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Making Braille.

Building books for the blind

Area middle schoolers get a taste of STEM at CMU workshop

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Sitting on a parent's lap reading aloud to them a book like "The Cat in the Hat" is one of the joys of growing up — a joy some children who are blind or visually impaired don't get to experience.

Stepping up to change that were 13 area middle school students who applied to come to Central Michigan University's first Build a Better Book experience last week at the Center for Excellence in STEM Education in the College of Education and Human Services.

They came to learn how to build a prototype of a book that could eventually be used by a child who is blind. In the process, they learned STEM skills.

Building books and budding engineers

Like engineers, the children, with the help of CMU student mentors, went through several of the steps of what is called design thinking, said Julie Cunningham, director of the STEM center. They moved from empathizing with the eventual users through generating ideas, to building a prototype.

Design thinking is also the process the center's leaders use for the multiple makerspace classes it runs during the school year for area children.

Incidentally, it is that dedication to teaching STEM skills that led to a contribution — made during the workshop — from AT&T of $12,000 to support a future STEM education mentor program for area high school students to work alongside CMU undergraduate teacher education students from the STEM Education Scholars Program.

The gift adds to the more than $888,000 in contributions to CMU from AT&T and the AT&T Foundation. That money is in addition to continued funding from a $5 million charitable gift from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation for teaching STEM skills to area children in their middle years.

Learning is a team effort

Making books alongside the children were three undergraduate teacher education students from the scholar's program: Sara Fisk, Sarah Lapp and Simon Fikse. The whole team was led by Cunningham and Ashley O'Neil, STEM education program coordinator.

Among those assisting them throughout the week were Beth Kennedy, director of DeafBlind Central, which works with children with hearing and vision loss; and Troy Hicks, teacher education and professional development faculty member and director of the Chippewa River Writing Project.

Kennedy began the week by helping the children empathize with those who have grown up blind or visually impaired.

She grouped students into pairs, with one partner being blindfolded and given an object to identify. Sometimes they were quick to guess correctly, other times it took a while. Kennedy's point was that sighted children have pictures in their heads of those objects to help them, but children blind from birth don't.

She also told them the importance of their cause: Many schools and families can't afford to have more than a book or two for the visually impaired because they can cost $60-$80 each.

After being shown current books made for the blind, the students dove into boxes of material and learned how to make Braille and operate the 3D printer to make their prototypes.

Creativity and financial support

By the end of the week, Sergey from Sacred Heart Academy in Mount Pleasant had created a prototype of his book, which he titled "Bird feathers for lunch." It's about a cat who wants to eat a bird, but the bird was too quick so all the cat got were feathers, he explained.

Another student, Darrius, created a prototype that he said will include audio for each page in addition to raised drawings of sailboats. 

Many of the children have signed up to attend the center's makerspace classes this fall to continue their work, Cunningham said.

The ultimate goal is to produce more complete prototypes and test them with blind children. A first step, Kennedy suggested, would be for the workshop students to share what they created with their classmates at school and the school librarian. She said that many school libraries would be happy to add a prototype to their collection.

"Their progress has been awesome," said Kennedy as she walked among the proud children at the end of the week. "I hope everyone will be able to experience the impact their books can make."

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