The first time I attended college in 2001, a time I lovingly refer to as College 1.0, I was studying computer science. This required a decent level of mathematics, and the ability to gather information from, and create, certain technical diagrams. I was participating in a National Science Foundation grant to study methods of effectively teaching these concepts to blind students. We were trying a few different techniques to see how they stacked up against what other blind people had used before. One of the tools we used was a tactile drawing board: a wooden board with a rubber surface that made raised line drawings on specialized plastic sheets. This drawing board worked but had a few limitations. Most notably the cost of the plastic sheets, which were about a dollar a piece. The drawings also weren’t very effective once removed from the board. The lines tended to lose their height and were less detectable after just a short time. This recipe didn’t make it easy to have a diagram drawn and referenced later. If you were lucky, you might be able to figure out what it was supposed to be. If you weren’t, and you frequently weren’t, you just wrote it off as a new Dadaistic creation and hoped that question wasn’t on the test.
Fast forward about twelve years where a new sensation (see what I did there?) in portable, on-demand tactile graphics enters the scene. The Sensational Blackboard, created by Ann Cunningham, offers the ability to create raised line drawings on regular paper, substantially reducing the cost of utilization, and making it easier for someone to experiment without fear of wasting money.
I didn’t have a specific need to use the Sensational Blackboard in my own education, even though I was now in College 2.0, but I did find it extremely useful in helping my partner and a friend of ours get their amateur radio licenses.
At the time, all three of us were living in Lincoln, Nebraska where the local amateur radio club held licensing classes a few times a year. Karen and Kayde decided to take the first class in the fall and obtain their Technician class licenses. As part of learning about amateur radio, you are taught many things including basic electrical theory (how not to electrocute yourself), the differences between series and parallel circuits (series: when one Christmas light goes out, they all do), what various types of antennas look like, and other principles that are often illustrated visually. While some of these items have real-world representation that is easy to demonstrate in place of a diagram, a small vertical magnet mount antenna for example, others, such as a directional antenna for world-wide communications (some of which are the length of a small bus) are not so readily available for examination.
To help demonstrate some of these concepts, I attended the class with Karen and Kayde, and used the Sensational Blackboard to draw relevant items the instructor would show on the projector. A good example is the visual aid typically used to demonstrate Ohm’s law. Ohm’s law states that voltage is equal to current times resistance (E=IR), and in typical algebraic fashion we can, given any two values, calculate the third. The visual aid most instructors use to demonstrate this formula is a circle with a line drawn horizontally across the middle, and another line drawn vertically from the center of the horizontal line to the outer edge of the circle, dividing the circle into three sections. The letter E (representing voltage) is placed in the center of the top of the circle, and the letters I (current) and R (resistance) are placed in the bottom two sections. The idea is, by covering the value you don’t have, you are easily reminded how to treat the other two. Letters next to each other (I and R) are multiplied and vertically aligned values are divided. For visual learners, it’s an effective tool to remember the formula. For those of us who skipped dinner, it’s a good reminder that we want a pizza.
In talking with Karen and Kayde, they both felt that having immediate tactile access to the material being presented visually helped significantly in their understanding of the material. In an average class, I probably drew five diagrams for each student (and discarded at least three because of errors). Without the Sensational Blackboard, this instant creation of diagrams would have been a costly venture. Additionally, because of the way the Blackboard produces its tactile drawings, they were able to save the produced diagrams for later reference.