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QuestBots for the Sight Impaired

They had never done anything with robotics, coding or electrical circuits before, but they wanted to try. They were excited at the prospect of starting to control little machines and like most beginners they had many questions. They wanted to know how big the robots would be, what they could do. Was it possible to program the robots to clean their houses? And so I sat underneath an overhang out of the hot African sun and answered their questions. A handful of educators and I had been teaching robotics and other technologies in Gulu, Uganda for over four years so the questions weren’t unexpected or out of the ordinary. This small city in Northwest Uganda has been revitalizing itself since 2009 when the Lord’s Resistance Army officially left, the civil war ended and civilians began to return to their homes. The young people understand the importance of learning new tools to help make their lives and community a better place. The enthusiasm and confidence for adopting new technology was commonplace in my introductory class. What made this group of students and educators unique was the fact that none of them could fully see.

In 2012 Oysters & Pearls-Uganda, in partnership with Fundi Bots, hired me to help them level up their robotics education programs. At the time we did not envision a 150-student camp with tracks in video game, virtual reality, radio, app design, and robotics. There were four of us techie educators—three Africans and one American. We had a hard time convincing the local schools that we could indeed start a robotics program so we spent little time with actual students. But we stayed up until three or four in the morning teaching each other what we knew about things like microchips, Bluetooth communication and teaching skills. We passed a mobile Internet router between us and caught white ants out of the air, which we ate. Because in Africa, my new friends informed me, the snacks come to you. At the time Oysters & Pearls-Uganda was in the process of building up the technology necessary to help blind students use computers. Robotics weren’t a main focus and the workspaces were alive with the sound of text to voice automated speech to help the blind, not the sound of motors and servos driven by robots.

Kids learn everything from creating Apps, to building robots and even PCB design

Almost every year since then I (along with others) have returned to keep the tech program growing. It used to be that the blind program was distinctly separate from the sighted tech program but about two years ago a curious thing started to happen. The blind students, familiar with laptops and JAWS, started to ask me if I could help them use technology to do music production. The sighted students, aware of the many hurdles that the blind students at the camp faced, started to create prototypes to help the blind. I told the blind students that I would try to help them with their music and encouraged the sighted inventors to continue their work but couldn’t really focus on the intersection of the programs because the tech program required a lot of work to get it off the ground. In addition to the huge workload that it takes to teach a tech camp of this size for two weeks the core group of instructors had to train assistive instructors, help get the school cleaned up before the students arrived, create materials to teach the new hardware, find the missing bits of the old hardware we had used last year, and do little things like get electricity turned back on and chase black mamba snakes from their cool nesting spots in the student latrines. For my part I was doing this in an unfamiliar country and culture after getting off an eighteen-hour plane ride, with my delicate American intestines that always seem to find a new way to say hello to the African micro-organisms in the food and water. Prep time was usually about three or four days total to do all of this.

Every year we first meet the students in the cafeteria and each year we grow closer to filling the room

But the year before last a particular educator showed up and he really understood what was happening. He wanted to share his knowledge with everyone. Most importantly he didn’t want to take charge, but he wanted to help others take charge of their own lives. He knew a bit of Linux. He liked robots. He was rarely the loudest, but he was the one that listened to others the most. And he shared a love for music and music production with myself and the blind students. So after his first camp he was given the opportunity to take over leadership of the tech program. That next year I found myself standing beside him watching as two sighted tech students worked in free audio software they had just learned to record the singing of a group of blind students. Then when I returned in August for an amazing three weeks of prep time I witnessed one of the same students frequenting the Makerspace creating beats. Unfortunately he had to make the entire beat in one session since the demo version of the software he was using didn’t allow him to save editable files. That prompted me to send the lab administrator, a Linux and networking guru, a bunch of Linux friendly freeware audio links. We’ll see if he has gotten them working on Raspberry Pis by the time I return.

We get to be the “cool” educators who do weird things like stand on desks while teaching how to make video games

When I wasn’t running around doing prep work for the 2 week tech camp or helping the new staff train the new batch of incoming peer trainers (students who would likely become lead instructors in time) I was sitting with a couple of the blind students, placing braille on the Qubes that are used with my QuestBots. My startup company designed these bots so that kids as young as three can learn how to do simple programming and math. Our goal is to help pre-schoolers get experience with algebra. Sounds crazy but it’s working. I never thought about the fact that it could be useful for blind students, and yet there we were. After fifteen minutes of explanation and no background whatsoever in coding the two blind instructors were able to turn around and teach the others. Some of the students clapped their hands in joy. Others were left with their mouths wide open as they felt the movement of the robot they had programmed. The really cool thing is that they were part of the prototyping process. After explaining the way the system works with sighted students they decided what the braille labels should read. They also informed me of what aspects of the buzzer that I had added were useful and what was just distracting.

A few days later I boarded a plane for Ethiopia and eventually Denver with a backpack full of little plastic Qubes covered in braille. What I left behind no one could see better than the sight impaired students with whom I had worked—yet another seed of knowledge and wonder at how technology can be used to understand the world around us.