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Cooking Up Technology and Accessible Design


We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are. 

Brownies and macaroni and cheese were on the menu in Technology, Accessibility and Design, but this class had little to do with lunch. Two invited guests, Kate Katulak and Jerry Berrier, both blind, were on hand to walk students through a cooking session with a larger purpose.

The new course teaches engineering students to put people at the forefront of the design process. The course focuses on designing with and for people who are blind or visually impaired, and the very first day of the semester started off with a design-build activity

Before the kitchen session, Professor of Anthropology Caitrin Lynch and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Paul Ruvolo gathered the students in a common room and offered some advice: “Try to use all of your senses today, take notes with words and pictures. The most important question is a ‘why’ question.”

To provide a framework for the process, Ruvolo and Lynch introduced the students to the Innovators’ Compass developed by educator Ela Ben-Ur, also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Design at Olin.

The compass is divided into four grids. Designers are encouraged to start with observations; then move on to guiding principles, followed by dreaming up new “blue sky” ideas, and lastly experimenting with those ideas.

The cooking demonstration was designed to get the students more familiar with observational techniques. “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are,” said Lynch to the assembled group as they trooped out to the kitchen to begin the task of participating, watching, and asking “why.”

Kate Katulak is an experienced cook, and she cooks a lot on her own. She told students that it’s a challenge when people cook with her in her kitchen because they tend to move utensils without her knowledge. Katulak uses a number of assistive apps to help her cook independently. One of the apps connects Katulak’s smartphone video feed to a sighted operator who can provide timely assistance, such as reading out ingredients from a recipe or explaining cooking instructions.

The students took notes and asked questions as Katulak moved about explaining her process. She mentioned a few little tricks she has learned over the years, such as keeping her cooking oil in the refrigerator so that it thickens up and is therefore less likely to spill when measured.

After the kitchen immersion, the students headed to the Academic Center to begin their work in teams. The first step involved mulling over their observations and articulating the principles that would lead to good design.  Students consistently identified principles such as safety and family as playing a crucial role in cooking for both Katulak and Berrier.

As she visited the different teams during the design process, Katulak said, “It doesn’t feel great to be in the fishbowl with everyone watching what you do, but I love the idea that this is how things are invented. I learned about how I did things in the kitchen that I didn’t even know myself.” She gave the example of a student observation of how she unknowingly dangles her pinky finger into a cup when she’s pouring liquid into it, to sense the height of the liquid.

The students began to toss around design ideas. The ideas weren’t supposed to be market-ready, or even necessarily feasible. But they were supposed to come from observations and principles about what matters most to the user, in this case Kautlak and Berrier. The prototyping tools included: scissors, straws, string, measuring tape, writing implements, fabric, paper towel tubes, and more.

One student team proposed a new kind of can labeling system, another team suggested an appliance that could communicate using Morse code, a third team proposed standardizing bar code placement on products. Another team’s suggestion involved a measuring cup that beeps when liquid gets to close to the top, and another team centered its ideas around cooking gloves that remain tactile but still protect your hands.

After a quick ideation session, each team settled on a product and got working on a rudimentary prototype.

At the end of class, there were several finished prototypes. One was a tool belt with universal holders for kitchen tools with an embedded non-visual recognition system on each tool. Another team developed a flexible counter top that had a tactile grip and could be rolled up and washed. Another team developed their idea for barcodes that would be slightly raised on packaging so they could be more easily found. And for Katulak, in response to her concerns about people trying to help her in the kitchen, one team created an apron that said simply, “You think you’re helping. Did you ask me?”

Caitrin Lynch noted after class, “This was an exciting first day of class. We wanted to show students on Day 1 the kinds of immersive activities we’ll be doing all semester, and introduce them to some of the experiences that people who are blind have every day.”

Paul Ruvolo added, “We loved the prototypes students came up with in such a short time- ranging from invitations to dialogue like in Kate’s apron, to creative practical tools for kitchen independence.”