Narragansett Bay Research Reserve recognized for access to deaf, hard of hearing

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently recognized the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBNERR) for exceptional work advancing access to coastal resources for people with disabilities.

Acting NOAA head Timothy Gallaudet acknowledged NBNERR and two other research reserves for their exceptional work and dedication to bringing estuarine literacy to the deaf and hard of hearing at NOAA’s recent Senior Executive Service Summit.

As part of its Teachers of the Estuary (TOTE) program, NBNERR staff collaborated with other research reserves and educators of deaf persons to develop video modules in American Sign Language (ASL) for estuarine and coastal terminology and to develop field experiences for teachers and students.

NBNERR is a partnership program established between NOAA and DEM to promote informed management and sound stewardship of coastal resources. Located in the geographic center of Narragansett Bay on Prudence Island, NBNERR conducts long-term research, education, monitoring, and training initiatives to preserve, protect, and restore the Bay’s coastal and estuarine ecosystems.

“DEM is committed to improving access to Narragansett Bay and our coastal waters so that all Rhode Islanders and visitors can enjoy these magnificent natural resources,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “NBNERR’s new video education project is an innovative way to bring estuarine literacy to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. We are proud of NBNERR’s commitment to connecting people of all abilities to nature.”

“This project has been incredibly fulfilling and illuminating as to the challenges that deaf and hard of hearing students and teachers have when it comes to coastal science concepts,” said NBNERR Education Coordinator Maureen Dewire. “We are excited to be hosting a field trip for the high school students from the RI School for the Deaf next spring.”

Currently, there are no broadly shared ASL signs for coastal concepts such as “estuary” and “watershed.” As a result, deaf students often first encounter and learn complex STEM concepts and vocabulary presented as finger spelled English words —rather than signed in ASL. Watershed Stewardship in Action: Deaf Students on the Estuary is the partner effort that developed ASL vocabulary and instructional videos for the ecological sciences, testing them at TOTE workshops with graduate students from Boston University’s Deaf Education Program.

The participating teachers and interpreters work in schools for the deaf in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine, and will introduce their students to estuary and watershed concepts before taking field trips to their nearby research reserve. This is a major step for deaf and hard of hearing people entering STEM (science/ technology/engineering/math) careers, as only 0.2 percent enter careers in STEM fields compared with 15 percent of the general population, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2011).

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 29 coastal sites designated to protect and study estuarine systems, so they can serve as long-term platforms for research and education. Established through the Coastal Zone Management Act, the reserves represent a partnership program between NOAA and the coastal states. Designated in 1980, the NBNERR includes nearly 4,500 acres of coastal lands on Prudence, Patience, Hope, and Dyer Islands. NBNERR manages these habitats for long-term sustainability and draws on local and national resources to conduct and support estuarine research and develop tools and training for informed bay management. NBNERR serves as a living laboratory for educational programs for all ages; it also provides access for passive public recreation including birding, hiking, and fishing.

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