The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments

Seeing Math in a New Way

For most freshmen, the easiest part of Math 109 is looking at a graph. Actually understanding how the graph relates to the equation may be another story, but seeing the points and general shape of the graph causes no problem. However, Haden Pike, a visually impaired freshman studying computer science, has the opposite problem – “I understand what the function was, but exactly how it was graphed, I had no idea.”

As a computer science student, he must take certain math classes. Haden had a math tutor, but he needed a way to visualize the graphs when he was studying on his own. The Math Department enlisted Bill Gregory of the Vis Center to develop a way to help Haden succeed in class.

Originally, Bill wanted to use the Vis Center’s 3D printer to make a 3D print of each graph. However, it took two or three hours to print one graph, so it was not a practical way to help Haden visualize the graphs. Instead, Bill used a laser cutter and GeoGebra, a freeware program, to generate a graph. The line of the function was indented, so Haden could run a pen along the indentation and gather enough information about the graph to understand the function’s graph.

With Haden relying totally on tactile feedback, Bill needed to work out some kinks. The extra grid lines often confused Haden, so Bill made these lines very faint. Haden also had trouble finding the graph’s origin, so Bill put a hole on the graph to denote it.
Haden says, “It helped me understand visually what the expression was.” The Vis Center’s models allowed Haden to review on his own time; he could refer back to his notes and have a physical representation of the graph examples from class. Haden is considering a career in teaching computer science; he said, “So along with computer science that I also enjoy, why not teaching?”

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