3D Calculus for the Blind

Learning calculus is challenging enough, but how do you begin to visualize a three dimensional graph if you’re blind? I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Meet Chelsea Cook, an undergraduate at Virginia Tech.

Cook: I’m studying physics right now. I hope to go to grad school for either astronomy or some field of engineering related to astronomy, and eventually I’d like to actually become part of the space program and become an astronaut.

If she realizes her dream, Chelsea would be the first blind astronaut. But in the meantime, she’s got to learn multivariable calculus. Chris Williams is an assistant professor of engineering.

Williams: Understanding multivariable calculus is a challenge for everyone.

I personally cannot imagine attempting to learn such a complex topic while being vision impaired.

Cook: The hyperbolic paraboloid – I was just having a really hard time envisioning what the shape looked like.

So Chris and his colleagues had their 3D printer fabricate a 3D model of the paraboloid, which looks like a cross between a saddle and a Pringles potato chip.

Williams: That’s been probably one of the highlights of my five years here at Virginia Tech was working with Chelsea in basically creating an approach for taking mathematical equations and 3D printing them, so that she can hold them in her hand and learn from those geometries.

Cook: You’ve heard about this equation and you’ve heard about what this graph should really do, but you don’t have an intuitive concept of experiencing it and sort of meeting it for the first time. And then, once you get that, it’s quite nice.

We’ll hear more about Chelsea Cook in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the National Science Foundation, I’m Jim Metzner