Computer Science Education

SAS and Sphero Address Coding Needs of Students with Visual Impairments

Data analytics company SAS and education technology company Sphero are working together to bring data analytics and robot coding — along with soft skills — to students with visual impairments.

At the heart of the initiative is SAS CodeSnaps, a free app designed to be used in classrooms, camps and clubs, to teach kids the basics of computer science, including how to code. The students work together and problem-solve to take on programming challenges using printed coding blocks. When blocks are scanned with the SAS CodeSnaps app, the program executes on a Sphero robot, such as the BOLT, SPRK+ or Sphero Mini.

The printable blocks are available in 10 languages. Now the collection also includes an English braille version.

SAS worked with the Perkins School for the Blind to adapt CodeSnaps to meet the needs of students with visual impairments and blindness. Now braille is part of the code blocks, and lessons can incorporate a tactile device, such as a measuring stick to measure distances.

Diane Brauner, manager of Perkins' Paths to Technology website, helped create activities that use noise to help students identify the robot's movements.

The activities were tested during a coding challenge with the Coding Club at The Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, NC. The challenge required students (teams of boys against girls) to send their Sphero through the course, including traveling to a trash can, then going behind it and crossing the finish line.

"No longer sitting on the sidelines or relying on a sighted peer's descriptions, students who are blind or low-vision can fully participate in every aspect of the coding activity," said Brauner, in a press release. "With the physical course, SAS CodeSnaps braille blocks and a Sphero robot, blind and low-vision students are studying the physical obstacle course, writing code using the SAS CodeSnaps braille blocks, and following the Sphero robot auditorily."

"Every student should have the opportunity to learn to code," added Ed Summers, director of accessibility at SAS. "With CodeSnaps' interactive, customized resources, teachers of students with visual impairments can find creative ways to integrate computer science into any subject, engaging students with sound and touch."

This is far from SAS' first foray into accessibility. In 2017, the company launched SAS Graphics Accelerator, a tool for making data visualizations accessible to people with visual impairments. SAS Graphics Accelerator generates alternative presentations of SAS data visualizations, including verbal descriptions, tabular data and interactive sonification, which uses non-speech audio to convey details about the graph. Users rely on sound rather than sight to explore bar charts, time series plots, heat maps, line charts, scatter plots and histograms. For example, a sonic representation of a bar graph will shift where the sound is coming from to indicate movement along the x-axis and changes the pitch to indicate higher or lower values to designate the y-axis.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.