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Visually Impaired Study Math Using NASA Software

Visually Impaired Students Study Math Using Innovative Software

Until recently, blind and visually impaired students found it extremely difficult to study certain subjects and pursue careers in science and technology because they could not see graphs and other visual representations. But now, a team at NASA has created easy-to-use software that allows students to graph equations, interact with the data and understand it all through text, tones and spoken language.

The program, MathTrax, transforms graphs and equations in real-time into words, so students have multiple ways to process complex information. "For blind and low vision kids ... MathTrax provides a tool for them to work along with their sighted peers in their math and science classes," says Robert Shelton, a blind NASA mathematician who worked with Terry Hodgson and Stephanie Smith on the development of MathTrax.

Shelton realized that "even now, when modern assistive technology should be opening doors to STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers, many otherwise capable blind students are steered away from the math and science courses which could provide the basis for further education, employment and independence."

His team at NASA had "a long history of developing innovative educational technology applications such as games, simulations and knowledge discovery tools, and we saw the development of an accessible math tool as a way that our efforts could make a large difference for an otherwise underserved population."

NASA management "absolutely loved the idea" when Shelton's team proposed it, he said. "NASA's core business is very different from what we do, but it is generally understood that enlarging the STEM pipeline is critical, not only to NASA's mission, but to the long-term security and prosperity of our civilization."

"Like all other educational technology projects at NASA, we have to compete for resources and we operate on a shoestring [budget], but NASA has a proud history of trying innovative ideas that work, and MathTrax is definitely one of those," Shelton said.

At a NASA science camp for students with vision impairments called "Rocket On," students used MathTrax for dealing with rocketry for mission planning, trajectory planning and data analysis.

"There was no other tool on the planet that would have let them do that rocket camp without an engineer helping them," Shelton said in a NASA article on the camp. "And this year the kids did it [on their own]."

Besides analyzing rocket launches, kids also can use MathTrax to do things like study ozone change, illustrate air and sea interactions, study rainfall distribution, forecast ecosystem changes, investigate the nature of black holes, explore the expansion of space, estimate solar activity, model solar wind, compare body adaptations to microgravity, track the effects of space radiation and represent and model scientific information.

MathTrax received an education award from the Tech Museum of Innovation at a ceremony November 7 in San Jose, California. The award was based on the recommendation of an international panel of judges. In 2006, MathTrax was the runner-up for NASA Software of the Year.


MathTrax can be helpful to, and deepen the mathematical understanding of, all types of students. In fact, "we have a wealth of anecdotal evidence that the majority of our users are sighted," Shelton told USINFO. "We are over 100,000 downloads now, and I'm pretty sure that most of those people can see. Failure to complete basic algebra is a multibillion a year problem in the United States and a tool like MathTrax can make a difference to anyone who has issues with graphical concepts."

Most math students are familiar with graphing calculators, which turn mathematical equations into visual forms. MathTrax presents the equation in additional ways, providing a text description and an audio version of the graph, with sounds that correlate to the visual image.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the software is that a student actually can hear the music of certain equations. "They'll see how equations look if they're looking at it," according to Shelton. "They'll hear how they sound if they're listening to it."

"MathTrax demonstrates how graphing software can be made more accessible to everyone. We've made the technology available, worldwide, with the Open Source release of the Math Description Engine Software Development Kit. We hope that industry and researchers will build on the technology and apply it as widely as possible."

There is a proposal pending to produce a Spanish-language version of MathTrax, Shelton said.


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