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Build a Better Book: Empathy-Driven Design in School and Library Makerspaces

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Participate and share : Poster

Friday, December 4, 1:30–2:30 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)

April Chamberlain  
Dr. Stacey Forsyth  
Ian Matty  

Build a Better Book engages youth with an empathy-driven design and making task: creating accessible books and games for children who are blind or low-vision. Participants will learn how to harness different maker technologies to create interactive, inclusive products that can be accessed by multiple senses.

Audience: Library media specialists, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: iOS
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: iOS
Participant accounts, software and other materials: Tinkercad (
SpecDrums EDU app (available from Apple app store)
Scratch (
Topic: Maker activities & programs
Grade level: 6-12
Subject area: Language arts, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.
For Students:
Innovative Designer
  • Students select and use digital tools to plan and manage a design process that considers design constraints and calculated risks.
  • Students develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.
Related exhibitors:

Proposal summary

Purpose & objective

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that Making activities have potential to engage youth in compelling, creative investigations, develop the STEM workforce by building creative problem-solving skills and positive STEM identities, and broaden participation in STEM fields. The growing availability of Maker technologies, including 3D printers, laser and craft cutters, electronics and Makey Makeys, provides a valuable opportunity not only to engage more youth in STEM but also to address real-world needs, including the dearth of accessible learning materials for children who are blind or visually impaired. The need for more accessible literacy materials, including picture books, games and STEM graphics, provides a socially meaningful context for Making and requires that young Makers employ a suite of critical STEM skillsets, such as innovation, collaboration and universal design, and critically engage with broader social issues like the need for universally designed materials.

Our interactive remote workshop session will introduce participants to the Build a Better Book project, an NSF-funded initiative designed to engage underrepresented youth in STEM in the context of creating accessible, multi-modal books for children. After an introductory game to introduce design thinking, in which participants will generate ideas for a unique product designed for an imaginary character/'client,' we will provide an opportunity to play and test an assortment of different Maker technologies used in the project. Participants will select one of three technology activity breakout rooms facilitated by BBB network partners: 1) 3D printing, 2) laser cutting, and 3) circuitry and sound with Makey Makey and other computer science-based assistive technology projects. (If the ISTE Live platform does not support breakout rooms, these technology 'stations' will be delivered consecutively, so that participants can experience a shorter version of each.) Participants will get to see a wide variety of student products designed and fabricated by current and former participants, including books and games that incorporate tactile and audio elements, and will leave inspired with new ideas of how to integrate authentic “making” activities into both formal and informal learning settings. They will also learn how to connect with the project so that their students can contribute to the BBB community and share their designs with others.

Challenge: Interest in ‘Making” as a way to engage youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and expose them to career opportunities in engineering and technology has rapidly expanded in recent years, but the field still faces challenges in involving diverse audiences, particularly girls and students from other underrepresented populations. This project aims to engage diverse youth in Making and in the process, increase their awareness of and interest in STEM careers, by involving them in a socially purposeful design experience: the design and fabrication of tactile books for children with visual impairments. Children who are blind or visually impaired often miss the opportunity to learn from illustrated children’s books because their perception is limited to what can be felt by the hand or heard. 3D printing, laser cutting, computer programming, sound boards and other Maker technologies offer an exciting opportunity to expand the library of accessible learning materials for blind children and at the same time, provide a meaningful design and fabrication experience for youth, including students from populations underrepresented in STEM.

Tech Intervention: The Build a Better Book project utilizes a variety of Maker technologies that help make visual information more accessible to those without sight. Specific technologies used in the program include: 3D printers and 3D printing pens; craft cutters and laser cutters; electronics, including Makey Makey and Bare Conductive TouchBoards; SpecDrums sound rings; and computer programming languages, including Scratch, Arduino and Processing. No specific technology is required for the project; participants use the technologies that are available to them in their regions and select specific tools and technologies (ranging from cardboard and fabric to computers, electronics and laser cutters) based on their interest.

Model: The Build a Better Book project provides teachers, librarians and informal educators with curriculum guidelines, project ideas and design files on its website. The project supports workshops at public libraries, multi-week project-based learning units in schools, and summer camps and internships at libraries and community Makerspaces. Makers can also work independently and contribute designs via the online platform. Once validated by end users, tactile and audio materials created through the project are distributed to families with blind or visually impaired children via the University of Colorado Boulder’s 50 Books for 50 Families project, and through collaborations with State Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped as well as other blind-serving organizations.

Instructional Resources: The Build a Better Book project provides free online curriculum and workshop guidelines for a variety of hands-on workshops designed to build on each other and develop participants’ skills with different technologies. The program begins with a Design Thinking workshop, in which participants design creative solutions for imaginary (but extraordinary!) clients. They develop empathy by experiencing books without sight, and practice designing tactile book elements using a variety of craft materials. Participants then work in teams to design and fabricate a multi-modal book, game or toy that incorporates tactile (usually 3D-printed or laser cut) and audio (using SpecDrums, Makey Makey or Bare Conductive Touch Board) elements. Specific skill development sessions focus on: 3D Modeling (using TinkerCad) and 3D Printing; Designing for a Laser Cutter (using Adobe Illustrator); Circuitry and Sound (using Makey Makey and Scratch); and SpecDrums sound rings, a technology developed at CU Boulder and acquired by Sphero that converts color to sound). Throughout the design process, teams gather and incorporate feedback from classmates and community clients in order to improve their products. Youth designers working with the project can store and share their designs via the project’s online Design Gallery.

Evidence of Success: Results from the project’s first three years suggest that the Build a Better Book project holds great promise for engaging youth in technology, broadening their perspectives of disability, and introducing them to a multimodal design process through creating tactile books. Educators from both formal and informal educational settings are drawn to the program because it provides an authentic and purposeful way to integrate technology with their specific discipline. Participants are highly engaged throughout workshop sessions and display growth in technological self-efficacy and interest in the engineering design process. Empathy is both a driver and an outcome of participation in the project; youth are motivated to participate by the project's overall purpose, but also report increased awareness and empathy after participation. Results indicate that the program increases students’ interest in STEM, increases their belief in the value of technology for their own future, and their belief that they can improve people’s lives through their creative use of technology. The nature of this project, including its integration of art, design, multimodal literacy and STEM, and its purpose – to create accessible books for children with visual impairments – is effective in attracting, engaging and retaining diverse learners, particularly girls. Participating young Makers self-reported that they were drawn to the project because they were interested in helping others and were excited to learn new technology skills; others were primarily drawn to the project due to their interests and talents in art and writing. The project holds promise in engaging underrepresented youth in STEM while addressing a real-world global need for more accessible, multi-modal books. Additionally, the Build a Better Book project provides teens who are blind or visually impaired with an authentic opportunity to develop technical design and fabrication skills and collaborate with STEM mentors.


Throughout our virtual workshop, we plan to introduce participants to the Build a Better Book (BBB) project and the design thinking process, provide them with time to explore (remotely) some of the different Maker technologies used in BBB, demonstrate different ways that BBB has been adapted at different sites (including schools and libraries) and share how educators and their students can get involved. Our remote session will include the following components:

1) Introduction to Build a Better Book (10 min) - Brief overview of project, including purpose, tools and sample student projects.

2) Designing for Others (15 min) - Participants will engage in the 'empathy' stage of design thinking through a short interactive exercise. Using an imaginary character as a 'client,' participants will work together to gather information about their client and then use this information to shape their design for a special custom-designed product. Information about the character will be shared through a series of pictures; the type of product will be selected randomly during the presentation. Participants will first sketch their ideas and then share with others, to experience how information from an end user can shape design.

3) Harnessing Maker Tech for Accessibility (50 min) - How can we harness maker tools to create more accessible books, games and learning materials? Participants will explore different Maker technologies used in BBB projects, including Tinkercad/3D printing, Adobe Illustrator/laser cutting, and Scratch and Makey Makey. If the remote platform supports breakout groups, we will run three concurrent tech breakouts, so that participants can dive deeper into a particular technology of interest. If the platform does not allow breakouts, we will run shorter, consecutive demonstrations of each technology. For each, participants will have an opportunity to explore the technology on their own device and see sample projects that incorporated that technology.

a) 3D Printing - Use Tinkercad to design a tactile game piece that can be distinguished by touch.

b) Sound: Makey Makey - Design circuits and switches to add sound effects to books and games using an online simulator. See a variety of BBB projects designed by high school computer science students.

c) Craft / Laser Cutter - use Adobe Illustrator and the Noun Project to design a tactile picture.

4) Session Wrap-Up and Q&A (15 min): Following the hands-on technology breakouts, we will come back together as a group to reflect on what we have learned and answer any questions. We will also share resources available on the BBB website (, including the online Design Gallery, where participants can share their designs with others.

Supporting research

Dalton, B. & Musetti, K. (2018). Tactile picture book making and multimodal composition: Students design for equity in English Language Arts. in (Eds) E. Ortlieb, E.H. Cheek, Jr., & P. Semingson, Best Practices for Teaching Digital Literacies. London: Emerald Publishing.

Dalton, B. (2019). Bringing together multimodal composition and maker education in K-8 classrooms. Language Arts. in press.

Keasler, C. (2019). Colorado Teens Use Makerspace To Create Accessible Board Games. School Library Journal. Sept: 20-21.

Martin, T. (2015.) The promise of the Maker Movement for education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education. 5(1):30-39.

Vossoughi, S & Bevan, Bronwyn. (2014). "Making and Tinkering: A Review of the Literature." National Research Council Committee on Out of School Time STEM. 1-55.

NSF STEM for All Video Showcase 2019:

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April Chamberlain, Trussville City Schools

April Chamberlain started in education in 1996 as an elementary teacher. She is currently the Technology and School Library Coordinator at Trussville City Schools. She works with students, teachers, administrators and district leaders to develop their skills through facilitating EnRICh classes in elementary schools, coaching teachers, co-teaching in classes, and individual and group professional learning opportunities. She is passionate about how technology can support ALL learners which lead her to expand her network to learn how to use tools she already had in a different way and connect with other teacher and student makers.

Dr. Stacey Forsyth, University of Colorado Boulder

Stacey Forsyth is the Director of CU Science Discovery, a K-12 STEM education outreach organization at the University of Colorado Boulder, and co-PI of the NSF ITEST-funded Build a Better Book project. In this role, she manages project operations, leads workshops for youth and educators, and builds relationships with families, educators, librarians and other community partners. She has worked in the informal STEM education field for 15 years, connecting K-12 youth and educators with university scientists and engineers.

Ian Matty, Mountain Lakes Public Library

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