Isabelle Harris is well on her way to becoming an expert at the board game Othello.
The 13-year-old from Grand Junction, Colorado, first discovered the game in an art room at the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind in 2019. In Othello, players take turns laying down black-and-white tiles on a board, attempting to capture their opponent’s pieces.
“It was 3D-printed, and it had these pieces that looked like checkers but were different,” she said.
Different because the tiles came in unique textures. That meant that Harris, who was born with a condition called optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH), was able to distinguish the pieces entirely by feel. It was a big moment for her: Up until that point, the middle-schooler hadn’t played a board game with anyone.
Later, “I played it with my friend, who has ONH also, and she loved it,” Harris said.
That’s exactly what Stacey Forsyth likes to hear. Forsyth is one of the leads of the Build a Better Book project, an initiative based at CU Boulder that helped to develop the modified Othello game.
The project takes a different approach to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Its educators work with K-12 students in and outside of Colorado, most of whom are sighted, and teaches them how to design objects that are both fun and needed—books, games and more—that are accessible for all children.
She hopes that the project will inspire a lot of experiences like Harris’s.
“Often in STEM classes, kids might use technology and a variety of materials to make a trinket or design something for themselves,” said Forsyth, director of CU Science Discovery. “This is about applying those same skills to create something that’s really needed and, importantly, to design a product for someone else.”
From books to zoos
The project emerged in 2012 out of research and outreach spearheaded by Tom Yeh, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, who later received funding for his work through a CU Boulder Outreach Award.
At the time, engineering tools like 3D printers and laser cutters were becoming more common. Yeh wondered if they could play a role in making more accessible materials for children who were blind or visually impaired. In 2016, Yeh, Forsyth and Bridget Dalton, an associate professor in the School of Education, launched the officially-named Build a Better Book project with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
“The students in my lab have been working very hard to design and make accessible books for children with visual impairments,” said Yeh, the project's co-lead.
“Stacey at Science Discovery encouraged us to think about middle school and high school students. Perhaps we can teach them the design process as well as maker technologies. Perhaps they can contribute.”
In the years since, the project has exploded.
“It’s grown a lot faster than we anticipated,” Forsyth said.
She and her colleagues at Science Discovery collaborate with educators and librarians across the country, helping them to hold their own Build a Better Book workshops. Their students, who span elementary to high school, also don’t just make books. One teacher in Alabama, for example, asked her pupils to design an accessible map for the Birmingham Zoo—one that uses animal noises to show visitors where to find their favorite critters.
To date, the Build a Better Book team has grown partnerships with educators in 18 states, and more than 2100 youth have participated in its programs.
“It’s evolved into a design exercise where kids are trying to think from someone else’s perspective,” Forsyth said.
That put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes approach has also bridged into board games. Science Discovery’s Kathryn Penzkover explained that there just aren’t a lot of accessible games currently on the market.
“There are some very simple changes you can make to games to make them more accessible,” said Penzkover, the Build a Better Book project manager. “But when you’re designing for sighted people, we don’t think about that.”
Students from Skinner Middle School in Denver did think about that when they designed their own prototype for an accessible Othello—the same one that Harris played.
Penzkover, who met Harris at the conference, sent the teen a copy of the game for her birthday in December. It’s become a hit for the whole Harris family.
“We like to play games,” said Susan Harris, Isabelle’s mom. “This makes it a lot easier to keep Isabelle included in our family activities.”
In the process, she and her husband Rob discovered something new about their daughter: Isabelle has one heck of a competitive streak.
“I like trying to beat my mom,” she said.