Ready to launch: students create an app to make the meteor gallery more inclusive
Computer science students developed an app to make museum learning at TCU more accessible to visually impaired visitors.
the Oscar E. Monnig Meteor Gallery in the Sid Richardson Building houses one of the largest meteorite collections in the country. Before COVID-19, the gallery welcomed up to 10,000 visitors each year.
However, the gallery has remained virtually unchanged since it opened in 2003, and its curator realized that many exhibitions needed to be more inclusive.
“This all occurred to me about three years ago and I thought we didn’t offer an accessible gallery,” said Rhiannon Mayne, curator of the collection and associate professor of environmental science at TCU. . “If you think if you are visually impaired […] step into a gallery that only contains text and objects to look at, what can you take away from it? »
That’s where Bingyang Wei, assistant professor of computer science at TCU, came in.
Wei teaches Senior Design, a capstone course in the computer science department where students develop software solutions for real customers, from Toyota to the Mercy Clinic in Fort Worth.
Each fall, he invites clients to come to campus and present their projects to students, who then select teams and work on their projects throughout the spring. Some students are focused on developing their skills in the industry, Wei said, “But also, some students, they have this enthusiasm to contribute to the community.”
In the fall of 2021, Mayne presented a proposal to senior design students on improving inclusivity in the gallery through an app for visually impaired visitors.
Mayne and Wei said several students approached them afterward because of their interest in working on the gallery project.
” The first time that [Mayne] showed us, I said to myself: “I really like this project”, first of all because of the meteorites! Like, who doesn’t love outer space falling on Earth? said Aparajita Biswas, one of the leading IT specialists who developed the app. “What really appealed to me was the accessibility part where it’s more accessible to people with visual impairments […] I just thought it was a great project.
Biswas, Kendric D’Spain, Alex Matthews, Amanuel Taddesse and Asa Tuten formed a team to work on the project.
Unlike other senior design groups, students could walk across campus to meet with Mayne weekly to discuss their progress and receive feedback, which helped them make changes in real time.
However, Wei said the biggest benefit was how Mayne’s goals aligned with student values.
“I think it’s a really good game, so our TCU students and our department can give back to the community,” Wei said.
Many students are unaware that in the field of planetary science, TCU is out of this world.
When Fort Worth native and entrepreneur Oscar E. Monnig who died in 1999 at the age of 96, he bequeathed his entire estate to the university, including his lifelong passion of collecting 392 meteorites.
When Mayne joined TCU in 2009 as the gallery’s first paid curator, the collection had grown to 1,400. Today, TCU houses nearly 2,500 meteorites, one of the largest university collections in the world.
Only about 5% of the meteorites are on display, while the rest are part of a scientific collection that can be loaned to other researchers around the world, Mayne said.
As a teacher and gallery curator, Mayne divides her time between teaching, research and public outreach. On any day, you might find her leading kindergarten students through the halls of the meteor gallery, explaining the impacts of climate change to first-graders, or conducting research on TCU’s meteorite collection.
A planetary scientist by trade, Mayne is also passionate about teaching science. She said many people learn best from what she calls “free choice education,” where they can choose to learn about topics that interest them.
However, it wasn’t until she took a course on learning in the museum environment that Mayne understood the educational barriers the gallery posed to visitors.
“What struck me about this is that if you can’t read, you don’t get much out of the gallery,” she said.
Text-heavy exhibits may exclude young visitors, people who speak English as a second language, and people with visual impairments.
Mayne said the course and her personal experiences “opened my eyes” to the importance of the idea, or inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, in the classroom and in the gallery.
Mayne made it his mission to bring IDEA into the gallery – and the senior design students jumped on board.
“Helping individuals with learning content or in any way possible, like through an app or just a certain teaching technique that a teacher would use, I’m all pro for that,” D’Spain said. .
Build the app
The students browsed the gallery and discussed their ideas for improving accessibility with Mayne.
“It’s really old, like it hurts the eyes to look at some things […] like I can see any old person if they passed by, they wouldn’t be able to understand and understand some of the things just because of the way it’s presented to you,” D’Spain said. “What we have so far is like, wow. That’s a big difference.
The senior design group has developed an application that can be downloaded to tablets in the gallery for users.
The app includes features that will change brightness, increase font size, adjust color blindness, or display dark mode visuals. Visitors can also use the “text to speech” feature to read aloud descriptions of meteorites or translate the text into Spanish, French or Vietnamese.
Users can search the museum’s meteorite catalog for specimens based on object name, type, and other categories. The tablets are connected to beacons installed in the gallery to locate the user and send information to the nearest screens.
Taddesse said one of the biggest challenges was finding examples they could use as templates for the app.
“Much has not yet been done to make apps accessible to visually impaired people,” he said. “We went to see other projects that had been done to inspire us, but the problem was that there hadn’t been enough work on it.”
Now the students become role models themselves. The senior design team presented their work to the Student Research Symposium on April 22 and helped Mayne write an abstract for a NASA-led conference on Advancing IDEA in Planetary Science.
After graduating, team members can check out the app to help the next group of students improve it and add more features.
The application will be launched in the gallery in the coming months.
“I’m excited to see how it actually plays out and I hope people enjoy it and see all the hard work we’ve done,” Biswas said.
The app may be complete, but Mayne is far from done improving the gallery’s accessibility.
“That should be the expectation,” she said. “I hope this is just the beginning. I’m excited about this simply because of the possibility that exists and to be able to provide a better experience for everyone who enters the gallery.
Next on his list: developing an ASL tool to help deaf and hard of hearing people visit the gallery.
“Especially the motherly side of me, I want every child that comes here to take something with them and not feel like it was something designed to exclude them,” she said.
Wei said he would welcome the opportunity for senior design to partner with Mayne on gallery projects in the future.
Mayne is a responsive and approachable client, he said, but the appeal of her job goes beyond convenience.
“I tell my students, ‘Think about it, it’s a legacy,'” he said. “Even after you leave TCU, you can pass this on to the next generation of students to pick up on this project and make it better, but your name will still be there, so be proud of yourself!”
After watching the students’ final application demonstration, Wei smiled. “I think they really make a difference,” he said.