AUGUST 30, 2022 — Faculty members from the UTSA College of Sciences and the College of Education and Human Development are developing a cloud-based web interface that will help students with blindness and vision impairments (BVI) learn computer science, data science and artificial intelligence. The researchers’ goal is to make high-paying and flexible tech careers more accessible to people with BVI.
The web interface utilizes artificial intelligence and cloud technologies to create a robust screen reader that can help students with BVI better understand computer science concepts such as program compilers, artificial intelligence and cloud technology.
In addition to the screen reader, students will also be able to use the web interface to navigate to specific sections within the code by using voice commands, allowing for more efficient edits. Students will also learn Python, a programming language commonly used for developing websites and software.
Their work will be funded by a three-year, $770,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
“The success of this project will improve the way we teach computer programming and data science to students with BVI,” said Wei Wang, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Computer Science. “More individuals with BVI will be able to learn how to program and find rewarding career opportunities, which will also lead to the creation of a more diverse computer science workforce.”
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, 32.2 million American adults age 18 and older experience vision loss. This includes individuals who have trouble seeing, even with glasses or contact lenses, as well as those who are unable to see at all.
Students with BVI currently face two challenges in technical education. First, current screen readers are limited in their ability to properly read computer codes, which typically contain a mix of letters, digits, punctuation marks and hidden characters like spaces and tabs. The second obstacle is time-consuming and frustrating code navigation that requires students with BVI to repeatedly use screen readers to search every line of code when they want to make an edit.
The inspiration for this project was a computer science summer camp.
In 2020, Wang and Kathy Ewoldt, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, started Explore STEM, a computer science summer camp funded by the Texas Workforce Commission and hosted at UTSA for students with disabilities.
At the camp, Wang recognized that the current screen reader used by students with BVI was inconvenient and a barrier to learning. He began developing a web interface with a new screen reader and collaborated with Ewoldt to assess how students with BVI would use it to progress in their studies. Ewoldt also worked to ensure that the learning materials were well adapted to meet student needs.
The UTSA faculty members later partnered with Leslie Neely, associate professor in the UTSA Department of Educational Psychology, who assisted with the design, testing and implementation of their new web interface.
Neely also introduced Wang and Ewoldt to San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired, a local nonprofit that serves and empowers people with BVI, to help test and develop the new accessibility tools.
“The San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind is excited to partner with UTSA in the development of accessible computer science and coding tools. Through our Children & Youth Program we provide early coding and computer science experiences and learning through our Code Jumper partnership with local schools,” said Cindy Miller, former senior program manager at San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired. “We envision a learning pipeline that takes blind and visually impaired individuals from elementary school through college and creates high-level career opportunities.”
“This collaboration of two colleges and our community partner is a fantastic example of UTSA’s commitment to boldly solving real-world problems,” said Ewoldt. “Equity in education for all learners increases the diversity of our local workforce and promotes the value of all voices being heard in our community conversations.”
With their NSF funding, the researchers will continue to fine-tune their new technology tools. Once optimized, these innovative accessibility tools will be available via the cloud to students and educators nationwide.
“This award moves the needle on inclusion and will help train persons with disabilities across the United States with the tools they need to have access to more opportunities in the workforce,” said Neely.
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