Now that the importance of STEM education in preparing students for the future is well- recognized, it is crucial that STEM learning opportunities are accessible and engaging for all learners.
While there are many programs and initiatives that strive to increase the amount and variety of STEM programs available for students, there are many barriers dictating which students can access and benefit from these opportunities.
Many programs and technologies intended for use in K–12 schools do not adequately address the needs of students with disabilities, especially students who are blind/low vision.
From a lack of commitment to designing accessibility–focused products to a lack of research exploring how to best support students who are blind/low–vision, it is clear that the needs of an entire group of students is going unmet.
We have long committed ourselves to ensuring that ALL students are able to access high–quality STEM education, so we knew change was needed.
We wanted to explore the accessibility of the equipment we use in our STEM programs, and find ways in which we could make our workshops more inclusive. In our pursuit of this goal, we had the opportunity to work with researcher Steve Murgaski to develop a series of STEM workshops for blind and visually impaired campers in partnership with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).
Murgaski is a graduate student of Inclusive Design at OCAD University and is also completely blind himself. He was not only a researcher for this project, but also served as its guiding voice. Together, we worked to create workshops that would be fun, educational, and inclusive. We wanted to ensure that students who are visually impaired could have the same STEM experiences as their peers with sight. Throughout this process, we also evaluated the accessibility features of various robotics tools on the market.
For the purpose of our workshops, after extensive evaluation, we selected the Bee–Bot and the LEGO Ev3 robot. The Bee–Bot was easy to use with minimal modifications. The buttons on the bot are raised and have different shapes, so they can be distinguished by touch.
Additionally, the noise they generate while in motion and the sound that is played when the code has finished running provides valuable audio feedback for the students. By modifying the Bee–Bot coding mat to include raised grid lines, students were able to code autonomously.
The LEGO Ev3 robot was also able to be modified using a third–party app which is compatible with the accessibility features on the iPad. As more accessibility features are developed for this tool, its potential to educate students on coding and engineering concepts in an inclusive way will only grow.
These robots were utilized in the two pilot workshops we hosted at CNIB’s summer camps in 2019. Students coded these robots through a series of challenges where the robot could knock over wooden blocks or navigate through an obstacle course to avoid the blocks. In both cases, the challenge could provide auditory feedback to the coder, and they would know they had been successful (by the sound or lack thereof of the blocks falling over).
During the development and planning stages for these workshops, we worked with several different educational robots to evaluate their accessibility features. Overall, we found there was significant variance among the robots that we tested; several of the robots had significant limitations and could not be used for the purposes of CNIB workshops, while others were usable even with minimal
modifications. For an in–depth review of this evaluation process and our findings, see Steve Murgaski’s full paper here.
The low–tech modifications previously described (such as raising the challenge mat gridlines and getting robots to knock over towers of wooden blocks to provide audible feedback) are modifications that educators and STEM students could implement in a classroom setting. We also found that the ability of children and young adults to design new inclusive activities to meet their own needs should not be discounted, and we should always look to our students for new ideas.
Overall, the workshops we hosted were successful, with students reporting that they really enjoyed exploring something new:
We used Bee–Bots primarily in the first camp, for children aged 7 to 12. These toy robots were so initially engaging that once they were distributed, the facilitator found it difficult to put the brakes on the children’s enthusiasm long enough to explain how they worked, or what activities we intended for them.
We are very proud of this project and are grateful for Steve Murgaski and CNIB for making this work possible. At STEM Minds we continue to look for ways in which we can improve our programs to be more inclusive, and we continue to support our network of educators in integrating these approaches in their own classrooms. While the future of inclusivity in STEM is certainly bright, there is still much more work to be done before we can make robots accessible to everyone, and we will continue to advocate for and work with partners to further this cause.