Manipulating Numerical Data and Applying Rules to Create Lists and Plots with Excel

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Making Data Analysis Tool Accessible

NITARP is part of an effort to engage students in science classrooms around the country in authentic scientific investigations. If we want more BVI students to become actively engaged in science, we must create and adapt tools to enable them to analyze data from primary sources. All of us working on this CG4 project are blind to the infrared light we used to detect the young stellar objects embedded in nebular clouds of dust and gas. As is common in scientific research, we used a tool, the Spitzer Space Telescope, to enable us to observe what is otherwise hidden. Thus, new assistive technology enables new discovery. The irony lies in the next steps of investigation. The primary data is converted into a form that is accessible to those already engaged in its study. However, it is common for the data and the tools used to analyze such data to remain inaccessible to those unable to efficiently interact with a computer screen without appropriate accommodations. For those, the information gathered from infrared light remains hidden.

Part of our work involved working with data files of light sources generated from archives of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Magnitude-color and color-color analysis of objects listed in these files require import into a spreadsheet or more specialized software. The specialized software is not written to be accessible for blind users. Also, the data files were not available in a form that was easily imported into a spreadsheet. The formatting task is tedious for a sighted computer user and impractical for a blind user. Although there are limitations to the sizes of the data files when using a spreadsheet, functions and macros in a spreadsheet could make the data more accessible.

As a science teacher, I have some success teaching blind students to use Microsoft Excel with the JAWS screenreader. JAWS is one brand of assistive technology for blind computer users that reads screen content. Other screenreaders are available just as there are other brands of spreadsheet applications. A monitor and a mouse are only useful to users dependent on sight to access their computers. A screenreader reads information from the computer screen out loud in a way that allows computer users to navigate in a Microsoft Windows environment and access content in applications without a monitor. It also enables a user to perform all computer tasks with keyboard strokes rather than a mouse.

Specifically, I have designed an Microsoft Excel 2010 spreadsheet to import data from a text file listing magnitude and other information by spectrum band for each of thousands of light sources. Originally, importing a data file involved many vision-dependent, mouse-dependent, and time-consuming steps of nudging field sizes on a screen to eliminate errors of cell contents where codes and numbers were misread during the importing process. My spreadsheet allows the file to be imported into its own worksheet with only a few keyboard presses. Functions to corresponding cells within another worksheet replace the manual formatting of field sizes. I created macros with more cell formulas to reduce the number of keystrokes needed to navigate the spreadsheet, to select bands for analysis, and to form user-generated filters to separate potential "young stellar objects" from other light sources. Therefore, users are able to perform magnitude-color and color-color analysis without using a computer monitor or a mouse. Graph templates are provided to allow users to generate visual plots. Another version of the graph temple is available for use by a graphic embosser or swell-form paper machine to generate tactile plots.

This assistive technology allows me an opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility of designing analysis tools to enable blind students and scientists opportunities to make their own unique contributions to science. Please consider this effort to be only one example of what is possible. I see similar opportunities to develop program code for specialized tasks involving data analysis for blind users.