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Community Spotlight

2018 August 31

Spotlight on Tactiles in Education

By Liz Arum


A photograph of Liz sitting next to a 3D printer.I first became aware of the impact 3D printing can have on visually impaired students when I attended a three-day meeting with over fifty library, museum, and school professionals from across the country at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose in June of 2015. The conference, organized by Benetech, was created to survey and develop an understanding of the existing efforts connecting 3D printing and education and to identify ways in which makerspaces and 3D printing resources could transform the educational experience of students with disabilities. The conference built upon DIAGRAM Center’s research into the ways that 3D printing technology could be applied to create accessible educational materials.

Everyone at the conference agreed that there was a need to make educational 3D models more available, discoverable, and usable; however, there were still issues that needed to be addressed. Aside from the state of the technology and the questions of image and model ownership, a major obstacle was the lack of standards that could be employed when designing or evaluating models. To that end, the conference focused on developing a network of collaborators (educators, students, publishers, accessibility experts, individuals from 3D printing companies, librarians, museum staff, and makerspace members) who would work to develop standards and create models.

While I was inspired by the efforts of others, I can’t say that I was a “model” model contributor post conference. But, as I have transitioned through different jobs over the last few years, I have maintained a sensitivity to the issues, and, when possible, have advocated for supporting accessibility efforts.

My work as Ultimaker’s Education Community Strategist introduced me to Mara Hitner from MatterHackers. Mara has been a longtime supporter of using 3D printing to help the visually impaired. In 2017, she helped establish and run MatterHacker’s Envision The Future Design Challenge, which asked designers to create tactile models “to be used in a classroom for kindergarten all the way up to graduate school.”

Mara and I discussed strategies for how we could combine our efforts, and we joined forces by bringing together people that we knew were interested in using 3D models to help the visually impaired. Ultimaker then launched the Tactile Problem/Solution Bank Community project on March 5, 2018, which coincided with the restart of the DIAGRAM Tactiles Working Group, an ever-expanding international working group that meets over Zoom every other Monday. The most active participants include Jim Allan (chair of the group) from the Texas School of the Blind, myself, Mara, Allie Futty who is a Vermont AT consultant, Sue-Ann Ma who is the DIAGRAM Center director and product manager at Benetech, Amaya Webster who is the Community Manager for DIAGRAM and a project manager at Benetech, Jonathan Gorges from the College of the Desert , Joan Horvath and Rich Cameron who develop books with 3D printable science and math models, Lucia Hasty who is a former TVI, and Ruben Brandsma from the Accessibility Foundation in The Netherlands.

Over the last few months the goals of the project have been refined and transformed, but from the beginning, we have been interested in taking information from those who have worked with the visually impaired and sharing it with students, educators, and designers who want to create usable tactile models. We want to establish best practices and share our findings with those who want to create models that satisfy actual needs of real people, and we want those models to be easy to find and accessible to the educators who need them.

Now imagine that there is a repository of multimodal educational assets (2D and 3D tactiles, 3D models, text descriptions, videos, audio recordings, etc). Imagine that this repository is searchable by subject and modality, and that all the items in the collection are tagged with metadata. So now, as an educator who is interested in exploring alternative ways to communicate an idea, I don’t have to search a number of sites that may or may not meet my needs. I can look in one place to easily find resources that can help all of my students learn about a particular topic through various modalities or approaches. So whether a student has a disability or just demonstrates a preference for a different learning style, I can now find and use resources that support and reinforce the learning of each of my students. When I reconnected with Benetech’s Lisa Wadors last winter, she told me about just such a repository/registry. Imageshare is Benetech’s central platform that allows users to search across multiple collections using specific search parameters.

After speaking with Lisa Wadors and Sue-Ann Ma, it became clear that tactile models can be used as teachable objects for many types of students, and that some models may be more appropriate for different groups of students (differentiated by age, level of understanding, or ability). This idea of layers or gradients completely opened up our project. A model that benefits the visually impaired student can also help the sighted student with the understanding of a complex idea, and introducing color to the same model may actually provide additional understanding for a low vision or sighted student. Adding mechanisms that allow a model to move may not be suitable for a blind student, but that model could provide a deeper level of understanding for a sighted student who needs to see the relationships among parts and how one part influences another.

This community project started with designing tactile models for the visually impaired, but it has become about using design to ensure that teachers have access to educational materials that are accessible, regardless of learning styles or physical or sensory abilities. In order to determine best practices for designing models for the visually impaired, we wanted to test different types of models with different groups of students. We compiled a list of models from various repositories such as Thingiverse, YouMagine, and MyMiniFactory. These models were either recommended by a group member or were identified as being useful to visually impaired students.

Ultimaker 3D-printed seventy-six models from the list and shipped them to the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, CA. Jonathan Gorges, the Instructional Computer Support Specialist in the Disabled Students Program and Services office created the data collection form that testers will use to evaluate the models. He also made modifications during the first testing phase based on feedback from the visually impaired students he works with. The models were then sent to Benetech where other testers were recruited. The plan is to send the models to test groups from Texas School for the Blind, Houston Community College, and Indiana School for the Blind.

After best practices are compiled, the group will share recommendations for designing 3D models for the visually impaired with students, educators, and designers. From the seventy-six models tested, we hope to contribute at least twenty-five models to Benetech’s Imageshare repository.


From the DIAGRAM Center team:

Are you are an educator who would like to help us test the 3D models with differently-abled students? Or are you an AEM or AT Specialist who is interested in printing a few 2D tactile graphics files or 3D models? If so, please contact the Tactile Working Group at or the DIAGRAM team at


Additionally, if you are interested in connecting with more educators and researchers regarding using 3D models to teach STEAM, check out the Construct 3D conference taking place in Atlanta later this fall.


Spotlight on Receiving an Obama Foundation Fellowship

By Melissa Malzkuhn

A photograph of Melissa Malzkuhn, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.It is a huge honor to be part of the inaugural class of the Obama Foundation Fellowship program that supports twenty recipients for two years (2018-2020). When I was informed I was selected, I learned that over 20,000 people applied from 191 different countries. This was incredible and humbling!

As part of the fellowship program, I will be receiving support from the foundation in a myriad of ways: networking, executive coaching, leadership, organizational assessments, mentorship, and identifying my vision and roadmap.

I applied for the fellowship for several reasons: one, it’s important to me that all deaf children have a chance at life. It starts with an education, but it’s much more than just learning to read or having good literacy skills. It’s about having a family who can communicate and who embraces sign language, Deaf culture, and the Deaf identity/way of being. Deaf children thrive in that environment and build literacy skills. This is the transformation I want to achieve. Two, the work I’m doing needs more support, funding, and attention. I want people to understand why creating signed resources is important, how it empowers the Deaf community to be part of the solution, and to find support/resources to be able to do the development. Three, on a personal level, I want to elevate my career path, and I want to bring this work to the next level and toward a future with exciting possibilities through networking and collaborating with others who can make a difference.

The fellowship is non-residential; we meet four times in two years for fantastic workshops, sessions, conversations, discussions, and more. The opportunity to meet Barack and Michelle Obama and to have meaningful conversations with them about their experiences, leadership, thoughts, and what they hope for the future, was incredible. They are intelligent, deep, and kind people who truly believe that together we can find mutual connections in spite of differences and make our communities vibrant and healthy. We need to consider our own grassroots connections in creating change, while also working from a legislative and executive angle, but we cannot expect our government to do what we want without some local decision-making and civic engagement.

I hope to grow as a leader and build resources that allow many more people to participate in creative making – the most fun part here – in creating storybook apps for Deaf children in their sign languages and written languages. We will work together and build a global digital library.


Spotlight on PhET

By Emily Moore


A headshot of Emily Moore.The PhET Interactive Simulations project is delighted to announce a new grant from the National Science Foundation titled “Highly Adaptive Science Simulations for Accessible STEM Education” (NSF DRL #1814220). This grant supports research and development of new accessibility features for science simulations. Specifically, outcomes of the work will be continued advancement of auditory display features for simulations (such as verbalized text description, sound effects, and sonifications) and new adaptive visual display features (such as color contrast, zooming, visual simplification, and timing control).

We are particularly excited about the engagement with students with disabilities and their teachers that will be central to this work. Research and design will be conducted through significant and long-term co-design projects with students and their teachers. Through partnerships with schools and programs serving students with learning disabilities, visual impairments, or intellectual and developmental disabilities, we will work directly with students and their teachers in classroom and one-on-one settings.

Throughout this grant, students will engage in co-design projects that focus on design thinking, which includes building the awareness that the technology around us can be designed in ways that are more or less supportive for individuals. Importantly, students will be able to engage in technology design projects themselves, designing new features for PhET simulations and experiencing their designs in real life! As their designs come to life, together we will consider a range of needs and preferences their designs could support.

This work is a three-year collaboration between the PhET team, led by Dr. Emily Moore from the University of Colorado Boulder, and Dr. Carrie Bruce from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Lynne Harden is a senior researcher with the PhET project and will lead the facilitation of the co-design projects. If you would like more information about this project, please contact Dr. Emily Moore (


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