Summer Academy students use refreshable Braille coding to work with 3D printing

Cassie Kidwell
November 08, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As part of the two-week, intensive Summer Academy for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, Penn State engineering students used easily accessible coding to help visually impaired high school students 3D print fully extendable lightsabers. 

The Summer Academy, hosted on Penn State’s University Park campus, serves to provide resources that may be useful for visually impaired students as they transition to postsecondary education. The primary focus of the academy includes daily living activities; career awareness; low-vision rehabilitation; and technology, travel, social, self-advocacy and networking skills enhancement. 

As part of the program, nine STEM-related labs, businesses and organizations came together to offer interactive mini-workshops in the Huck Life Sciences Building. Toby Mahan, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, and Katrina Verlinde, a junior engineering science student, participated via the Technology and Human Research in Engineering Design (THRED) Group. THRED Group is an interdisciplinary research group directed by Christopher McComb, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, and Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering.

“STEM weekend — during which our particular event occurred — exposes students to concepts in STEM and STEM research, and it empowers students who are interested in a career in STEM,” Verlinde said.

Mahan and Verlinde worked with other THRED Group members to develop engaging engineering activities, focused on the additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — design process.

Red, 3D-printed pieces are spread out on a table.

The 3D-printed lightsabers consisted of multiple printed pieces, which were assembled together to create the final product.

IMAGE: Toby Mahan

“They wanted to have hands-on activities that the Summer Academy students could experience,” Mahan said. “We decided to try to engage their tactile and audio senses.”

The THRED Group achieved this by using OpenSCAD, an open-source, accessible coding language to design several 3D-printed objects, including 3D-printed lightsabers. 

The students were given 15 minutes to walk through the design process. Starting with a simple 3D-printed cylinder, a new code could be added to OpenSCAD to modify the cylinder into a fully extendable lightsaber. 

Students used a refreshable Braille display, provided by a Summer Academy affiliate, with audio of the code to program the 3D printing of the design. According to Verlinde, the software could translate any text from a website or program to Braille.

Verlinde explained that the Braille reader allowed students who wanted to know more about the coding of the 3D printer to read the code and understand the process of designing the lightsaber without prior coding experience.

“Everybody interacts with technology differently, so it's important to factor accessibility into your design processes,” she said. “It was amazing to see a design solution for visually impaired technology users in action.”

Verlinde said she enjoyed working with the Summer Academy students and hearing their experiences and excitement — the students’ skills in additive manufacturing ranged from those who had never used it before to students who had 3D printers at their schools.

Mahan said the students left the expo more excited about 3D printing after learning about the accessibility of technology. Many showed interest in discovering if their high schools have or could introduce accessible 3D printing options. 

“The workshop gave students a window into how to break down a design into steps and consider design needs — a skill that's incredibly important for designers, engineers and anyone who makes anything,” Verlinde said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau Of Special Education’s Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, and Penn State’s College of Education and College of Health and Human Development, in conjunction with Penn State Conferences and Institutes, hosts the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired at Penn State’s University Park campus.


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Last Updated September 03, 2020