Penn State professor, students use 3D printing to help blind people 'see' art

A 3D-printed scale model of a sculpture enables visually-impaired visitors to use their sense of touch to experience visual art. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in a Penn State independent studies course in art education have joined with a Penn State doctoral student to research how tactile graphics made from 3D printing can enable students who are blind to experience visual art.

Aaron Knochel, assistant professor of art education in the School of Visual Arts, taught the course with two undergraduates and Alyssa Pittenger, a graduate student in art education. At first, Knochel said, the part of the course that reviewed 3D printing was more about art making, but he wanted to think about how this technology can impact the use of assistive devises in education. Elizabeth Pyatt, an instructional designer with the Office of Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) who is active in accessibility technology at Penn State, approached him about participating in a digital fabrication and assistive-technology working group.

“The group helped to further open my eyes to the possibilities of 3D printing as an accessibility technology for teaching,” Knochel said.

At the same time, Knochel met Wen-Hsia Hsiao, a School of Visual Arts doctoral student.

“Wen-Hsia was working on her own approach to accessible technologies in the Palmer Museum [of Art],” Knochel said. “She’s working with Dana Carlisle Kletchka, curator of education at the Palmer, in developing research around this idea of tactile experiences in the museum, to make the collection more accessible.”

So how would you enable people who are blind to experience a visual piece of art such as a sculpture? By offering them a 3D-printed scale model of the sculpture that enables visually-impaired visitors to use their sense of touch, Hsiao said.

“I found that most art museum collections are placed in a glass case or cannot be touched, but this obviously produces barriers for visitors, especially those who are blind,” Hsiao said. “So I thought about how to improve their experiences to make the art more accessible to them, and came up with the idea to use 3D printing as a way to enable them to access the collection.”

“Through the sense of touch, they can really access the information from the art and the art concept. They can hold the models of the sculptures in their hands; that's very good way to sense the object,” Hsiao said.

Along with helping people who are blind experience sculpture, Knochel said, the development of 3D-printed assistive technology for art has potential to educate students who are preparing to be K-12 teachers.

“I'm interested in exposing art educators to innovative technologies like 3D printing because I think they can lead to their use in K-12 art education,” he said. “I think art teachers can be strategic in thinking about using digital fabrication in the curriculum. This in turn can get these students engaged in thinking about what it means to have an accessible classroom, and developing multimodal strategies for students to learn.

“In this case, I want art education students to think of something pretty provocative: How to teach visual art to a student who is blind,” Knochel added. “I think that addresses a fundamental question about a philosophy of accessibility that should pervade all teaching practices.”

Currently, Knochel is also exploring 3D printing as a TLT Faculty Fellow, joining five other faculty in creating a large 200-level general education course called "Making for the Masses." The Faculty Fellow group includes faculty from art, engineering and architecture, and will explore how makerspace culture can integrate into education, and benefits students.

Last Updated December 12, 2016