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Learning to fly

Colorado Center for the Blind students take a field trip to indoor skydiving facility

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Three years ago, Chris Harper lost his sight to glaucoma. He has been at the Colorado Center for the Blind since May, where he is adjusting to life without vision. The school in downtown Littleton teaches independence, helps students navigate their surroundings and incorporates a variety of field trips — rock climbing, skiing, whitewater rafting — that have an educational component.

On Nov. 13, for the first time as a school, students learned about STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — before flying through a vertical wind tunnel that replicates the feeling of sky diving at iFLY Denver in Lone Tree.

“I wish they’d let us do it outside,” said Harper, 51, grinning cheerfully. “It will be fun.”

iFLY has been hosting what it calls iSTEM camps to schools across the region for more than three years. Kindergartners through university students attend the facility, at 9230 Park Meadows Drive, for a workshop that teaches components of STEM, such as aerodynamics, math and physics, through projects that test how balls, balloons and other materials behave in the wind tunnel. With the assistance of instructors, students then get to fly in the tunnel.

“It’s a great way to learn,” said iFLY’s lead instructor Mike Silva. “When you do something that is fun, it sticks with you more.”

For Colorado Center for the Blind’s field trip, iFLY modified the iSTEM curriculum and program materials were translated into braille for students. The prep time for the group of 23 students ages 18 to 40 years old was about 10 hours, said Florence Bocquet, who runs the iSTEM program.

“It’s giving them the freedom of flying,” Bocquet said, “when they don’t have the freedom of seeing.”

iFLY instructors built a mini wind tunnel out of Legos so students could touch what they would soon be flying in. Balloons were filled with water so they could get a sense of wind resistance. Instructors taught cues — thumbs down meant a student was not comfortable in the wind tunnel — and assisted each person with gentle movements.

“We have to teach them through feeling,” Silva said. “It’s really clever ways of adapting the course — it’s challenging, fun and rewarding.”

Some students were born without vision. Others lost their vision in an accident or were losing it over time due to an eye disorder.

They live in an apartment complex near Colorado Center for the Blind, 2233 W Shepperd Ave., for the duration of the program, which is up to nine months.

“They will help you get back onto your feet and show you how to navigate by yourself,” said Harper, who is from Georgia and used to work in the STEM field. “There is a lot of opportunity.”

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