Inspired by Siri? CSU students create an app solution for visually impaired learners

Columbus State students show their invention to help the visually impaired

Columbus State University students Mary Harrell and Hannah Turner invented ChemAid to help visually impaired students be independent learners in chemistry labs.
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Columbus State University students Mary Harrell and Hannah Turner invented ChemAid to help visually impaired students be independent learners in chemistry labs.

They didn’t start out as computer science majors, but two students who caught on to coding and programming have developed a high-tech tool to help disabled students.

Called ChemAid, the tool uses a smartphone app and QR codes to help visually impaired students be more independent in a chemistry lab. And its creators are hoping an investor will take their ideas to the next level.

Mary Harrell, a 23-year-old Columbus High School graduate, and Hannah Turner, a 22-year-old Whitewater High School of Fayetteville graduate started at Columbus State University pursuing different careers, but switched after taking a computer science class.

“I fell in love with it,” Turner said. “I never really programmed before that, and everything just clicked.”

She loves “the problem-solving aspect” of computer science, but she “didn’t have the passion for education as teachers should.”

Harrell was a marketing major, but she found computer science to be compatible with her creativity. “I just could see that I’m able to make anything I want to with this. There’s no limits with this, relatively speaking.”

Both became student assistants in the university’s TSYS School of Computer Science, Harrell as a webmaster and Turner as a tutor. Then in August 2018 they signed on to a research project, and learned they would be helping visually impaired students identify equipment in chemistry labs.

Leading the project were associate computer science professor Lydia Ray, chemistry professor Rajeev Dabke and associate chemistry professor Samuel Abegaz.

“I love the idea of helping people,” Turner said. “… Just because they have a visual impairment doesn’t mean they can’t do what their peers can do.”

The professors had the vision, but Turner and Harrell had to discover a way to do it.

Inspired by Siri

Through the Center for Accommodation and Access at CSU, Harrell and Turner learned from a student who explained a visually impaired person’s needs in a chemistry lab.

For example, Harrell said, the student told them, “It’s such a pain when you want just a sentence at the very end of a long paragraph, and if it’s audio you have to wait, wait, wait and then hear it. So what we’ve done is try to break it up into manageable chunks of audio files.”

Harrell and Turner created a solution where a student could use a smartphone to scan a QR code sticker on a piece of lab equipment, such as a flask, and an audio file would automatically play and explain how the item works.

The two CSU students recorded their voices reading text written by the chemistry professors, and created the QR codes.

The project required researching text-to-voice API (application programming interface).

“We tried different software,” Turner said, “and it just wasn’t quite up to par. Good text-to-voice software, like Siri level, is actually very expensive. … We haven’t done any upgrades that would cost money so far, but we really want to. That’s why we need more funding.”

They’re working out the kinks for ChemAid to handle devices that don’t autoplay audio files.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Turner said.

They also hope to be able to make the app usable without wireless internet access, and to be able to incorporate RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. That would allow users to scan equipment without having to locate the QR code.

“We could make more vinyl stickers with a special little raise so they could feel it better,” Harell said.

Another possibility is putting the QR codes in textbooks to make them more interactive, Turner said. “It can be expanded upon in so many different ways,” she said.

‘Positive feedback’

In November, they presented their project at the Georgia Undergraduate Research Collective Conference at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.

“We just wanted feedback from our peers in our field across the state,” Harrell said. “It was a lot of positive feedback and a lot of constructive things too.”

In January, they tested the prototype with some of Dabke’s students, who wore goggles to impair their vision.

“They really liked the idea,” Turner said. “It was a little bit difficult to actually locate the QR codes and focus in on it. It’s camera-based, so if it’s a little blurry and hasn’t focused yet, it’s not going to scan it. … But for the most part, they were able to use it.”

In early April, Turner and Harrell were one of 19 teams that competed for the Georgia InVenture Prize at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s headquarters in Atlanta. They weren’t among the cash winners, but they took home some business cards after presenting ChemAid to a group of 20 potential investors.

“It was very bright lights in your face and three tiers of shadowy people in a studio,” Harrell said with a laugh. “… But it was very cool. I really enjoyed it a lot. I think that was a very helpful experience for my own personal growth.”

Turner added, also with a laugh, “It was very helpful not being able to see their actual faces. … It definitely took me out of my comfort zone.”

In mid-April, they presented ChemAid at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Kennesaw State University.

“That was really fun and informative,” Harrell said. “It was really awesome to see all the stuff these other students were doing. It was like an explosion of things from all over the United States.”

For working on the project, CSU paid them $10 per hour as student assistants. They spent an average of 5 hours per week over four months creating ChemAid.

“A lot of the time was trying to think how we can make this better,” Turner said.

Passing the torch

Harrell said their app can help not just visually impaired students but anyone, such as auditory learners or just as a study tool for general students.

But they hope for funding and for other students to continue on with the project.

Right now, a few of the tools (cylinder, buret and flask) can be accessed on the university’s website, and a ChemAid homepage is under development.

Harrell and Turner said they received hopeful responses from three potential investors.

“It’s very motivating,” Turner said. “It assures us that we are going in the right direction.”

Now, they hope to “pass the torch” so other undergraduates can further develop the project, Turner said.

”I think what we both want is for it to grow outside of ourselves,” Harrell said.

Turner added, “We would love to apply for grants that would give us more funding for that text-to-voice software, the proximity sensors, branching it more into different fields of science.”

Dabke, a chemistry professor for 40 years, including the past 17 at CSU, called the work Harrell and Turner did on the project “outstanding.”

“They have been creative in their approach,” Dabke said. “They brought some new ideas to this project, and they were able to sort of disseminate this idea to a wider audience.”

Then explained why this project matters.

“Any type of disability is a kind of hindering block between you and the learning process,” Dabke said. “These devices, to some extent, will help sort of overcome obstacles. . . . Right now, we have limited apparatus, but we can extend it to more apparatus, some safety equipment in the lab, for example a safety shower.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.