Andreas Stefik, assistant professor of computer science, took a ballroom dancing class as a college student from a legally blind instructor. Years later, his professor in graduate school was researching ways to adapt sound to computer code. These two experiences got Andreas thinking about how to combine his computer science expertise with auditory technologies to help blind individuals obtain careers as computer programmers.
“Blind individuals have few technologies that allow them to create their own software, which means that they are ultimately reliant on corporations to build tools for them,” he said. “Even if a blind individual is incredibly motivated to become an engineer and fix these issues, learning how to program a computer is challenging. If you’re blind and the tools are designed for sighted users, you don’t have a chance.”
Blind individuals have very few viable career paths, which has lead to staggering unemployment figures—approximately 57 percent of blind individuals are not in the work force. Computers have powerful sound capabilities making programming a feasible career path. Beyond the technological solutions, Andreas and his team are creating an educational pipeline and will be integrating their tools into 5 K-12 schools across the U.S. over the next three years. Stefik received a $409,000 National Science Foundation grant to fund the project.
Consistent with the SIUE culture, Andreas is committed to incorporating innovative research into student learning opportunities. Computer science graduate student Neelima Samsani is building a custom computer programming language for this technology. Her goal is to make the technology easy enough for blind children to use, while also making it powerful enough for blind professionals to use in the workplace.
Senior computer science major Andrew Hauck is participating in the project through SIUE’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) program. The URCA allows students to their undergraduate academic experience through research collaborations with faculty scholars. Andrew is writing computer software that makes their technology compatible with commercial technologies, including Braille readers and other sound output tools, often called screen readers.
Neelima and Andrew interact with blind clients who actually use the software. “I want students to realize that research is about thinking rationally and trying to solve real world problems,” Andreas said. “I want them to understand that they can, and should, try to impact society for the greater good.”