Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science

Contests and Competitions


Wonders of the World

Archaeology Decade

Medical Decade

Environment Decade

Decade in Space

Series Catalog

Letter to Educators
in the classroom

The Frontiers Decade:
Medical Decade

People -- their memories and behavior -- have been important subjects for Frontiers over the years. Stories on different facets of psychology provided fascinating insights into how our minds work. As technology revealed more about the inner workings of the brain, Frontiers reported many of the remarkable discoveries made in the last decade of the 20th century.


Born with cerebral palsy, Kara Johansen was unable to talk throughout childhood and adolescence. Since she could not speak, an alphabet board was devised so she could communicate with her friends and family. To see just how challenging this way of communicating can be, make an alphabet board and use it to conduct a conversation or answer questions in class. Practice with a board containing just a few letters until you get the knack of eyeing the letters to spell words. Then make a more complicated board that will allow you to spell out complete sentences.


  • sheet of clear plastic or Plexiglas about 1 square foot (clear plastic report covers could be used if held in a firm frame)

  • letters with adhesive backs (if letters are not available, write letters with crayon or wax marking pencil or other kind of marker)

Note: Plastic scratches easily. Remove pencil marks with a soft cloth dampened with a mild cleaning solution.


Work with a partner in this activity.

  1. Apply the letters A, E, T, C, K, I and S anywhere on the board. Separate each letter by 5 cm or more.

  2. One of you should take the role of sender and the other person, receiver.

  3. Sender and receiver should stand about two meters apart. The receiver holds the board at arm's length.

  4. To spell a word, the sender looks at a letter. As the sender keeps looking at the letter, the receiver moves the board so that his/her sight is directly in line with the sender's gaze. The letter falling directly in the middle of the sight line is called out. (If possible, watch the original video about Kara Johansen in "Speaking for Herself" [It's a Kid's World, Show 505,] to see how Kara and her mother use the board to communicate.)

  5. The sender acknowledges that the letter is correct. If so, the sender continues spelling the word. If not, sender and receiver need to try again. Using the first board with just a few letters, you can spell many two-, three- and four-letter words.


  1. Designing the communications board. When you make a board with more letters, how will you position them? Will you place vowels next to each other or separate them with consonants? Should you include numbers or symbols? Experiment with your new design. After your board is complete and you've tested it with your partner, hold a classroom challenge to find out which board design is most efficient.

  2. Keyboard connection. A computer or keyboard is arranged in a pattern known as the QWERTY layout (originally designed to make typists type slower so the typewriter keys would not jam). Would you use the QWERTY layout on your see-through communication board? Would letters in alphabetical order or another arrangement work better?

  3. Communication chemistry. Suppose you need a board to communicate chemical formulas or math equations. How would you design the board? Create a board to use in chemistry or another science class and use it for part of the class time.


What are some of the ways technology is helping the disabled communicate? Frontiers stories about technology for the disabled include "Designing a Better Wheelchair" (Show 302), "Activating Paralyzed Muscles" in Superhumans and Bionics (Show 401), "Spring Man" in Science of Sports (Show 405) and "Isaac and Friends" in Nordic Sagas (Show 803).


Frontiers shows about the brain include "Curing the Storm in the Head" (Scientific Breakthroughs in Germany, Show 402), "Image-Guided Surgery" (21st Century Medicine, Show 605) and "Remembering What Matters" (Pieces of Mind, Show 703). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.