High Schoolers Collaborate with Public Library Makerspace on Authentic Projects for Visually-Impaired Students

The partnership benefits the New Jersey students, who are learning accessible design and to create with empathy and imagination, as well as the blind and visually-impaired kids, who not only get to play the games but have a voice in the process.

A prototype of the game Risk by the Mountain Lakes (NJ) High School ­students, working in collaboration with the town’s public library makerspace.


 

Brandon Horn’s computer science curriculum at Mountain Lakes (NJ) High School (MLHS) always included a project. To get maximum buy-in from students, he would try to assign topics that interested them and would result in a product they would not only want to show to friends but could also use themselves. In the end, though, it was still just another academic exercise.

“A lot of projects in school are—I don’t want to say fake—they’re a bit contrived in the sense that they’re done for education purposes,” Horn says. “The closer you can get to a project that someone actually wants to use, the more motivated students are, the more interested that they are.”

Enter Ian Matty, the makerspace manager at Mountain Lakes Public Library (MLPL). Matty believed his makerspace could collaborate with the high school to give students “an amazing learning experience” through Build a Better Book, an organization that works with school and library makerspaces to design and create accessible picture books and graphics for the blind and visually impaired.

“It is making with meaning,” says Matty, who will be presenting a workshop, Build a Better Book: Empathy-Driven Design in School and Library Makerspaces, with members of the organization at the ISTE conference in Anaheim, CA, this summer.

Matty spoke with the MLHS principal, whose daughter had done projects in the MLPL makerspace. The principal went to Horn with the proposal. After discussing teaching philosophy and possible projects, Horn and Matty created a three-week Build a Better Book pilot program for a computer science class.

“The more authentic the projects, the better the course is,” says Horn. “This looked like a really cool way of doing authentic projects that could actually help people.”

That pilot was so well received, Matty and Horn began discussing possibilities for the 2019–20 school year. Since the partnership began, the interest and level of projects and collaboration have grown.

A St. Joseph’s student works with a marble maze made by MLHS students.

With Matty as liaison, the collaboration now includes St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City and students at a blind and visually-impaired games meetup in Sonoma County, CA.

Horn’s students learn to solve problems and design projects with real-world applications. They are creating games, mazes, and apps, which get used by the blind and visually impaired students, who offer feedback for improvement. The high schoolers then revise and rework. They are not only making the specific project better, they are learning accessible design. It goes beyond simply a school tech project.

“It is way more about exploring creativity with empathy and technology,” Matty says.

Neal McKenzie is the assistive technology specialist for visually impaired students for the Sonoma County Office of Education. He sees about 140 students throughout the county’s 40 school districts. He started the games meetup when he realized his students felt isolated and needed some of the same social opportunities as their sighted peers. Horn and Matty helped the MLHS students create a version of the game Risk for
McKenzie’s game group.

“To have something out of the box is huge for these guys,” says McKenzie. “They just want to be able to walk into a room and play the game. They don’t want to have to think about everything and modify it. They’re so used to doing that in everyday school situations and life.”

This collaboration has made McKenzie’s students part of the process.

“My real buy-in is when I get to relate back my students’ feedback,” he says. “I really like the idea they know there are people out there who will give them a voice.”

Students have learned that the more they use that voice, the more impact they can have.

“They’re excited about that,” McKenzie says. “I hope to continue to foster that and have more situations where that is the case.”

The Collaborative Hex Puzzle is the project this is furthest along. It is being sent out for feedback from different areas of the visually impaired community. For the blind and visually impaired, simply making something talk or tactile isn’t enough. Approaching a project the same way one would as a sighted user is not effective. The MLHS students have learned that quickly.

“At first, the kids were really just trying to replicate a tactile version of what they visually saw,” says McKenzie. “[Now], they are really thinking in a tactile sense would this even make sense. For someone who is accessing this not just purely visually, how would that be more effective? Now it’s starting to get into a deeper line of thinking that is pretty incredible to see.”

Getting kids to think differently is Matty’s goal—from the middle schoolers at a daylong make-a-thon in his makerspace (see box) to these computer science students working at a much more complex level in design and production.

The high schoolers have pushed past the original parameters and created more than games.

“One of the other cool projects was visual representations of neat things in math,” says Horn, who had one student who created a physical representation of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem. That project became part of an exhibit at the Boulder (CO) Public Library.

In their work with St. Joseph’s School for the Blind, Horn’s students created Android-compatible projects and then learned that the school uses iPads because of their accessibility features. Now the kids are learning iOS and will try to create on that platform. Horn is teaching students how to use xCode, an Ipad programming language. The next version of the digital apps will be built for large iPads. Matty is also organizing a field trip so the Mountain Lakes kids can see the St. Joseph’s students using their inventions and get feedback firsthand.

Meanwhile, the in-school collaborations keep expanding. Horn is trying to team up with the entrepreneur club. While he doesn’t know which, if any, of these products will ever come to commercial fruition, he wants to teach his young creators the process for copyrighting their intellectual property if needed. Meanwhile, after seeing Horn’s students’ projects, the MLHS AP art teacher is working on a Build a Better Book pilot project, and Matty is brainstorming ways to include the English department as well.

McKenzie wants people to replicate this program everywhere.

“I hope people see this model and how it helps everyone involved,” he says. “I’d love to see that on a wider scale—so not only my 20 students get to play Risk for the first time, but as many as possible. It doesn’t seem like it’s that important, but it really is.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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