Innovators Developing Accessible Tools in Astronomy (IDATA)

If intelligent life without sight were to exist on some distant planet in our galaxy, these lifeforms would still explore the universe; how? This is a guiding question for Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA).

AUI logo
Yerkes Observatory logo
TERC logo
University of Nevada-Las Vegas logo
UNC-Chapel Hill logo
Logos Consulting Group LLC logo
NSF Logo
Students at Yerkes Observatory

During a visit to Yerkes Observatory, students from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired explore 3D printing and how the sense of touch can be used to explore astronomical images. Through the IDATA project these students will expand accessibility beyond touch, collaborating with others in the development of a new software tool making the universe more accessible for all.

IDATA is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and brings together blind and visually impaired (BVI) and sighted high school students and their teachers to create a fully accessible astronomy data request, retrieval and analysis software tool. Students and teachers will collaborate with astronomy and computing science professionals, and educators and education researchers in the design and development of the software as well as learning modules and tutorials that help students explore the role of computation in astronomy. The project team utilizes user-centered design/universal designing (UCD/UD) processes and the iterative method for the development and testing of software and the modules: improving access to our amazing universe for those with BVI related disabilities. Teachers and students who fully participate in IDATA will be considered co-developers in the project, and their contribution will be recognized in the dissemination of IDATA final products.

Education Research: IDATA is a NSF STEM+C project, and will work to advance knowledge and understanding of best practices in teaching and learning related to computation and computational thinking in astronomy and how participation influences students’ attitudes and beliefs about who can engage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and computing. The accessible software and instructional modules and tutorials produced by the project may be adopted by a range of BVI and sighted individuals, but may also be transferrable to other similarly visually-intensive domains such as satellite, geophysical, and medical imaging.

Check out IDATA in the news - “Making Astronomy Accessible to the Blind – Students Partner with Professionals to Build New Software Tool

IDATA's Andreas Stefik is featured here in a video about the Quorum programming language.

I’m not a teacher, how can I participate in IDATA? In addition to educators and students there will be other opportunities to participate in the project. The IDATA team, including participating students and teachers, will be hosting Google Hangouts, Reddit sessions, etc. to assess the needs of the user community and to field test pieces of the software as they are developed. We will be reaching out to the broader community throughout this process. If you are interested in participating, or just want to stay up to date with news about the project, please join the IDATA interest group; CLICK HERE: IDATA Interest Form

Let’s make a difference together…Join IDATA TODAY!

For more information or to receive updated news about IDATA, please contact IDATA project PI Tim Spuck at, or IDATA Project Educator Kate Meredith at

IDATA Leadership Team

(in alphabetical order)

Bret Feranchak
Principal Consultant and IDATA External Evaluator
Bret is responsible for Research, Evaluation, and Strategy at Logos Consulting Group, LLC (“Logos”). Logos works with clients, primarily in the academic, philanthropic, and not-for-profit sectors, in enhancing their evaluation utilization in order to improve programs, policies, and organizations. Previously he was Director of Program Evaluation and Applied Research for the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”), the nation’s third largest school district, where he directed the district’s internal evaluation efforts, including the conceptualization and implementation of a district plan for comprehensive program evaluation, and coordinated the work of external evaluators and researchers. This work included all aspects of program evaluation including fiscal oversight of the district’s multimillion dollar program evaluation portfolio. His evaluation work over the last fifteen years spans across numerous program areas, including the evaluation of mathematics, science, literacy, bilingual, early childhood, high school, and after school programs, as well as working with numerous clients on strategic planning processes related to their evaluation, performance management, and measurement functions. He was graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry and physics from the Honors Program at the University of Notre Dame. He did doctoral work at the University of Chicago where he received several fellowships including the Karl Max Probst Fellowship from the University of Chicago and a GAANN Fellowship from the U.S. Dept. of Education. Additionally, he is an active member of several professional societies, including the American Educational Research Association and the American Evaluation Association.
Send Email
Kathy Gustavson
IDATA Educator
Kathy is a retired high school physics and astronomy teacher from Nicolet High School in Glendale, WI, where she taught for 32 years. She has done extensive work with the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Astronomy Club, where the main emphasis is using the world’s two largest radio telescopes to look for a type of star remnant called a pulsar. She was also selected as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador and flew on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. She has been nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Math. She is active in the Yerkes Observatory outreach program to students and teachers, and still runs the Astronomy Club at her previous high school. She is involved in The National Space Society’s Enterprise in Space Academy where she puts together modules for students to study. She is also involved in Skynet Junior Scholars where students request images from telescopes around the world. These images are then used to answer questions students have about the objects they have imaged. Her philosophy in teaching to bring space science education to all people. Kathy has a BA in math and Physics, and a MS in science curriculum.
Send Email

Josh Haislip
University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill
Skynet’s Senior Systems Engineer and IDATA Software Development Lead
Dr. Al Harper
Yerkes Observatory - University of Chicago, Director of Yerkes Observatory and IDATA Co-PI

Dr. James K. L. Hammerman
TERC, Co-Director of SEEC and Senior Researcher and Evaluator, IDATA Co-PI
Dr. Hammerman‘s research and evaluation work builds on more than 30 years of experience in education, many spent as a teacher, teacher educator, and curriculum developer. Since joining TERC in 2001, Jim has served as principal investigator, lead evaluator, or senior researcher on more than two dozen externally funded research and evaluation projects, focusing on pedagogical and institutional change, mathematics education, environmental education, and data and statistics education. He is principal investigator on an NSF-funded evaluation of a mathematics teacher professional development program. Jim currently leads external evaluations for several projects, including an immersive computer environment for conducting experiments to explore causality and ecology, a state-wide initiative to engage rural youth in computing through programming an online game, and an effort to improve pedagogy among university STEM faculty. Jim has designed, implemented, and researched mathematics and science education curricula and professional development programs, as well as technology tools that support inquiry-oriented learning. He has taught students at levels ranging from kindergarten through graduate school, including methods courses for researchers. Jim is especially interested in adult developmental differences in professional development, data and statistics learning, online and software tools that support exploration, and supporting deeper learning and more reflective practice in professional communities. In his free time, Jim enjoys biking, sailing, gardening, music, and travel. He is also part of a Buddhist meditation group that he helped found. Jim earned his Ed.D. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Send Email
Kate Meredith
Yerkes Observatory - University of Chicago, Director of Education Outreach, and IDATA Project Educator
Kate Meredith has more than twenty-five years of teaching and curriculum development experience in both formal and informal education. Kate has engaged in curriculum development and project management for the Zooniverse, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Adler Planetarium Space and Science Museum, and Skynet Junior Scholars (University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory). Kate is passionate about programs that bring authentic research science to learners of all ages, languages, and abilities. Her work with the Zooniverse was to design classroom applications for scientific analysis tools and parent/child teams. Kate’s role with the National Science Foundation grant, Skynet Junior Scholars, was to ensure website accessibility for blind and low vision participants, to facilitate the translation of resource videos into American Sign Language, and to coordinate program modifications for use in summer camp programs for these special needs groups. Her work with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) education and public outreach aims to build bridges between the science, engineering, and big data access of the SDSS and learners of all abilities in diverse classrooms here in the US and in the SDSS Collaboration countries worldwide. Kate excels at building creative pathways for learners into complex science concepts. In July 2015, Kate became Director of Education Outreach at the University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory where her focus has been to build on the legacy of Yerkes Education Outreach as the leader in accessible and inclusive astronomy and STEM education. As Education Lead on the IDATA project, Kate looks forward to being part of the team that takes accessibility to the next level by creating vision-neutral data acquisition and analysis tools as well as the instructional materials needed to teach new users how to use and apply those tools. She sees her role as providing the structure, resources, and creative space that allow the education team to work in close cooperation with programmers and researchers so that the user-centered design process is evident in IDATA products. She will know she has succeeded when newcomers, regardless of visual ability, are able to complete every aspect of astronomy investigations from choosing a target to analyzing data and drawing conclusions without hearing the words, “Oh, just let me do that part for you.”
Send Email

Dr. Dan Reichart
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (Skynet), Director of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network and IDATA Co-PI
Dr. Reichart received B.S. degrees in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Physics, and Mathematics, and a minor in History, from the Pennsylvania State University in 1996. He received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Astronomy & Astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1998 and 2000. He then won a prestigious Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship, which he took to the California Institute of Technology. He joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002, where he is now a Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Dr. Reichart’s dissertation research on distant, cosmic explosions called gamma-ray bursts was ranked by Science Magazine as one of the top ten discoveries in science in 1999, and in 2003 earned him the Robert J. Trumpler Award, for top astrophysics dissertation research in North America. In 2005, he and his students discovered the most distant explosion in the universe yet known, a gamma-ray burst that occurred 12.9 billion years ago, when the universe was only 6% its current age. To date, Dr. Reichart has published 125 journal articles, including four in Nature and Science magazines, and has raised approaching $10 million for his research. He is also the recipient of the Carl Sagan Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Nathan Sugarman Award for Excellence in Research, the Donn MacMinn Award for Service beyond the Walls of the University, and Ernest F. Fullam Award of Dudley Observatory. Since arriving at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Reichart has been building “Skynet”. Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, Skynet is an ever-growing collection of fully automated, or robotic, professional-quality telescopes under the control of software developed by Dr. Reichart’s team. Currently, Skynet spans four continents and five countries, and consists of nearly twenty optical telescopes, with mirrors ranging in size from 14 inches to 1 meter in diameter, as well as a 20-meter diameter radio telescope. Skynet publishes in peer-reviewed journals, on average, once every three weeks, and simultaneously serves tens of thousands of students, of all ages, graduate school through elementary school.
Send Email
Tim Spuck
Associated Universities Inc. STEM Education Development Officer and IDATA PI
Tim has been a leader in STEM education for more than 20 years. His recent book, “Einstein Fellows: Best Practices in STEM Education”, earned the 2014 Peter Lang Publishing Book of the Year. In addition, Tim has developed and led a range of programs focusing on astronomy and STEM-related education. He currently serves as PI on three NSF supported programs including, Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy, the Chile-US Astronomy Education Outreach Summit, and the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program. Prior to his role with AUI, he served as an Einstein Fellow at NSF-EHR Division of Graduate Education, taught astronomy and earth sciences at the high school and college levels for more than 20 years, and served as K–12 Science Coordinator for Oil City Schools. He has led numerous professional development programs throughout the United States and abroad, and has developed a variety of astronomy experiences for learners of all ages. His students regularly engaged in authentic astronomy research, and have been recognized throughout the scientific community for their discoveries. Tim’s own contributions have been recognized through the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics Educator Achievement Award, Tandy Technology Scholars Award, the Pennsylvania Christa McAuliffe Fellowship, PolarTREC, NITARP, TLRBSE, and numerous other STEM education awards and programs. Tim also remains active within the amateur astronomy community, has directed numerous outreach efforts, and led several small-scale observatory design and construction projects. He earned his Masters degree in Science Education from Clarion University or PA, and is completing his Ed.D. in Curriculum & Instruction at West Virginia University.
Send Email

Andreas Stefik
University of Nevada - Las Vegas, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and IDATA Co-PI
For the last decade, Dr. Stefik has been creating technologies that make it easier for people, including those with disabilities, to write computer software. With grants from the National Science Foundation, he helped establish the first national educational infrastructure for blind or visually impaired students to learn computer science. He is the inventor of Quorum, the first evidence-oriented programming language. The design of Quorum is based on rigorous empirical data from experiments on human behavior. As part of his work, he is a PI on the NSF-funded AccessCS10K grant that is helping CS 10K projects prepare K-12 teachers to be more inclusive in their computing courses with students with disabilities. Most recently, Dr. Stefik was honored with the 2016 White House Champions of Change award in computer science education.

Andreas at the White House

Send Email

IDATA External Advisory Board Members

Clara Van Gerven
Jerrigan Institute at the National Federation of the Blind
Clara Van Gerven is the manager of accessibility programs at the National Federation of the Blind. She has been working on all the varied ways blindness and technology intersect for the last ten years. In her work at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Clara has been an advocate for and educator on access for blind people to the web, images, books, consumer electronics and any other devices and information. With the access technology team, she hosts a variety of trainings and events on access technology, web accessibility and eBooks, as well as a series of free shorter format trainings, the accessibility boutiques, a blog, and a technology resource list. She also manages the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC). A comprehensive evaluation, demonstration, and training center, complete with over $2.5 million worth of nearly all of the tactile and speech output technology now available to the blind, the IBTC serves as a rich resource for vendor-free advice on all aspects of access technology. The team works as part of the NFB Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Education, Public Information, and Commerce (CENA) The CENA serves to share the considerable knowledge that the NFB and its partners have of web accessibility and access technology in order to bring about greater accessibility in government, education, and business; to promote best practices nationally; and to build Maryland’s status as leader in the field.
Send email
Ed Summers
SAS and the North Carolina Commission for the Blind
Ed Summers is a blind software engineer and an accessibility specialist. He has a B.S. in Computer Science and more than 20 years of professional experience as a software developer and a development manager. Ed’s personal mission is to enable people with disabilities to realize their full potential in the classroom and the 21st century knowledge economy. He fulfills that mission as a leader in the software industry and disability-related not-for-profit organizations.

Ed is a Distinguished Technical Leader and Senior Manager of Accessibility at SAS, the market leader in business analytics software and services that is used at more than 80,000 sites around the world. The SAS accessibility team enables users of all abilities to access the power of analytics. Ed also serves as the Chair of the North Carolina State Board of Education Advisory Council for the Governor Morehead School for the Blind.

Send email

Dr. Kathryn Williamson
West Virginia University
Kathryn Williamson grew up in Georgia and got her undergraduate degree in Physics & Astronomy before moving to Montana State University for graduate school. She worked as the Public Education Specialist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV, for 3 years, before joining the West Virginia University Department of Physics in January 2016. She has engaged students and teachers in inquiry-based astronomy investigations using radio telescopes both in-person and online, and she collaborates on projects such as Skynet Junior Scholars and the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. Her current area of research focuses on how youth in out-of-school-time science clubs learn to see themselves as scientists and choose to pursue careers in science.
Send email
Dr. Luisa Rebull
California Institute of Technology
Luisa Rebull is a research astronomer at the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) at Caltech/IPAC. She has always wanted to be an astronomer, ever since she was very little. She got her undergraduate degree in physics from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and her graduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago. Luisa has been working in Education and Public Outreach in various venues (paid and volunteer) since 1993. From bringing the internet to (and incorporating it into the curriculum in) 25 Chicago inner-city public schools, to interpreting scientific images for the public, to countless public talks, to partnering with teachers to incorporate real astronomy research into the classroom (in NITARP), she’s been bringing astronomy to teachers for nearly 25 years. She is an active researcher in astronomy, with more than 120 refereed publications; she primarily studies star formation in our Galaxy and stellar rotation.
Send email

Dr. Russ Laher
California Institute of Technology
I am a member of the professional staff at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, where I have worked since 1997. I grew up in Wyoming in the 1960s and 70s, and began an intense interest in computer programming in my early teens. I attended Utah State University in Logan, UT, earning B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics with minors in geology and mathematics (1979-1987).

As a USU Getaway Special Principal Investigator, I designed and built an autonomous scientific experimental apparatus to measure the thermal conductivity of an oil/water mixture, which flew on the fourth NASA Space Shuttle mission. My first job after college involved spectroscopic studies of air bombarded by nuclear-weapon explosions. Later, I worked on artificial neural networks for target detection. I earned an MBA from Pepperdine University in 2006 while working full time. I developed a user-friendly software package for astronomers and students of astronomy, called Aperture Photometry Tool (APT), over almost a decade (, which is used worldwide and has been downloaded more than 15,000 times. I was a key software engineer for processing images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and more recently for the Palomar Transient Factory. I am currently developing software for processing the unprecedented massive data volume expected from the Zwicky Transient Facility in 2017 and beyond. I have authored or coauthored more than 100 scientific and engineering papers in various peer-reviewed journals, including Physical Review and Nature. I have made numerous trips to Japan and Europe, and I maintain an active and outdoors lifestyle.

Send email
Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced
International Astronomical Union
Wanda Diaz Merced is from Gurabo, Puerto Rico. She has a multidisciplinary PhD from the University of Glasgow in Scotland where she researched the use of sound as a perceptual tool while analyzing diversity in astrophysics data sets. As a blind physicist, Diaz-Merced conducted research on using multimodal perception using ERP and behavioral psychology to investigate how attention mechanisms and coping strategies influence the analysis of ambiguous astrophysics data. Diaz-Merced's current emphasis is on attention modulation, the prevention of cognitive overload, functional analysis, automaticity when analyzing space physics data. She has developed multimodal perception techniques to analyze radio, x-ray, gamma ray, and magnetic fluctuation data from a constellation of satellites. Her techniques tested efficient ways to find events that otherwise had been ignored.

Dr. Diaz Merced is collaborating with Dr. Margarita Karovska in using sound to analyze spectral variability in the symbiotic system CH-Cygni, and she has been able to identify periodicities in high granularity in space data generated by this symbiotic system. Dr. Diaz-Merced is applying the perception techniques she developed to aurally decompose the data into its different frequency components. She used sound to identify periods of pulsating stars like CH Cygni, which is a cataclysmic variable X-ray source. The analysis of error determined that the events identified by Dr. Diaz Merced do exist.

Dr. Diaz Merced is co-chair of the National Society of Black Physicists multimodal accessibility project, is a member of The American Astronomical Society Working Group on Disability and Accessibility, and coordinates the global project Astrosense which encourages and facilitates traditional and disabled learners in doing research in astronomy. She has taken a post doctoral position at the Office of Astronomy for Development in South Africa where she will be working with students and teachers from the Athlone School for the Blind in South Africa to develop lessons that engage students in astronomy. As part of this project, students from the school will be hosting local radio broadcasts of the solar weather report for the day. Dr. Diaz-Merced's research seeks to measure the impact of hands-on science and astronomy lessons on these students' interest in taking math and science classes. Currently, few of these students take math or science beyond the seventh grade.

When she is not in South Africa, Dr. Diaz Merced will be working from Yerkes Observatory as Project Scientist for IDATA. She will lead the user-centered, universal design process with teams of sighted and BVI students and will supervise graduate students' assistance. She will also, of course, continue to lend her expertise in sonification to our goal of providing new and innovative ways to present astronomical data in multimodal ways.

Send email