FIRST Team Helps Visually Impaired with Innovative Braille Invention

For many of us, reading is one of the first skills we learn in school. However, for the visually impaired that is often not the case. In fact, more than 90 percent of blind children are not able to read Braille. The repercussions of that startling statistic mean 50 percent of these children will not graduate from high school and 70 percent will be unemployed once they reach adulthood, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

FIRST LEGO League Team 4678, from Cumming, Georgia, decided to do something to challenge these unsettling statistics. As its entry for last year’s annual FIRST LEGO League Challenge, The Braille Boys & Annie invented Insta-Braille®. At its core, the team’s invention utilizes the same principles as those in a children’s sound book: a recorded sound is stored in a microchip. How does it work? A person who is visually impaired touches the Braille character and presses the corresponding button to hear the name of a letter, number, or word. The device’s appeal lies in the fact that someone who is visually impaired does not need the help of a sighted person to use Insta-Braille.Braille Boys and Annie

During the initial research phase for Insta-Braille, Team 4678 met with the National Federation of the Blind, as well as representatives from their local community, including teachers, retailers, and product distributors. Along with some key information about Braille, The Braille Boys & Annie also learned that many people who are visually impaired are not impaired in other ways. In fact, the six team members — middle schoolers who are all homeschooled — were surprised to learn that most visually impaired people are very high functioning and independent.

Team Takes Top Honors for Their Efforts

Thanks to their altruistic invention, this past summer Team 4678 was one of two runner-up teams in the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award presented by XPRIZE®, a competition designed to encourage youth to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems.

The award was part of the 2014-15 season’s FIRST LEGO League WORLD CLASSsm Challenge, where teams from 80 countries were invited to explore the future of learning. As one of three teams selected to win the award, The Braille Boys & Annie were honored to attend ceremonies at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA, and, while there, met with U.S. Representative Rob Woodall, whose constituency includes the team’s home town residents.

An Insta-Braille in Every School

Seventh grader Annie Torre, (one half of the team’s moniker), said Team 4678 will use the money to fine tune its invention, with the ultimate goal being to donate the device to schools across the U.S. that serve visually impaired students. The Braille Boys & Annie headed to the Georgia Statewide Vision Educators recently, where they showcased the Insta-Braille, with the goal of soliciting teachers willing to participate in a statewide beta test. The team is seeking companies and individuals willing to invest in the project so the Insta-Braille can be provided to these teachers for just the cost of shipping and handling.

Insta-Braille is currently being used by students at the Center for the Visually Impaired at the Atlanta, Georgia-based STARS program, which provides students with the skills needed to live with vision loss. The team has already developed a second-generation device, which, in addition to 26 Braille characters, also teaches Braille contractions and numbers, and soon will be available in several other languages. They have already obtained a provisional patent for their invention and are planning to apply for a full utility patent soon.

The Braille Boys & Annie Efforts Help Form Team for Visually Impaired

Braille Boys and Annie PresentationThis past summer, Team 4678 taught a camp for students at the Atlanta Center for the Visually Impaired, where the campers were inspired to start their own FIRST team. Although team members worked with STARS program officials in an effort to secure grant monies to fund the team, they were unsuccessful. Instead, in an act of Gracious Professionalism®, The Braille Boys & Annie decided to donate a portion of their prize money to the STARS students so that they could form Team 21173.

“It was unanimous,” said Coach Christine Torre. “They paid for the registration, bought the field objects, donated a robot table, and are coaching members of the new team. It’s been rewarding to watch our sighted team interact with the STARS kids. Our team now has an understanding that visually impaired kids can do everything sighted kids can do!”

In addition, The Braille Boys & Annie were sworn in as Ambassadors for Innovation at ceremonies held at the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award event last spring. Coach Tom Torre said the team members take this role very seriously and now coach a FIRST LEGO League Jr. team and also lead the team meetings. “It’s been awesome seeing Team 4678 pass along the same skills the team learned last season. For example, they taught the younger team the Engineering Design Process and actually shared their own personal experiences of designing the Insta-Braille last season,” added Coach Tom. 

As FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award finalists, The Braille Boys & Annie each won a new EV3 robot. In their roles as ambassadors, the team has used its robots to get other kids excited about FIRST. Members of Team 4678 teach a monthly robotics class for 17 homeschool kids, in which they take turns teaching beginning programming skills.

Additionally, through their participation with FIRST, The Braille Boys & Annie have learned some valuable skills from a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) perspective, including hardware and software prototyping, audio file creation and management, and programming.

“As Coaches, we spend hours and hours planting seeds of character into our team. It’s truly rewarding when you finally see your team embrace everything you’ve taught them then turn around and teach it to other students. We have the privilege of pouring into the next generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and inventors,” says Coach Christine.

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