By Dawn M Chiossi
Awards can come in many forms. This is especially true in the case of Mt. Olive Middle School and their recent first place win in the STEAM Competition’s (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) New Jersey Technology Student Association State Conference. On April 3rd, approximately 22 middle schools in New Jersey gathered at the College Of New Jersey in Ewing to participate in over 30 STEAM related events.
There, Mount Olive’s 8th grade students, Vidhika Ramchandani, Ipshita Mamoon, and Tejashree Nagaraj, won the prize for a very unique project: A children’s book produced in Braille to benefit blind and visually impaired children.
But for these girls, and Mount Olive itself, their book “I Cannot See But I Can Imagine,” is so much more than a school project for a competition. It is a tangible way for visually impaired children to fully experience the sensory delights of reading, and for the sighted to acquire an appreciation of what it is like to not be able to see.
Knowing that one of the best pleasures in life is reading– picking up a book and getting carried away in it– and how that pleasure is greatly diminished by blindness or visual impairment, these students set out to transform the reading experience for them.
When asked how they came up with the idea, the girls said that they were inspired by Mt. Olive fellow schoolmate, 6th Grader, Caleb Mason who happens to be blind.
Putting their hearts into writing, creating, illustrating and producing “I Cannot See But I Can Imagine,” Ramchandani, Mamoon, and Nagaraj not only created a winning book for blind students, they demonstrated a wealth of understanding, empathy and generosity of spirit about something generally not thought about.
As such, the book captured the hearts of people everywhere.
“This year, the competition focused on Children’s Stories which required the students to design a tactile book explaining a STEM topic of their choice for children with a disability,” explains Mt. Olive STEAM Teacher and Advisor, Beth Cohen. “The students needed to research children’s books in general, as well as the disability they chose, then they had to create the actual product.”
Cohen founded Mt. Olive’s TSA program in 2009. “The group meets after school where the students (individual or group) can choose a project to work on. After preparing all year their work gets showcased at the event in the spring,” she tells.
The story of “I Cannot See, But I Can Imagine,” explores the character of Liam, a teen who is blind. When his sister tells him of a brand new technology that can help visually impaired people better navigate their surroundings, Liam’s life is greatly improved. Yet, this story isn’t just a tale of the benefits of technology, it’s a story of how it enriches the character’s daily life and bringing his family together.
Ramchandani, Mamoon, and Nagaraj excitedly share that they all had a part in the creation of the plot. They were so passionate about what they were doing, they spent months writing, creating, illustrating and producing the book.
Ultimately their devotion shone through, exceeding the parameters of the goals of the TSA guidelines.
“The girls decided not only to create a book for a child with a disability, but also about a child with a disability to help spread awareness,” Cohen prides.
Through teamwork and enthusiasm, each of the three students brought something special to this unique book through illustrations, writing, and technology.
“It’s a computer and printing program,” Cohen explains. “From the New Jersey Foundation for the Blind. Rewriting what is on the page by hand, it is fed into the computer. Bit by bit, what you see on the paper is raised– It translates it into Braille.
You can write about anything, It’s great.”
The book works on so many levels engaging many of the senses, making reading a pleasure for visually impaired readers. There’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, and since “I Cannot See, But I Can Imagine, possesses a tactile component for it’s illustrations, these readers can experience that picture for themselves–something that an ordinary braille book does not provide.
“For example, if you wanted to create a springtime scene, you’d use puffy paint, fake flowers, and different fabrics for different textures,” Cohen enthuses.
Writing the brother/sister dynamic of the story, and emotional relationships, was special to the girls. For both the writing in general and the fact that little children will enjoy the book.
For all of these girls, their hopes regarding their creation is the same: For those who have visual impairments, to get as much joy out of reading as they possibly can.
And for Mamoon especially, their project holds a special connection for her. She shares that she has a sister who is half blind herself and she has high hopes for books such as these.
And Cohen agrees. While the TSA projects do not always benefit the community, Mt. Olive’s Braille Book carries the message that is inclusive and thoughtful. “Books like these are a nice opportunity for projects that serve a purpose, they have a deeper meaning and caring message.”
And she loves the idea that sighted people can additionally read “I Cannot See, But I Can Imagine.” She asserts that it carries a positive message for them as well. “It offers another perspective, it gives people a real idea what it is like to be visually impaired. It really opens the door to have appreciation and empowerment.”
Unanimously, Cohen, Ramchandani, Mamoon, and Nagaraj all agree that the most inspiring and special moment of all was way before submitting the book for the competition. When Caleb Mason read the book for the first time, it really illuminated the whole reason for the project.
“Watching the reactions of the girls and Caleb while he interacted with the book and read the braille correctly was a truly special and touching moment,” Cohen shares. “I’m glad the students had the opportunity to see the outcome of the hard work they’d put in and to see their product fulfill a purpose. To witness all of this unfolding was incredibly rewarding for me as their teacher.”
As for Mason, he has this to say: “I read the book. I liked it. They did a great job.”