Dec. 5, 2017 • by Sue Postema Scheeres
When Shalini Menon was growing up, textured diagrams of lungs or a math equation brought to life science and math concepts that she couldn’t see.
Menon’s mother often worked late into the night to create these tactile pictures so that Menon, who is blind, could visualize the material before it was taught in school.
Now Menon is drawing on this personal experience to teach others how to make books and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning materials more accessible to children who are visually impaired.
Since August, Menon has been working as a research assistant with the CU Boulder-based Build a Better Book Project, run by computer science Assistant Professor Tom Yeh in collaboration with CU Science Discovery and the School of Education.
“I want more blind kids to get involved with STEM learning," said Menon, who is from Bangalore, India. "I really want to give back and help blind people be successful.”
When Menon came to CU Boulder last summer, she was searching for a way to use her knowledge and skills and the book project was a natural fit.
Yeh started the Tactile Picture Books Project in 2012 to create 3D books for visually impaired children around the world; it is funded through a CU Boulder Outreach Award and received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2016.
Recently renamed the Build a Better Book Project, it now focuses on designing books and materials that are accessible to children with a variety of learning needs. Community members – including middle and high school students – are participating in design workshops at schools and public library technology hubs known as Makerspaces in Boulder and other local communities.
“This project has offered a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with so many great people, including colleagues at CU Boulder, students, teachers, parents and community experts,” Yeh said. “As an educator, it’s been rewarding to see young students engaged in this community effort to make books for children with visual impairments.”
Menon has been assisting with workshops, analyzing data in Yeh's lab and also helping explore ways to create effective STEM learning tools and games, said Stacey Forsyth, director of Science Discovery and co-principal investigator on the project.
“Shalini has given us a greater appreciation of the important role that tactile graphics play for blind students who are pursuing STEM fields,” Forsyth said.
Faculty, staff and graduate students run the project. In addition, undergraduate interns from the Engineering GoldShirt Program and School of Education who are first-generation, underrepresented in engineering and/or English-language learners receive training and mentoring in how to design and make custom materials for the visually impaired.
At a recent workshop for these interns, Menon showed the students a model of a tooth her mother created using cardboard, aluminum foil and spongy material to represent different parts of the tooth. She explained that effective diagrams for the blind use different textures with a variety of thicknesses, are large enough for a blind person to be able to discern the object and have Braille labels.
“Sighted people use colors to distinguish between different aspects of a picture on a page,” she said. “For someone who is blind, they need different textures to be able to distinguish between different parts of a diagram.”
Forsyth said that Menon's contributions have been invaluable.
“You should see the look on students’ faces when she touches one of their designs and recognizes what they were trying to represent,” Forsyth said. “They look so proud when they realize they’re on the right track with their design.”
For Menon, the Build a Better Book Project is a way to make a difference.
Adopted at 3 months old, she does not take for granted the time and effort her parents and siblings spent so that she could thrive in a sighted world.
It wasn’t easy. Most schools and teachers in her community had never taught a blind student, so the materials her mother created became essential learning tools. Menon remembers using her fingers to memorize diagrams of a lung and heart so that she could understand the circulatory system before her teachers taught the material.
“My parents wanted me to live in the world and to have an inclusive education where people talked about colors and video games and other things I couldn’t see, so that I could communicate with people who have sight,” she said. “They taught me not to say no, but to push for what I want.”
When she moved to the U.S. to attend Amherst College, Menon had to discover what she needed from professors to learn new concepts. It started with a calculus professor who met with Menon weekly to figure out how to make the math curriculum accessible for her; other math teachers in the department also adopted these techniques.
"It pushed me to keep going, to figure out how to anticipate what I would need to know to learn new material,” she said.
Once Menon graduated in May with a math degree, she started looking for a project that helps blind students and families; family connections led her to Science Discovery and Yeh’s lab.
What's next for Menon? She is considering graduate school in financial engineering and has reached out to faculty at colleges across the country to discover how they would work with her. It's an area that has not traditionally drawn many visually impaired people, which only makes it even more exciting for this driven young woman.
After all, there are always new barriers to be shattered.