Opening doors to computing skills for students with visual impairment
Ten young Phoenix-area students who are visually impaired recently took part in a special four-day computing workshop designed especially for them, thanks to an alumna of Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
Stephanie Ludi, who earned her Ph.D. in computer science at ASU in 2003, leads a National Science Foundation (NSF) project to encourage middle school and high school students who have visual impairments to study computing.
Supported by a $475,000 NSF grant, Accessible Computing Education – or Project ACE – is conducting hands-on “ImagineIt” workshops around the country.
“It’s a critical time for them to learn that the challenges that come with their disabilities are not barriers to learning computer skills, going to college and having a career in the field,” says Ludi, who is legally blind.
Ludi has been on the faculty of the Rochester Institute of Technology for more than eight years. She’s now an associate professor of software engineering in the institute’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.
Much of her research focuses on seeking better ways to make education in computer science and engineering more accessible to people with disabilities.
The workshop she led at ASU was sponsored by the ASU-Tempe Disabilities Resource Center, the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix, and ASU’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing – or CUbiC – where faculty and students design technologies and devices to assist people with sensory, perceptual or cognitive disabilities.
Ludi “is doing excellent work in motivating students with visual impairment to pursue post-secondary education. This aligns with CUbiC’s mission, so we were delighted to partner with her,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, ASU’s chief research officer and founding director of CUbiC, which is part of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Decision Systems Engineering.
Working in the CUbiC lab, students used software that provides extra-large type on computer screens and an electronic voice function that reads the information on the screens for the user. The audio-visual enhancements enabled students to learn to program commands to control small robots, using the Lego Mindstorms NXT platform.
“It’s not just a technical exercise,” Ludi explained. “The kids start out being quiet and studious, then they get chatty and excited as they work together to figure out how to get the robots to do what they want. It’s a lesson in how to be creative.”
Ludi got help from the Disabilities Resource Center associate director Chad Price and disability access consultant Andy Oliver.
“It was great to see how her workshop got students engaged, and how excited they were about programming robots,” Oliver said.
Three ASU students also had learning experiences.
Laskshmie Viswanathan, who will soon earn his master’s degree in computer science, joined electrical engineering student Michael Astrauskas and special education student Shaylyn Savage in assisting Ludi in the workshop.
“We learned a lot about interacting with people, about how to communicate the knowledge we have from our studies and research so that it can be useful to these students,” Viswanathan said. “It was pretty awesome.”
Beyond encouraging people with visual impairments to study computing, the goal of Project ACE is to see them pursue careers in the field.
“People with disabilities are underrepresented in the drive for innovation and creativity that leads to new advances to improve our lives,” said Disabilities Resource Center director Terri Hedgpeth. “Their participation will broaden the diversity among the ranks of innovators.”
With more diversity within the computing professions, Ludi said, “not only can more students reach their potential, but we all will benefit from the distinctive perspectives people with disabilities bring to exploring what technology can do in finding solutions to our challenges.”