High school sophomore Dima Faraj held his finger in the air, tracing a diamond. He leaned into his laptop, where zoomed-in, white type was displayed on a black screen as he troubleshot several lines of code.
This is Dima’s Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles class, where he and his classmates are practicing using a coding language called Quorum to draw diamonds on a grid. The challenge? Dima and his classmates at the Washington State School for the Blind are visually impaired, making the already difficult task of coding even more complicated.
Enter Amanda Rodda, a math and computer science teacher at the campus. Rodda is working to make the subjects more accessible for her students, using hands-on activities to drive lessons home.
“(They should) have the same opportunities for employment and secondary education as any other student,” Rodda said of her students. “Most jobs use some kind of computer science and computer programming.”
Rodda notes that math and programming are notoriously difficult to teach to visually impaired students. Explaining fractions, for example, as having a numerator on top and a denominator on the bottom doesn’t cut it for students who can’t see the material.
“A lot of the ways we teach math are very visual, and to adapt that for students who can’t see it just takes time and effort,” Rodda said.
Those adaptations were on display in Rodda’s geometry class Wednesday, where she and her students were playing that 1980s role-playing standby, Dungeons & Dragons. Rather than require more traditional tests, Rodda sometimes runs a D&D campaign for her class, peppering them with questions throughout the game to complete moves.
During a test, “you just sit there,” said Zoe Parker, a junior who lives in Portland.
“It’s not engaging. My brain starts going ‘eughhhh,'” she said. “With the D&D, it’s like you’re engaged in it. You still have to answer math questions, but it’s a lot more engaging.”
Students placed plastic pegs around a board in Rodda’s geometry class Wednesday, feeling their way through a dungeon toward the final boss, Krampus. Zoe announced she’d be firing “magic missiles” at the Christmas demon.
“Cool! You’ve got to answer a question,” Rodda told her. “What’s the relationship between angles seven and four?”
Zoe ran her fingers on the angles embossed in her textbook, which displayed a series of angles and accompanying Braille.
“Alternate interior angles,” Zoe said.
“Eight points of damage to the Krampus!” Rodda cheered. Zoe’s answer was correct.
Then there’s computer science education, a new challenge for Rodda and her students. Code.org, one of the leading websites for computer science curriculum, typically teaches programming and coding through a series of puzzles. Students click and drag puzzle pieces that move characters through a maze or toward an enemy. The problem is, that’s a visual medium, and programs designed to read websites out loud can’t read the puzzles.
So Rodda, two other teachers and a team from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ computer science department took Code.org’s curriculum and rewrote exercises in Quorum, a text-based language that screen readers can recognize. They received a National Science Foundation grant to adapt the curriculum. Their efforts have been recognized by The College Board, which administers the AP exams.
Andreas Stefik, an associate professor of computer science at UNLV, invented the language with his wife, and has been working for more than a decade to improve programming education for disabled learners.
Stefik first met Rodda about a decade ago when she was teaching in Illinois.
“As a scholar, I’m incredibly grateful to Amanda and some of her colleagues who do some of the work for these kids,” Stefik said. “They have really specialized expertise that some of us in scholarship don’t have.”