Project Spotlight: Comprehensive Information Technology Education in Rural Appalachia (CITERA) and eTouchSciences

STELAR recently reconnected with Dr. Marjorie Darrah, Associate Professor of Mathematics at West Virginia University, and former PI of the Comprehensive Information Technology Education in Rural Appalachia (CITERA) project. Building on the work of her ITEST project, Dr. Darrah has created eTouchSciences, a company that provides educational software utilizing haptic technology, which provides real-time tactile feedback to visually impaired students as they explore math and science lessons. 

* How did your work take you from your ITEST project to eTouchSciences? 

My passion has always been to bring virtual reality into the classroom to make lessons more exciting for students. In our ITEST project we focused on instructing teachers to use virtual reality modeling language to integrate 3-D graphics into math and science lessons. At the same time, we also received an NSF Research in Disabilities grant to develop haptic materials. We ran these projects simultaneously, enhancing the 3-D graphics with haptic technology, making them “touchable” to provide access to students who are blind and visually impaired.

eTouchSciences was formed after receiving a FastTrack award from the US Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program to develop immersive software for students with visual impairments, allowing these students to experience the virtual world. 

* How does your work make math and science more accessible for students?

eTouchSciences has developed 20 computer applications on various math and science topics that incorporate computer haptics. This technology allows students who cannot see the screen to interact with 3-D objects, for example a plant cell and its organelles, by using their sense of touch. Utilizing the Novint Falcon 3D controller, students can explore textures and shapes like the bumps and pores of a nucleus, or experience gravitational effects such as the push and pull of an atom’s protons and electrons. The applications can also direct the user’s hand, to take them on a guided tour of three dimentional shapes. 

* What do you think is your most important learning in this area, based on your project work to-date?

We have learned that haptic technology makes learning fun and interesting for all students. As more developments in this technology come along, we hope the educational community will take advantage of them. 

* What strategies have you found most effective for sharing your project's work with broader audiences?

The strategy we used to share our eTouchSciences work was to work with Schools for the Blind, Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students (SCI-VIS) and many of the organizations for the blind in our country. We tried to reach teachers, because they are the ones who would ultimately get our applications into the classroom to be used by students.

* What excites you the most about the what you do every day?

As a professor, what excites me most is seeing people learn new things and learning new things myself. I love to see my students discover things through research, because this means that they are becoming life-long learners.