Carnegie Mellon University
October 16, 2013

iStep 2013: Technology for the Blind

iStep 2013: Technology for the Blind

Maddie Gioffre (CEE, BME '15)Maddie Gioffre (CEE, BME '15)

Three CIT students–Maddie Gioffre (CEEBME '15), Aditya Kodkany (ECE '15) and Vivek Nair (ECE' 15)–spent their summer working on technology to assist visually impaired children. They worked with a CMU team in Bangalore, India through the Mathru Educational Trust for the Blind.

Among the team's impressive accomplishments: enhancing three technologies created by previous CMU researchers. These include two forms of Braille Writing Tutors, and software that enables blind students to experience graphics by printing them out as braille patterns.

The students were competitively selected for the innovative Student Technology ExPerience (iSTEP) internship, which enabled them to travel to India and put the skills they learned at CMU to use. Gioffre, Kodkany and Nair were joined in Bangalore by CMU's Madeleine Clute (CS '14), Poornima Kaniarasu (CS '13), Shree Lakshmi Rao (A '13) and Avia Weinstein (MCS '14) from CMU's Pittsburgh campus, and Aveed Sheikh (TPR '14) from CMU's Qatar campus.

The interdisciplinary nature of the team was essential to the group's success.

"The variety of tasks we worked on in partnership with Mathru School for the Blind and TechBridgeWorld could not have been accomplished without the breadth and depth of experience carried by this summer's interdisciplinary team of interns," said Nair.

The iSTEP internship is a global effort, with TechBridgeWorld remotely supervising from CMU's campus in Pittsburgh.

The goal of the Braille Writing Tutor is to provide an affordable and accessible means for children and adults in underserved communities around the world to learn how to write braille using the locally available slate and stylus method.

The original version of the device, which is connected to a computer, provides immediate audio feedback as the user writes on the electronic slate with the stylus. The tutor also teaches the basics, guides writing, corrects mistakes, provides opportunities for practice, and motivates students through educational games.

"We have to keep in mind the restrictions that the Mathru Trust faces, and implement the features of the tutor accordingly. For example, to work around any problems with internet connectivity, we had to make sure that a library of images could be built," explained Kodkany. "And the user interface had to be easy and accessible enough for both blind teachers and those who did not have too much experience with computers in general."

Boy from India in iStep classroom.The iSTEP 2013 team also researched the feasibility of connecting the tutor to an Android smartphone instead of a computer, for added portability. They also significantly enhanced the newest standalone version of this tutor, which is based on the original tutor, has onboard computing and is battery powered, which makes the device even more portable, while maintaining affordability.

A new course offered this past spring by the Robotics Institute's M. Bernadine Dias and CSC's David Kosbie called "Software Development for Social Good" produced new code written by CMU students that the iSTEP team incorporated into their projects.

In addition to software development, the iSTEP team maximized their time with the Mathru school by conducting extensive interviews and user tests, and analyzing data in order to fully understand the impact of and potential improvements to the tutors. The CMU interns also trained the Mathru teachers to effectively use computers and other technology available to them at the school.

The team also assessed the needs of a new multi-disability center in preparation for the iSTEP 2014 team to return to Bangalore next summer for continued work with Mathru.

"This experience has really taught me how to think on my feet and how to adapt to any situation," said Gioffre. "We had to deal with random power outages and many different delays. I am a better teacher because I had to learn to teach individuals who learn differently because of their vision impairment. I gained many skills that will surely help me in my career in the future."

Relive the iSTEP 2013's journey in India by reading their daily blog and Twitter feed, liking their Facebook page, and watching their videos on YouTube.

Pictured top (l-r): Aditya Kodkany, Vivek Nair, Poornima Kaniarasu, Aveed Sheikh, Madelyn "Maddie" Gioffre, Madeleine Clute, Avia Weinstein

Pictured bottom: A student from the iStep team's class in India.

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