SUNY Poly has partnered with the Central Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI), an agency that provides a host of educational and recreational services to individuals who are blind and visually impaired, on this specific project.
Tactile technology such as Braille Blocks have been used for teaching braille letters and numbers to children and students with visual impairments. However, in recent years, CABVI sought an alternative to the existing braille blocks available for instructing visually impaired and blind children. SUNY Poly Community and Behavioral Health (CBH) students and engineering students took on the challenge to design more developmentally appropriate and visually impaired-friendly braille blocks.
SUNY Poly Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology (MET), Dr. Daniel Jones, notes that the design criteria included one letter or number per block. Furthermore, the new design had to be easy to clean and large enough that a block would not fit into the mouth of a child and present a choking hazard. These blocks would primarily be used by children three-to-five years old, but also by older children and adults who became visually impaired.
Students in the Mechanical Engineering Technology and Community and Behavioral Health programs worked together to develop a prototype of the blocks along with a braille scrabble game, called “Brabble.” Dr. Jones notes that CBH students provided the developmental specifications and evaluations for the blocks, and the MET students provided design details, manufacturing methods, and production of the prototypes.
CBH and MET students, as well as SUNY Poly faculty, visited CABVI when the effort began in 2017. Presentations by CABVI staff on various needs resulted in several capstone and long-term projects, including the development of the braille blocks.
Throughout the course of the project, students used 3D printing technology, leading to braille block improvements in 2019. For example, magnets were attached to the edges in order to easily hold blocks together side-by-side to create words. This also enabled blocks to stick to a whiteboard. Initially, magnets were glued into holes on the blocks, but this was a potential choking hazard to children; the student and faculty design teams decided to embed magnets inside the blocks.
“The experience and knowledge I gained through participating in this service-based project was invaluable,” said SUNY Poly CBH alum and project participant Caryn Schweinsberg. “It expanded my team building skills immensely and taught me about the significant impact a multidisciplinary approach can have on a single goal. It also allowed me to gain a very different perspective on problem solving through the eyes of a different discipline. In addition to gaining experience and knowledge, I had the opportunity to be involved in developing a product that greatly impacted children with visual impairments. The benefit of this collaboration was significant, and together, we were able to create not only one successful product for the students at CABVI, but two.”
The college semester schedule can be challenging due to time constraints, but SUNY Poly faculty, staff, and student workers maintained continuity and progress on the series of braille projects, with assistance by CABVI teachers.
Ultimately, the objective of these projects was for students from dramatically different disciplines to work together and come up with new ideas that would otherwise not be possible, which has been a resounding success.