Tactile Models for Visually Impaired

Feelin' DNA aims to inspire the visually impaired community by providing STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, teachers with 3-D models so they can incorporate them into their classrooms.

The founder of the student-run organization, Rachael Hamm '18, a biology major and chemistry/medical anthropology minor, came up with the idea through an assignment for Kelly Hogan's genetics class. Students were supposed to create something that could be used in a hands-on science museum using the BeAM makerspaces on campus. Hogan is an associate STEM teaching professor of biology, QEP Director and Assistant Dean of Instructional Innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences.

 

"My idea was to make something tactile, which visually impaired students could use," says Hamm.

So far, Feelin' DNA has created a 2-D projection of a heart labeled with Braille and 3-D models of a bacteriophage, a virus that infects and replicates within a bacterium, and DNA.

Hamm's teammates came from diverse academic backgrounds: Emma Astrike-Davis '18, Public Health, Amaya Martinez '17, Biology and Hispanic Studies minor, Elliot Krause '18, Biomedical Engineering and Entrepreneurship, and Joanna Cao '19, Biomedical Engineering.

"Right now we know that most visually impaired students do not have access to accessible materials," Hamm says. According to the National Science Foundation, less than 8 percent of these students pursue a career in the STEM fields.

"Lack of access to user-friendly materials can be a barrier," says Kevin Currin, a Biostatistics graduate student who himself is visually impaired. Kevin recently joined the project to advise the team on what makes a good model. "It is always good for people to have as many opportunities as they can to have equal access to those careers," says Kevin.

Soon, Hamm realized that what began as a class assignment could actually become a project with a lasting impact beyond UNC.

The team has made connections with organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, the DIAGRAM Center, a Benetech global literacy initiative supported by the Department of Education, and outside consulting firms. A grant from the APPLES Service-Learning Program's Robert E. Bryan Fellowship has given the team some seed funding and helped with professional development. A biomedical engineering class taught by Kenny Donnelly is helping with the development of code for designing new models.

The Feelin' DNA team has also attended conferences to meet with teachers of visually impaired students to share the models and get feedback in preparation for sessions they will teach at the annual Youth Slam, a weeklong summer camp sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.

Hamm and her collaborators hope to start a pilot program with North Carolina teachers this summer. Teachers and individuals will be able to directly download the 3-D files from Feelin' DNA's website to print on their own printers.

Professor Kelly Hogan is amazed at how Hamm and the others have taken this project in a whole new direction.

"What I love about this project is that we started by reimagining science education and now these students have taken it to a new level...I think it aligns so nicely with the idea that we at UNC are reimagining arts and sciences for the public good," Hogan says.

Hamm echoes that thought; the group is now applying for nonprofit status, and she hopes Feelin' DNA will become a sustainable organization at UNC.

"It went from just a class assignment to a whole new project that we are all so passionate about," she says.

Story and video by Kristen Chavez, College of Arts & Sciences