Team Creates 3D Tool for Making Science Accessible

Bryan Monesson-Olson
Bryan Monesson-Olson

A team from the College of Natural Sciences, W.E.B. Du Bois Library and Information Technology (IT) presented a project that used a 3D printer to create DNA molecule models for use by blind or low-vision students at the recent World Usability Day New England Conference Nov. 9 at the University of Connecticut.  

The team’s members were Bryan Monesson-Olson, lecturer and director of the honors program in biochemistry and molecular biology; Dennis Spencer of the Digital Media Lab in the library; and Kelsey Hall of the Assistive Technology Center in IT.

The idea came about when Monesson-Olson was drafting the curriculum for an online course he teaches, called myDNA. Monesson-Olson asked his colleagues Hall and Josh Pearson of IT to review the draft; when they pointed out that some of the course material would not be accessible to students with vision needs, they began considering ways to address the problem. Working in collaboration, Monesson-Olson, Spencer, Hall and Pearson developed 3D DNA molecules that students can touch and feel.

While the project’s initial intent was to make coursework more accessible to students who are blind or low-vision, Monesson-Olson believes it has broader value for all students. “I was immediately struck by what great universal design this is,” he said. “It really is a different experience to touch things like molecules that are usually so far outside of our grasp.”

The World Usability Day New England Conference brought together 300 attendees for a day of educational and accessibility-related presentations, demonstrations and workshops on topics such as website design, assistive technology and universal design.