LAKEVIEW — Braille literacy rates have plummeted over the past 50 years, but a group of Lakeview fifth-graders have a smart solution that won a citywide technology competition.
The Chicago Maker Challenge asked middle- and high-school students to find new solutions to community problems in Chicago or a way to help people with disabilities improve their daily lives. It's the second year for the competition, which is done outside of the classroom and can be entered individually or in teams.
Four students from the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, 3751 North Broadway, designed a computer dedicated to teaching blind children how to read Braille. The Mind's Eye laptop would have a screen with holes where Braille letters would rise as a voice describes the letter and instructs the child to find it on the keyboard. As the student progresses, the program would begin using multiple letters, words and, ultimately, full sentences.
"I think [the judges] were impressed with the simplicity of the design. It's a straightforward computer meant for one thing, not super complicated with 800 different features," said Charlie Cohen, 11.
After learning that only 9 percent of blind students can read Braille, despite its association with higher employment rates and self-sufficiency, the group — aptly named the Insightfuls — decided to find a way to help, meeting frequently after school to work on their project.
"We don't even think of [reading] as a privilege — we just think of it as what a human can do. Even things we consider easy like eating breakfast can be very difficult for [people with vision impairment], because it makes you unable to learn things from reading easily," Charlie said.
One key hurdle for the challenge: thinking up an invention that doesn't already exist. The BZAEDS group started with a scanner that would read words aloud before discovering such a product is already on the market.
But the Insightfuls' computer idea took root, and they produced a video explaining their project, which got them to the finals. The students then had a week to prepare before the citywide showcase at the end of May.
"There were so many kids that we didn't expect anything, so we were really happy when we [made it to the finals]. It was exciting, but it was also nerve-wracking because the team we were against was also really good, so we really didn't know what the judges would choose," said Allison Dunn, 11, who lives in Lincoln Square.
The Mind's Eye prevailed, and the students placed first in the middle school accessibility division, winning gift cards, memberships to the Museum of Science and Industry and a 3D printer for their school.
And the students walked away with more than that. Charlie and Allison said they are considering careers in science and technology, and they gained a better appreciation for people's ability to maneuver past impairments.
"I think any time children go above and beyond with something academic in nature is a great way to get their creative juices flowing and also tries to help a real-world problem," said Allison's mother, Jennifer Blitz.
As an archeologist, Blitz said she also appreciated the chance for her daughter to gain experience in a historically male-dominated field.
"I think if the girls don't have opportunities to keep up with the boys, they get discouraged early on. But they were working as a team, side by side, and when it comes right down to it, that's what you want. The kids don't even know they're learning science if they're doing something engaging," Blitz said.
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