Touch the Stars: How 3D Printing is Creating New Education Experiences for Visually-Impaired Students

By Didem Tali, Contributor

Countless children around the world dream of being an astronaut. Chelsea Cook, a physicist from Virginia, admits she was one of them. However, unlike many children who become interested in space after watching a cartoon, the young scientist credits her fascination with space to a braille book.

“Touch the stars,” Cook mused, “How can you touch the stars when they are so far away, so hot, so untouchable?”

“Touch the Stars” was the name of a braille astronomy book that Cook received at the age of 10. The book included braille pictures of stars, planets, and galaxies for blind students like Cook to experience. Running her fingers through those dots, Cook caught the ‘space bug.’ She had fallen hard for physics, space, and astronomy, which led her to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in Physics at Virginia Tech.

During university, Cook developed 3D-printed models with the help of a professor to enhance her understanding of physics. This proved to be game-changing for her studies. Once she was able to touch the shapes and forms found in the universe, her astronomy and physics courses made better sense. She graduated in 2014.

From printing custom body parts to bespoke gadgets or models, 3D printing has become an important part of assistive technology, technology that enhances the daily lives of individuals living with a disability. While 3D printing cannot aid every disability, many, including BBC and The Guardian, refer to this technology as revolutionary, particularly for the visually impaired.

To Each Their Own

In 2014, Paul Croft, Director of the UK and Ireland Operations of Ultimaker, a 3D printing manufacturer, founded the CREATE Education Project—a collaborative platform designed to provide free resources and support to educators embedding 3D-printing technology into the classroom. Since then, Croft has witnessed how these technologies change the lives of disabled students on a daily basis.

When working with the National Star College, a UK school for students with physical disabilities, Croft encountered Elliot, a visually-impaired student who often struggled to find his way to class. Due to sensory challenges in his fingertips, Elliot also wasn’t able to read braille. 3D printing offered a solution. “Elliot brainstormed with his friends about how they could solve this problem,” Croft explained. “Then they printed a 3D map of the area and the college.”

With raised sections, the map helped Elliott differentiate between rooms, and made him feel more independent and confident in his college life. “We are only beginning to realize how much potential 3D printing has,”Croft added. And Elliot’s experience isn’t an outlier.

As a former special needs teacher, Lizabeth Arum once enjoyed experimenting with lively visuals to help engage her students. However, when confronted with a room full of visually-impaired students for the first time, she began to rethink her teaching methods.

Now working as an education community strategist at Ultimaker, Arum has joined the 3D-printing education revolution which she considers to be part of the “maker’s movement.” Where as before disabled students were, as she put it, consumers of educational products, today they can help produce the tools that assist them. Especially for visually-impaired students, 3D printing allows them to design and print assistive gadgets, specialized control panels, or classroom tools.

“It’s not what children see that stays with them,” Arum says. “It’s what they do, what they are involved in.”

Tapping into Ambition

While the benefits of 3D-printing technologies for visually-impaired students are clear, there may also be an adjacent benefit: Knowledge of 3D printing can help get you a job.

In 2016, only 18 percent of Americans with a disability were employed—compared to 65 percent employment for those without. At the same time, the need for workers in STEM-related jobs is increasing. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times that of non-STEM jobs. Today, there is a projected need for 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs—and one of the most in demand tech skills, according to Wanted Analytics, is 3D printing.

According to Dr. Crasnow, Director of STEM3 Academy, a California-based school focused on STEM education for students with special needs, in-demand technology skills like 3D printing significantly boosts employment prospects for disabled students.

“Given the unemployment rates among disabled people,” Dr. Crasnow said, “it’s a sin to not tap into smart, ambitious disabled students.”

Using 3D-printing technologies, Crasnow’s students have created their own classroom tools, even robots, to participate in international competitions. “They are not only consumers, they create their own solutions,” he said. The trend, it appears, is on the rise.

Touch the Stars

Despite the its educational and employment benefits, 3D printing faces its own set of challenges.

“Access is still a big issue, although it’s improving,” Nieves added. “In the last decade or so, the prices of 3D printers have been going down,” she observed. Nieves is optimistic that the lower prices will accelerate access for students and the schools that administer them.

For now, 3D-printed models, devices, and panels aren’t a bad way for to visually impaired students to get more out of their education and apply it to fruitful careers, like space exploration.

“The concept of a blind astronaut may seem foreign, even impossible,” Cook challenged. Yet advancements in 3D printing have given her hope that one day she too will be able to touch the stars.