Researchers at the University of Illinois are creating innovative teaching tools,in what could be a boon for kids with visual disabilities, and are expected to help the children learn mathematics more easily - and perhaps multiply their career opportunities by the time they reach adulthood.
Sheila Schneider, who is a senior and the first student who is legally blind to major in sculpture in the School of Art+Design within the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Illinois, is creating a series of small sculptures with mathematical equations imprinted on them in Braille that will be used to help children with visual impairments learn mathematics.
The equations will be written in Nemeth Code, a form of Braille used for mathematical and scientific symbols.
"The sculptures are organic forms that are designed to be hand-held by children around the ages of 7-10. They're designed from the viewpoint of a younger child," said Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design and the lead investigator on the project.
"They're very engaging, fun educational tools, and when the children run their hands over them, they'll realize that there are Braille equations embedded within the forms. We're hoping that they'll become mainstream educational tools," added McDonagh.
Traditionally, children with visual disabilities are taught to solve mathematical problems using abacuses, tools that may seem antiquated in today's world and foster stigmatization, Schneider said.
"We're trying to bring the education of visually impaired children more up to date, rather than relying on staid methods of doing things. We're hoping to eliminate this idea that blind children have to learn math with an abacus because they can't see to write on a piece of paper. We're trying to eliminate the stigma and provide them with a method of engaging in and with math," said Schneider.
"We're hoping that as they grow older, they'll become more interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields."
Schneider sculpted six models, each a few inches in diameter, from cubes of balsa foam.
The models are being translated into three-dimensional computer images to finalize the shapes and position the equations before the sculptures are cast from bronze, a durable material that can withstand extensive handling and occasionally being dropped.
"Where you and I might place the Braille equations is of no consequence. When children with visual impairments are handling the sculptures, and reading them with their fingertips, it's got to make sense to them where we place the Braille in three-dimensional space," said McDonagh.
Once the sculptures have been cast, the next step will be to have children with visual impairments and their teachers use them in math instruction to assess the sculptures' efficacy as teaching tools.