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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
Trouble on the Horizon - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Get SMART - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Tulane's Next Move - BY JEFFREY SELINGO

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
REFRACTIONS: ENGINEERING AND HISTORY - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: The College Payoff - BY ANTHONY P. CARNEVALE

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Let Go of My Legos - Those little bricks are a wonderful way to teach engineering to youngsters. BY ALICE DANIEL
BOOK REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth - BY ROBIN TATU
TEACHING: The Plague of Self-Plagiarism - BY PHILLIP WANKAT AND FRANK OREOVICZ
ON CAMPUS: The Write Solution- BY LYNNE SHALLCROSS










 
TEACHING TOOLBOX - ON CAMPUS: The Write Solution - Mechanical engineering students turn a senior project into a writing tool for the blind. - BY LYNNE SHALLCROSSTEACHING TOOLBOX - ON CAMPUS: The Write Solution - Mechanical engineering students turn a senior project into a writing tool for the blind. - BY LYNNE SHALLCROSS  

The Johns Hopkins students hope that the Braille writer, both affordable and simple to use, will be helpful to people in this country and around the globe.

Four Johns Hopkins University (JHU) mechanical engineering students created a lightweight, portable Braille writing device in an effort to give the blind a low-cost, low-tech way to write.When undergraduate engineering students play with clay, don’t assume that they’re finding their inner child. They might just be making Braille writing simpler in the United States and combating illiteracy among blind people in developing countries.

Four Johns Hopkins University (JHU) mechanical engineering students created a lightweight, portable Braille writing device in an effort to give the blind a low-cost, low-tech way to write.

As part of an Engineering Design Project class, the students took on the assignment from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. “We said to them what we need is a low-cost Braille writing tool—something under $100, that’s not electronic, that’s mechanical, that blind people could use to write Braille with, that would be easy to use and that people wouldn’t need a lot of training to use,” says Betsy Zaborowski, executive director of the NFB’s Jernigan Institute.

After two semesters of research, design and testing, the students came up with a prototype fitting both the requirements and the budget. They estimate that if mass-produced, the device would cost around $10. During the design phase, the students made clay models, covered in foil, of their ideas so their NFB clients could feel the designs. The clay also allowed the students to make quick alterations to the prototype, says Emily Kumpel, one of the students who worked on the project.

The students’ handheld writer operates in a purely mechanical fashion, with six buttons that can be depressed to produce any of the embossed patterns for a Braille letter, number or punctuation mark. Used with a traditional Braille slate that has rows of rectangular openings or “cells,” a blind person would put a piece of paper into the slate and the device would then insert one Braille letter or number into each cell. Unlike traditional Braille writers, which poke indentations for each character one by one, the students’ device uses metal pins to emboss up to six marks at once, speeding up the writing process.

Although the device is not quite ready to be manufactured, it has the potential to solve a significant problem with an original solution, Zaborowski says. Traditional typewriter-style or computer-based Braille writers are bigger and more complex to operate. And they can ring in at close to $6,000. The device would be a simpler, faster and less expensive way for the blind to do anything from take notes in class to label items and leave notes for themselves.

“The social implications of it are amazing,” says Andrew Conn, senior lecturer in the department of mechanical engineering and professor of the course. Because the writing tool requires little expense and little training, it could make a real difference to people who can’t see. The opportunity to improve people’s lives was a big attraction for Kumpel. “It’s a tool that people can use to become literate, which then opens up more educational opportunities,” she says.

Conn and his students agree that the real-world experience of working with a client is invaluable. “It probably took me 10 years to get under my belt all the experiences and exposures these students get in their one year of the senior design class,” Conn says. For student Mark MacLeod, it’s given him confidence in his future. “I can go into industry confident that I know what has to be done,” he says.

Brainstorming a way to solve this problem at a low cost with a device both easy to assemble and easy to use was a challenge, that’s for sure. “We were asking for a fair amount,” Zaborowski says. “I think they did a fine job.” But, she adds, perhaps just as important as successfully making the prototype was what the students took away from the project. “They learned something about blind people, and that’s important, too.”

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor of Prism.

 

 


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American Society for Engineering Education