NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

Brain-injured patients are exploring the stars with a click of a computer mouse, thanks to a special hands-on, interactive NASA education program.

Through Telescopes In Education, sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., patients are no longer limited by their physical barriers and are free to stretch their imaginations.

In May, a dozen patients who suffered severe head injuries took control of a science-grade reflecting telescope located at the Mount Wilson Observatory, high above the Los Angeles basin in the San Gabriel Mountains. Using the Internet, patients at Delta Rehabilitation Facility for the Severely Head-Injured in Snohomish, Wash., downloaded digital images of nine deep space objects, including several galaxies and star clusters.

The director of Internet Services for the Brain Injury Association of Washington, Paul Walsh, and his wife, Valarie, began teaching basic astronomy to a roomful of Delta residents nearly one year ago. Walsh discovered the patients were an eager and attentive group of students.

"People who have sustained a major brain injury often have a keen and hungry intelligence that has been masked and hidden behind the devastation caused by their injuries," Walsh said. "I had a hunch astronomy might be a way to help tear down the walls, not just mental and emotional, but literally the physical walls that separate the residents of Delta from the outside world."

The program allows educators and students around the world to remotely control research-quality telescopes and charge-coupled device cameras created at JPL and located at the Mount Wilson Observatory. All they need is a computer modem and special astronomy software.

Educators and students from all over the world get hands- on, real-time interaction from the comfort of their classrooms. This type of interaction enables students to increase their knowledge of astronomy, astrophysics, and mathematics; improve their computer literacy; and strengthen their critical thinking skills. Hundreds of schools in the United States and around the world, including Australia, Canada, England and Japan, have used the telescope successfully over the past seven years.

In 1999, the program enabled more than 10,850 students, located in 25 states, to conduct astronomical observations and meaningful research. Use of the system is free except for the purchase of the remote software, which controls the telescope.

The Delta rehabilitation facility is associated with and supports the Brain Injury Association, whose mission is to create a better future through brain injury prevention, research, education and advocacy. The prime mission at Delta Rehab is to help residents "live life," all of it. To that end, the staff, family members and volunteers from the surrounding community do their best to bring life and stimulation right to the residents.

Telescopes In Education is a NASA education outreach program sponsored by NASA's High Performance Computing and Communications Learning Technologies Program, the Office of Space Science and the Office of Human Resources and Education. JPL space exploration missions, businesses and numerous volunteers also support the program. Managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

"We are sincerely grateful to JPL and Mount Wilson for the Telescopes In Education Program. It's one of the best down-to-earth ideas they've ever come up with," added Walsh. "The program is all about tying people to the stars: the young, the disabled, the city bound and the imagination bound."

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