Accessibility project advances local school in national competition

Published: Dec. 5, 2019 at 11:05 AM CST
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A project in a Janesville school has launched the school into the next round of a nationwide competition encouraging students and teachers to use STEM to solve problems.

The Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has passed through the first round of Samsung's Solve for Tomorrow competition, in which public school students and teachers in 6th through 12th grade are challenged to use Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to help their schools and communities.

Tim Fahlberg, a math and computer science teacher at the school, heard about the contest and decided that a new technology they were implementing at the school would make a good submission.

"Something called NaviLens that involves these colored QR codes that are visible to a smart phone app," Fahlberg explained.

NaviLens allows users to use their smart phone to scan their surroundings for a NaviLens code, said Fahlberg. The phone will then process the information in the code, and read out loud corresponding information.

"The problem that we chose is for the blind, visually impaired community, and also young people and older people who have print disabilities," he said. "There are a lot of signs, directional and informational signs, that are not accessible, then there's also things like artwork that's not accessible."

For example, if someone is visually impaired or blind, they may have difficulty finding the nearest exit sign, or restroom in an unfamiliar building. However, using NaviLens, they could scan for a NaviLens code then receive verbal instructions from their phone with directions on how to reach that exit or restroom.

Fahlberg, along with his students, have been working on putting the NaviLens codes throughout the school. Students have helped determine where the NaviLens codes should be placed and what information they should have.

One of those students in Marin Gundlach, a freshman at the school.

"I love helping and being part of such a project," she said. "I love the fact that this could potentially help out blind people all over the country, maybe even around the world. Just starting here at our school is step one."

In a demonstration, Gundlach entered through the front doors of the school, using her phone to scan for the NaviLens codes posted throughout the lobby area.

"It will read it out by itself, you just have to have the app open and you have to have the camera pointing at the code," she said.

Upon scanning the code, her phone gave her directions of how to navigate the building.

"Turn right to go to the reception desk, restrooms, and more," the app on her phone read out loud.

Fahlberg said the school was chosen to be one of 300 State Finalists across the country in Samsung's competition. The next round will narrow that to 100 schools. With or without a win, Gundlach and Fahlberg said the technology is already making a difference.

"This is about Marin and other students having a future that is much brighter with more possibilities for future and workplaces that are accessible to them," Fahlberg said. "So this is kind of the first step in that process."