Math by touch: new tablet app teaches the visually impaired to do math

Using touch and sound responses, new technology could help visually impaired students learn to do math alongside their classmates.

For the visually impaired, certain subjects are particularly challenging. While English and biology can often be learned by listening to e-books or lectures, math and physics rely heavily on visual information like graphs and formulas. Learning even basic algebra and geometry becomes a huge obstacle to those who cannot see what most students can see.

Now, a student at Vanderbilt University is trying to provide visually impared students with a new way to learn math using tablets like the iPad and Android. Jenna Gorlewicz, a graduate student at Vanderbilt,

The project uses something called “haptic technology” – tactile responses like vibrations or motion built into devices. These kinds of things are commonly built into video game controllers and biomedical robots.

Gorlewicz said, in the press release:

“When I began reading articles about haptic technology being incorporated into these new touch screen devices, I realized that the people who really need haptics are people with impaired vision because they heavily rely on their sense of touch to ‘see’ the world around them. I love math and I love teaching, so I immediately thought of using them for math education, because it has such a strong visual component.”

The way the tablets teach math is by responding to the users touch with sound and vibrations. Here's how they describe one way the app can be used:

For example, in an exercise that includes an X-Y grid, she can set the horizontal and vertical lines to vibrate at different frequencies and set points to make a certain tone. In this way, it’s easier for the students to distinguish between the gridlines and the points on the grid.

The researchers are testing the technology with the help of two visually impaired students at Hillsboro High School in Nashville named Kira and Quinn. Their teaching aid, Ann Smith, sits when them in classes to help them follow along with the app. “ “One of these haptic tablets would allow them to keep up much better,” she said in the press release. “If I didn’t have to attend class with them, it would also make them feel more independent.”

The next step, according to Gorlewicz, is to develop a touch sensitive graphing calculator – to help the students keep up with their classmates.

via Vanderbilt University

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