Let your fingers do the walking
Visually impaired students use ‘hands-on’ campus replica to find their way around

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


3-D map

Above: Lisamaria Martinez, left, listens as Professor George Brimhall, right, explains how the new campus model works.
Noah Berger photo

08 May 2002 | The chiming of the Campanile bells, the gurgle of Sproul Plaza’s fountain, the robust scent of coffee from nearby cafés — these and other cues help Lisamaria Martinez, a junior who is visually impaired, navigate the campus.

Come this fall, she’ll have another tool, as well, at her disposal: a 3-D, tactile model of the campus.

“The model provides a physical layout of the campus, something students can touch and feel,” said Ed Rogers, director of the Disabled Students’ Program. “It will be especially helpful for those who are new to the campus, who have no idea of what they’re encountering.”

In 1-to-1,000 scale, the model replicates campus terrain, architecture and landscaping, including pathways, sidewalks, fences, even Strawberry Creek.

“These details might not seem important, but with them, I can find the most efficient way to get somewhere,” said Martinez of the model. “Or, if I’m going to an unfamiliar part of campus, I can check the model to get a sense of the environment beforehand.”

What distinguishes this structure from traditional models is the use of textures and braille to identify different facets of the campus, said George Brimhall, professor of earth and planetary science, who worked with Rogers to get the project off the ground, with financial support from the Albert Newman Fund.

“A tactile coding system was devised to indicate various features,” Brimhall explained. Cross-walks are indicated by two small rods. Smooth wires mean pathways. A rough surface marks a paved street, saw-toothed edging stands for fencing.

Based on input from Martinez, building entrances are indicated by a gritty, sand-like substance.

“I can usually find where a building is, but actually getting in can sometimes be tricky,“ said Martinez, who also serves as a campus tour guide.

Blind students often rely on others for directions, but these descriptions can be hit and miss, said Jim Gammon, a Disabled Students Program specialist who works with blind and visually impaired students. The model will help these students create their own mental pictures of the campus.

“A common mistake for blind students is to schedule classes in buildings that are far away from each other,” Gammon said. “With the model, they can learn the proximity of buildings and set up their classes accordingly.”

To use the model, students refer to a legend to determine a building’s alphabetic and numeric coordinates. They can then reach across the six-foot-long model to find the coordinates, marked in braille, where the building is located.

The model will also assist students with mobility issues, said Rogers.

Students with cerebral palsy or chronic fatigue syndrome or those who use wheelchairs “can use the model to see the terrain of the campus and choose the best route to their destination,” said Rogers.

The model was designed by Professor Brimhall, with the help of staff research associate Abel Vanegas and several students, in the Earth Resources Center Digital Mapping Lab.

The students walked every inch of the campus to map its terrain, equipped with portable pen tablet computers and global-positioning units mounted in special vests. It took nearly two months to plot every nook and cranny.

“It was great to get a practical application of what we’re learning in the classroom and, at the same time, help others,” said geology major Nathan Garfield.

During their mapping treks, the students’ futuristic-looking outfits and deliberate gaits elicited puzzled glances from passersby, Garfield recalled. “The hardest part of the job was explaining to everyone what we were doing.”

Using the data collected by the students, Vanegas and Brimhall created a topographic map. Students with visual impairments offered feedback on a small test model milled earlier this spring. The full-scale model, incorporating recommended changes, followed. After a few finishing touches, the model will be hung in the lobby of the Disabled Students’ Program, at 230 César Chávez Student Center, this fall.


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail