American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)       FEATURE

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On LEGO, the Pattern of Experience, and Building A Generation of Blind Scientists and Engineers

by Mark A. Riccobono

From the Editor: As president of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono is dedicated to creating new opportunities for blind students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In this article, he discusses the critical importance of building new and more effective patterns of experience. One tool for bringing about the essential changes is the humble LEGO brick.

Mark Riccobono; his wife, Melissa; and their children, Austin, Oriana, and Elizabeth enjoy an outing at LEGOLAND]In science, technology, engineering, and math, patterns are an extremely fundamental component of the knowledge base. In science, patterns often reveal important trends or lead to new understanding of the natural properties of the world. In technology, patterns of sequences help to automate processes that would otherwise take hundreds of human hours. In engineering, patterns are critical in designing strong structures or in recognizing a breakdown in a system. And in mathematics, patterns emerge in everything from memorizing multiplication factors to determining the value of unknown variables. In all of these subject areas, the understanding of patterns only emerges after hundreds of hours of exploration, hours filled with both success and failure. Through more than a decade of work on educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and math for the National Federation of the Blind, I have found the core of the work to be a matter of breaking old patterns of low expectations and establishing new patterns of experience.

In November 2003 I first went to work for the National Federation of the Blind. I had been directing educational programs for blind children in Wisconsin, and I was familiar with the artificial barriers blind children faced in America's educational system. Before coming to work for the Federation, I thought of my work in education primarily in terms of eliminating the systemic barriers. Anything else that I might accomplish was just a bonus.

When I arrived in Baltimore, I learned that a different approach was required. Dr. Marc Maurer was President of the National Federation of the Blind, and he hired me to work on educational programming. When I reported for my first day of work, he assigned me to put together a science program for the following summer.

I was taken aback by the assignment. Build a program from the ground up, without any other parameters or instructions? I thought, though I didn't voice any of the doubt I felt.

I think my fear of that challenge and my work to meet that challenge expose the important patterns of experience that can either limit or empower blind people. To understand my perspective, you need to know two important things about my childhood. The first is that I grew up not understanding that I was a blind person. I was legally blind, but I did not know any other blind people until I got to high school. By that time the pattern of faking it was well established for me. I had learned to pass with what little vision I had, and I was limited by the low expectations that others had for blind people.

The second thing to know is that my favorite toy when I was growing up was the LEGO brick. The more of them the better! It did not matter what color or shape or size the bricks were. If I had some LEGOs, I would build creations of all types (sometimes based on instructions, but often simply out of my imagination).

When the idea of building a STEM education program from the ground up was first presented to me, my initial reaction was to fall back into the pattern of low expectations that had been my experience during my childhood. As a blind person in America's educational system, I was not expected to build things from scratch. Rather, I was expected to follow the predefined and very limiting template often specialized for blind children. My experience in science was not very experiential at all. In fact, on the few occasions when I was expected to do anything in the lab, I was assigned to take notes. In my career as an educational administrator, I had focused on eliminating barriers in the existing system. I had not gone beyond the system I knew to imagine a better system and build it from the ground up.

When it comes to the science programs we built for the summer of 2004, I have slightly exaggerated the situation. Although I was expected to build something from the ground up, I had some instructions. I had become a member of the National Federation of the Blind almost a decade earlier, and I had learned the pattern of thought and action that exemplifies active participation in our organization. I had learned that many of the barriers we face as blind people are artificial, based on misconceptions about blindness and an expectation that the blind cannot participate fully. I had also learned about the structured discovery method of teaching and learning and the history of blind people testing and refining techniques based on their own lived experience. I knew that I had access to a committed, resourceful, and progress-oriented core of people who were ready to help--the members of the National Federation of the Blind.

The work of our 2004 science programs has been covered extensively in Future Reflections, so I will not go into detail here. We continue to use the general technique we developed to design and implement those early programs. In 2004 we tried to think about all of the things in science education to which we, as blind people, typically have not had access. Then we set out to build a program where blind people could do as many of those things as we could fit into the time frame, all under the direction of blind mentors.

My favorite example is dissection. We gathered some of the best blind educators together and discovered that not one of them had ever done a dissection independently. We built a new pattern of experience by teaching ourselves as blind educators how to do dissections. We cut up a lot of dogfish sharks that summer, and we established a pattern that has ripple effects today.

For more than a decade, we have continued to build a pattern of experience in educational programs through the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, and we are still seeking ways to expand the opportunities. The pattern of high expectations and authentic experience continues to shape our work. As we build new programs, we find that there are even more new patterns to create. That is where the LEGOs come into play.

I have had countless experiences building with LEGOs, as a child and now as a parent. Therefore, I was shocked by an encounter with a group of students at one of our National Federation of the Blind science programs in 2011. I observed a group of blind high school students who had never had the opportunity to build with LEGOs. They were bright, young people who were working on some pretty complex science projects, but they had never built with LEGOs before. The patterns of building were a complete mystery to them. Had someone always assumed vision was required? Had they been daunted by the fact that they could not see the visual instructions? What other spatial concepts might we improve by teaching building concepts with LEGOs? These and many more questions ran through my head.

We need to create opportunities for our blind children to learn to build with LEGOs. We must let them experiment and try things. Next we should give them the experience of building based on instructions, turning visual instructions into words. If they are written down, the words will build literacy skills; they will build listening skills if they are presented orally. I suspect that the experience of following instructions will also help blind youth build mental maps, a skill that is useful in independent travel. We can further enhance the learning by having blind children build things and communicate verbal or written instructions to others. We can build useful skills in our blind children and, at the same time, build a library of written LEGO instructions for actual and imagined LEGO sets.

In the National Federation of the Blind, we are working on building a new resource, a body of written LEGO instructions that does not depend on pictures. In the meantime, encourage your children and students to experience building and establishing a common language to describe various LEGO pieces. I am working on these concepts with my two young daughters who are blind, and we are having a lot of fun in the process. The experience of building will help them better understand spatial relationships, and the patterns will help them imagine new things to build.

One of the wonderful things about LEGOs is that even if a structure is built incorrectly, you can always rebuild it. LEGOs are a good example of the visual bias that creates low expectations for blind people. Perfectly matching the colors of the LEGO bricks or following visually based directions should not be determining factors in becoming a master builder. The ability to learn the patterns, the opportunity to experience building through hands-on exploration, and the development of communication skills to understand and express building concepts are far more important. I encourage you to join me in creating a LEGO revolution for the blind. Please share your ideas about building with LEGOs without vision. Let me know your tips and tricks and what we might do together to build new opportunities for the next generation of blind LEGO builders. Join with me because, to quote the great builders from the LEGO movie, "Everything is awesome when you are part of a team."

When I think back on the dozens of educational programs we have built in science, technology, engineering, and math for blind students, the critical ingredient is the pattern of exploration and creativity. We always expect blind youth to learn through active exploration, and we present students with opportunities to apply skills through their own creativity. All too often, blind children are permitted a limited range of activities in scientific studies, based on low expectations and a lack of creativity on the part of instructors. While many blind students still experience these limits, the good news is that our work in the National Federation of the Blind has dramatically changed the pattern. More blind people are equipped with the skills to pursue their interests in science. More educators understand how actively to engage their blind students in scientific subjects. Many more examples of successful blind role models and resources in scientific subjects exist to inspire and educate parents and teachers of blind children.

As an educator and a parent, I firmly believe that parents of blind children are in the best position to create the pattern of exploration and creativity that is essential for success in science. As a parent, you can encourage your blind child to build with LEGOs. You can give your child opportunities to gain experience through touch (something that is far too often discouraged today). You can create opportunities for your child to experiment and learn through trial and error. As you nurture exploration, you will help to build a pattern of experience that will be a great asset to your child in the future.

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