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Alumna creates 3D printed books for visually impaired children

May 8, 2018 : By Drew Menard/Liberty University News Service

Combining creativity and innovation, alumna Rachel Lawson (’15) designed and produced 3D children’s books to foster engagement and learning among all children, including those with limited vision or blindness. The project was part of Lawson’s doctoral work in occupational therapy at Huntington University. Liberty hosted her doctoral residency project, and Todd Smith, chair of Liberty’s Department of Studio & Digital Arts (SADA), served as her expert mentor. Smith gave professional insight in the artistic process and in 3D modeling and printing using the university’s 3D Innovation Lab.

“This project truly has a social good approach applied to research and creative processes with the goal of helping others,” Smith said.

Lawson said she was excited to work with Smith. “His vast experience and knowledge with 3D printing and media helped turn my ideas for the project into reality. He provided expertise during the project in areas of design, ideation, and 3D printing.”

At Liberty, Lawson majored in studio art while also taking prerequisites for a doctoral program in occupational therapy, with the goal of applying art to her postgraduate education.

In her research, Lawson met with professionals who use 3D printing to create prosthetics and adaptive devices and who are piloting 3D printed tactile (perceived through touch) picture books. This helped her finalize her vision.

“Illustrations are a vital aspect in children’s books, providing a means to help children understand the story, provide detail and humor within the story, help children stay attentive, and foster development,” Lawson said. “However, for children with visual impairments, they are unable to engage in a story through the pictures.”

Lawson explained that a child’s tactual discrimination and fine motor skills gradually develop in their early years.

“Providing tactile picture books for children with visual impairments can help to facilitate meaningful expansion of language and social skills, appropriate hand movements for learning Braille, and development of fine motor and tactile discrimination skills.”

Choosing Liberty to host her residency project was a fruit of her positive experience at the university and the relationships she developed.

“Liberty provides an encouraging environment where the professors and students invest in each other, which enables students to reach their highest potential,” she said. “Students are inspired to make a difference in the lives of others, to think outside of the box, and to provide their best work. I was encouraged to dream big and reach for the stars during my time at Liberty, which has carried over into my time at Huntington University, my graduate study endeavors, and even this residency project.”

After many tests, Lawson’s residency project has yielded four “well-designed, high-quality” prototypes — two children’s books in both traditional and 3D formats.

The original stories center on a stuffed bear named Teddy who brings readers through a tour of an average home in “Teddy’s New House” and explains characteristics of livestock in the book “On Teddy’s Farm."

“Both books incorporate commonly encountered objects, whether in real life or in conversation, providing an educational experience for the child,” Lawson explained. “The interactive text in the books aim to cultivate imagination and gamify learning for the child.”

While he was working with Lawson, Smith actually experienced a retinal detachment, which caused him to lose sight in his right eye for a period of time. He said he was able to offer the viewpoint of someone with visual impairment.

Lawson plans to test the prototypes with children in occupational therapy to see if any modifications are needed. She would also like to see the books published one day. Ultimately, Lawson hopes that her doctoral work helps advocate for individuals with blindness or visual impairments and inspires more innovativation in occupational therapy and education.

“I look forward to seeing how the residency project will impact education, therapy, learning, and enjoyment for children with visual impairments or blindness,” she said. “The books can provide conversation starters for social interaction and engage the child in learning by providing interesting pieces to match the story. (In the future), books can also be written to incorporate the core foundations of occupational therapy, such as activities of daily living, transitions, socialization skills, life at school, and roles within the home.”

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