April 25, 2016  

Purdue EPICS projects help blind, visually impaired students


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —Blind and visually impaired students are partnering with Purdue University students working on projects through the EPICS program to improve education technology for others.

Two EPICS student teams have worked with the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired staff and students since fall 2014 on the LEAP and Magnifier projects. ISBVI teacher Lisa Starrfield – a Purdue alumna – first contacted EPICS about taking on the challenge.

"It has been amazing to watch the EPICS team take these bare bones ideas and turn them into working prototypes," she said. "I have been consistently impressed with the professionalism and creativity of the EPICS students."  

The LEAP project creates a better communication line for blind and visually impaired students, enabling their teacher to receive an electronic copy in standard and print what the students type into the Perkin's Braille Writer. It allows the teacher to more easily review student work.

The second team worked to create the Magnifier, a magnification stand and application that will utilize a device like an iPad as a screen to enhance the readability of textbooks and other documents. It is portable, allowing students to take school assignments home for completion. In addition to being mobile, the device is less expensive than others on the market.

The teams presented their projects during recent Design Review, receiving an impressive response from those in attendance. Allison Bott, project partner liaison of the LEAP team, said the projects now go back to students at the ISBVI for further testing and feedback in the coming weeks. Both also will be considered for commercialization in order to reach a larger number of users.

Bott said it sparks an incredible feeling to watch the students use the team's device. A YouTube video is available at https://youtu.be/BoI6__WtX0E.

"Their reaction to our project is what motivated us to continue to improve and deliver a working prototype," said Bott, who learned Braille in order to take on the challenge. "Our project can have huge implications at public schools in which teachers may have only one student who is blind and know nothing about Braille."

Amy Comeau, team leader for the Magnifier, said there is potential for both projects to have a profound impact on students' daily lives.

"Having the students come and interact with our prototypes and watching how excited they get is extremely satisfying," she said. "Listening to them tell us, 'I need to have this product as soon as possible ... I really need it now,' shows that this project is addressing a real need in the community."

The projects – just two of many ongoing through EPICS – cap off an anniversary year for the program at Purdue. This academic year marked the 20th anniversary for EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) at the university.

EPICS was founded at Purdue University in fall 1995 and has since spread to a number of universities both in the United States and overseas. Projects through EPICS are in four areas of impact: human services, access and abilities, education and outreach, and the environment.

Starrfield said the EPICS teams travel to the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired each semester to talk to the students and understand the challenges they face.

"We have also had team members come to visit to analyze the ergonomics of working in Braille and the constant movement between a Braille textbook, a Braille writer and a tactile graphing board," she said. "Teams have brought their prototypes and mockups to test with students and to identify preferences."

Comeau said there was a real need for the projects at the school.

"When talking to the students, there seemed to be a lack of technology that solved all of their problems," she said. "Various pieces of technology in the classroom addressed some of the needs, but not all and this is where our project originated from."

For the ISBVI, the work does not stop with the LEAP and Magnifier projects. Both are offshoots of the original project: a portable Braille e-reader that shows up to a full page of Braille text. Current e-readers show only between 40-80 characters at one time.

Work on the e-reader project is ongoing, with a prototype shown during last week's presentations. 

Writer: Brian L. Huchel, 765-494-2084, bhuchel@purdue.edu 

Sources: Allison Bott, abott@purdue.edu

Amy Comeau, acomeau@purdue.edu

Lisa Starrfield, lisastarrfield@gmail.com 

Note to Journalists: B-roll video clips and interviews are available at https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B5pvN1C9I3pbRUEyUXVvZl9mUnc 

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