possible camp experience for our children, but what it does provide is a chance to be surrounded by some of the coolest simulators in the world.

The other question I often get is why our program runs in September, during the school year and not during the summer. Space Camp’s peak season is the summer and there are about 600-800 campers there each week from the middle of June to the middle of August. Tuition at that time is about $200 to $300 higher than our program in September. Also the adaptations that are made for the SCIVIS week are many, and those could not occur in an environment of 600 other students.

All of the programs are closely monitored by Space Camp’s Education Director. National Standards for Math and Science are closely followed by all programs offered to children in grades 4 through 12. If you think about it, your child is just transferring from one school to another for one week and learning specific curriculum in a couple of content areas. Don’t know if that helps, but it has provided some assistance in the past. Each district takes a different spin on how out-of-school learning occurs and what is defined as an excused absence.

Please feel free to ask me any questions you have about Space Camp, and I hope to see some of your children there in the years to come!