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New Mexico teacher, NMSU grad attracts national attention for helping students succeed

Jeff Killebrew, a graduate of New Mexico State University, has a lot to brag about. He?s won national recognition and was recently chosen to train with NASA scientists aboard an airborne observatory 43,000 feet above the Earth.


Photo of a man and two children with a model of a cell.
Jeff Killebrew, far right, is an NMSU graduate and a science teacher at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He has attracted national attention for two devices he invented to help blind students learn math and science concepts, and for recently training with NASA scientists aboard an airborne observatory. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)
Photo of a man seated at a table with a boy.
Jeff Killebrew, right, teaches biology to a student at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Killebrew has attracted national attention for two devices he invented to help blind students learn math and science concepts, and for recently training with NASA scientists aboard an airborne observatory. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chavez)

But Killebrew?s main focus is becoming a role model for the students in his science classes at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Alamogordo. Killebrew said he wants to help them realize they can accomplish anything despite their impairment, and has gone as far as developing two teaching aids that help students conceptualize scientific and mathematical processes.

?The biggest thing with our students is, besides not being able to see and not being up to their grade levels as far as their education process goes, is believing in themselves,? Killebrew said. ?They?ve never been able to really believe in their abilities and have the confidence. Having their teacher be a part of this, and I belong to them, they take great pride in saying, ?Mr. K is my teacher. He did this and if he can do this, then I can do something with my life.??

Killebrew graduated from the NMSU College of Education in 2003 with a secondary education degree with an emphasis in science.

?Many of the classes I took within the College of Education were beneficial for my career here at NMSBVI,? Killebrew said. ?I always took what was being taught in both the education and science courses and tried to translate the concepts toward applying them to these types of students.?

Killebrew said that after graduating from NMSU, the superintendent at the New Mexico School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired at the time asked Killebrew if he would start the school?s science program.

?There was no science program when I came here, there was nothing,? Killebrew said. ?We have been all over this campus teaching, literally, in a garage for a couple of years, on a stage for a year, and now we have this wonderful new building with what is probably the best high school science lab in southern New Mexico.?

In 2008, Killebrew was teaching chemistry when he and his students came across a concept ? dimensional analysis ? that Killebrew didn?t know how to teach to them. That led to Killebrew creating what he calls the System for Conceptualizing Spatial Concepts, or (SC)2, which uses a system of beveled, magnetized blocks on a magnetic white board to spatially arrange 3x5 cards that have been converted to Braille with symbols or units into scientific formulae and mathematical equations. The 3x5 cards are easily removed when it is determined that a unit should be eliminated.

After realizing his students successfully learned dimensional analysis using (SC)2, he applied for a prize from the National Braille Press and won the 2009 Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. The next year, after developing the Touch Grids graphing system for his students to graph data points, Killebrew received honorable mention for the same prize, becoming the only person to receive the recognition twice.

Since then, Killebrew was selected as a NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador for the SOFIA, or Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, program. Killebrew is the first formal educator from New Mexico to be selected, and the only teacher for the visually impaired in the nation to participate.

The SOFIA aircraft is a Boeing 747SP with the back end modified to make room for a 100-inch diameter telescope mirror. The inside of the aircraft has been gutted to make room for scientific observing stations and flies at an altitude of 43,000 feet, placing it above most of the Earth?s water vapor. The plane?s altitude helps scientists observe infrared energy to map black holes, forming stars and other objects in space.

?It was a wonderful way to be able to see how NASA conducts research and how they work together,? Killebrew said. ?For me, it?s unique because the infrared portion of the spectrum is invisible to the human eye. We can only see the visible portion of the spectrum, so scientists have learned how to develop special instruments to see this invisible energy. I deal with students who can?t see anyway, so helping them see the unseen is really an exciting proposition.?

Killebrew said he is working with a NASA scientist to develop new learning tools to help students at Killebrew?s school experience the infrared portion of the spectrum. Killebrew has already developed an infrared image of the Orion constellation into tactile images.

?Students are able to actually feel the difference in the topography of the dots that are on the paper,? Killebrew said.

Killebrew said that since graduating from NMSU, he has had contact with a few of his professors, including his chemistry professor William Boyle. However, Killebrew said since he lives in Alamogordo, he has limited contact with his former professors.

Deanna Casarez, a freshman at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said Killebrew has made a difference in the way she thinks about her future.

?He?s definitely made me see that a career in science is a possibility,? Casarez said. ?He?s shown me that it isn?t hard, anybody can do it as long as you really set your mind to it. Even with the disabilities that we have, we can still explore and learn.?

Killebrew?s colleague Jerri Young, an assistive technologies teacher at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said she thinks Killebrew is an inspiration to everyone at the school.

?At one point in time, people who are blind or visually impaired were kept in a single room and you never let them out,? Young said. ?Now, they?re getting out there and they?re doing things and the impossible has become possible for them. He (Killebrew) is always thinking about what he can do to make something a reality for our students.?