Independence in STEM Technology for All

November 21st, 2017

Rebecca Fadler

The purpose of the RCPD is firmly centered on maximizing the opportunities at Michigan State for students of all abilities. In this spirit, we are working ardently to produce results with the help of a new grant. “The 2017-18 Creative Excellence Grant” supports our “Enhancing the Accessibility of Mathematics and Symbolic Content” initiative. This project is striving to make the technology used in STEM majors easily accessible to all students, namely students with visual impairments.

The RCPD spotted a need for improvement as technology at Michigan State advanced, leaving behind the technology that is available for accessibility. Now, we are working to close the gap between contemporary technology and assistive technology. The main difficulty that we targeted was the inaccessibility of online homework websites used in STEM studies coupled with the inability of screen readers to interpret mathematical equations. For example, 1/(x+1) and (1/x)+1 would be read the same the way, “one over x plus one” but those who are familiar with Algebra know these as vastly different equations. Due to these shortcomings in accessibility at all institutions, our students with visual impairments were not able to be as independent as they could be, simply because technology did not exist to interpret the notation. We could make this happen if professors had the technology to be able to clear up this ambiguity for their students. This is where we come in. Knowing this, we set out to make a change, working tirelessly to apply for a grant that would allow us to change this narrative.

The grant request and the project that is succeeding those efforts are being frontlined by our department's own Stephen Blosser, an Assistive Technology Specialist, along with Lina Wu, a Media Access Specialist, and Angela Sebald, a Blindness/Visual Impairment and Media Access Specialist. Angela was excited to share her hopes that,  “With this grant, we can do something that has never been done before. We are innovating new technology that every school, college, university, and office can use.” Angela remarked, “Once this is done, I can innovate in other ways because we will have time more to do so instead of using so much time interpreting equations into accessible formats.”

Team RCPD is also enthusiastic to be gaining partnerships and collaborating with other departments on campus. In this innovative project, we are joined by representatives from the College of Education, the Center for Integrative Studies in General Science, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the Department of Mathematics. A company called SeeWriteHear is also working with us to promote accessibility. They have already blazed the way of accessible technology and will be helping the RCPD to tailor what exists to the needs of our individual students. With this diverse group of people coming together to promote accessibility, we are confident this grant will be used to it’s fullest capacity.

Our goal is to make the technology used to interpret mathematical equations more user friendly for RCPD staff who translate these equations into accessible forms and for the students who utilize their resource. This improvement will make translating textbooks and assignments more efficient as well as make solving equations more user friendly.

The RCPD is working fervently to produce results from this grant so that our students can be as independent as possible.