By Josh Miele, Associate Director of Technology Research and Development, Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Low Vision and Blindness at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute
PHOTO: STEM session student Rose McDougald plugs wire into an Arduino board.
Not everyone gets excited about building robots, but the students who are blind or have low vision that I worked with last week at the Enchanted Hills STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Camp definitely do. While most mainstream schools offer robotics clubs, programming classes, or electronics workshops, they often don’t know how to support participation by kids with visual disabilities. This workshop was part of The Blind Arduino Project – a larger effort to teach students and teachers about accessible electronics techniques, encouraging the participation of blind students in mainstream STEM-learning opportunities.
STEM session students Sergio Ramirez, left, and Lachlan Ryan give the thumbs while working on an Arduino board.
The sessions I taught at STEM Camp introduced blind kids to building robots and other electronic devices with Arduino – an inexpensive microprocessor that makes it extremely easy to design and build powerful automated gadgets with amazing capabilities. In a hands-on workshop, the students learned non-visual techniques for identifying electronic components, tracing wires and navigating the multitude of connections on an Arduino board. The kids learned about what Arduino can do, how to wire up sensors, speakers and motors, and even how to write their own programs to control the devices. But the most important thing they learned was that blind people can make stuff with Arduino. These young blind makers are now excited to bring that knowledge to school in the fall, ready to help their teachers make electronics learning accessible.
One of the aims of the Blind Arduino Project is to design devices to solve real-world accessibility challenges. Few experiences are more empowering than recognizing a barrier, designing a solution and building it yourself. For me, the greatest pleasure of the workshop came when two STEM students approached me with an idea. They had noticed that there were no audio indicators on the camp’s archery targets. They asked, “Could we use an Arduino to make a customizable beeper so we can hear where the target is?”
As a blind scientist who has built a career on finding creative technology solutions to accessibility challenges, this question thrilled me. These kids had a problem and they had independently designed and proposed a solution. After only a few hours of experience working with Arduino they were already using it to solve their own accessibility problems. Give them a few more years of experience and who knows what problems they will be ready to attack? What could be more personally and professionally satisfying than that?
“Yes, you definitely can,” I told them. “I’ll be right here if you need help.”
Beginning in October, Josh Miele is starting a Blind Arduino Monthly Meetup (BAMM) that will convene at the new LightHouse Building.