- SEP 23, 2022
Humanistic Design Workshops in India: Impact and Reach
We recently caught up with Dr. Kyle Keane, AI Research Scientist at the MIT Quest for Intelligence and long-time Lecturer in 6.811/2.78/HST420 Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology. With his frequent teaching partners Anna Musser (Technical Associate within MIT’s Sinha Lab for Developmental Research) and Mark Vrablic (MIT EECS BS ‘19 and MEng ‘20), Keane brings MIT students into various contexts such as the criminal justice system, international study abroad programs, and neighborhoods around the Boston area to teach them to work collaboratively with individuals who have disabilities throughout the entire innovation, design, and engineering process of new assistive technologies.
Starting in 2018, Keane was invited by a former student, Abhinav Gandhi, to pilot a summer workshop in Chennai, India with the support of MISTI-India. That pilot turned into a recurring for-credit, faculty-led, study-abroad subject for MIT students to help establish self-sufficient local “communities of practice”. Although travel was interrupted by the global pandemic, we learned more about the current status of the local community of practice in Tamil Nadu by talking to both Keane and his local partner, Prithvi Raj, a UX Design Manager at Trimble, India; Master of Design, IIT Kanpur (Gold Medalist), who has been working with visually impaired individuals from different parts of India since 2013. In this discussion they provide some highlights, offer gratitude for the various collaborators, and try to offer inspiration for others to invest in the long-term multi-stakeholder relationship building that is necessary to achieve sustainable systemic change.
After the pilot workshop in August of 2018, Keane established valuable partnerships including with Krishnamurthy Sekar, Product manager @thoughtworks and volunteer @headstart network foundation and Professor PVM Rao at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi) who both helped gather local resources and coordinate with locals living with disabilities. In January 2019, Keane built on these relationships and brought a group of MIT undergraduate and graduate students to Delhi, Chennai, and Hyderabad. During a workshop held in collaboration with LV Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI) in Hyderabad, Project Aakaar was launched and is now a growing international cultural exchange and disability advocacy program for middle-school children to share stories about learning computer-aided design (CAD) by creating 3D-printed tactile teaching aids for local peers who are blind.
Project Aakaar began with three local university students (Shantanu Landore, Sarthak Kapoor, and Daksh Pamar) who attended the workshop at LVPEI and discovered a shared goal of expanding STEM education infrastructure in India to help visually impaired children learn geometry and with hopes of eventually applying it to other subjects.
Sarthak, Shantanu, and Daksh - showcasing Aakaar Geometric puzzles.
Workshop in India.
Raju, a visually challenged student from India experiencing the representation of Taj Mahal for the first time through Aakar Geometric puzzles.
Raj shared, “In India, generally, visually challenged children are exempt from attempting their geometry exams because they were never taught the subject due to lack of proper resources. This eventually creates a gap in education, leading our visually challenged friends to opt for arts and social sciences rather than STEM education, even if they were keen to take up STEM. This need was identified in the workshop and the next few years, the Project Aakaar team put effort into building a solution to this challenge at hand.”
Prithvi Raj (right) with Dr. Kyle Keane and Anna Musser at IIT Madras - during the 2020 Jan 6 workshop in Chennai, India.
In the early stages of the project, Keane volunteered to supervise the three students as they received support through the EPICS program at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Warangal. The first milestone was to create a framework for an easy to modify CAD design that could serve as a foundation for teaching aids that were self-contained and robust enough to survive for years of use in a school for the blind. The goal was to mobilize groups of local students who could use 3D printing to build out sets of tactile puzzles to help visually challenged children learn the basics of geometry. The initial puzzles were developed with volunteer technical advice from MIT students as well as logistical support from a volunteer program manager in India, Radhika Manoharan, who was helping support multiple project teams as they carried forward initiatives that were launched during the workshops led by Keane and his students.
Once the technical design was ready, Raj became the outreach and deployment partner on the project. Raj developed a partnership with Srinivas Kuppa, VP of Smt. Kamalabai Educational Institution (SKEI) in Bangalore. With the support of the incredible teaching staff at SKEI, Raj and Kuppa integrated Project Aakaar into the curriculum by teaching sighted SKEI students how to design and develop 3D printed puzzles for their peers with visual impairments in India. With this model, visually impaired students in Bangalore would benefit from the tactile puzzles and the sighted kids would learn 3D printing along with empathy through design thinking. The program at SKEI survived the pandemic and even grew to become one of the top ‘Social Impact’ projects in India (No. 5 in the Education World Magazine National Competition and No. 2 in Bangalore).
With SKEI well established, the core Project Aakaar team continued to grow with the addition of Indrayud Biswas Mandal, an MIT graduate student in the MIT System Design and Management Master’s program in the Sloan School of Management. Mandal applied strategic assessment techniques as part of his thesis to perform an analysis of alternatives to predict which business models would help Project Aakaar reach the most children with limited resources under the realities of the under-resourced economies of educational aids for children who are blind in India. Mandal led the team in the 2021 MIT PKG Ideas Social Innovation Challenge, where they were selected as one of the top 20 Social Innovation Ideas - for which the team was awarded with an initial seed fund to progress with their activities. This recognition is also an acknowledgement for the need for this solution at a global level in many contexts outside of India.
There are currently efforts in progress to test the puzzles in Gujarat, India - where Ankit Budhia is supporting Project Aakaar to connect with schools and implement the curriculum. The team was supported by Dr. Satish Tripathi, the founder of Ek Kadam Aur for our operational activities in India.
Raj discussed the project’s numerous benefits and feels that, “the approach here is truly inclusive. While the puzzles are designed for and targeted at visually impaired students, those same children are consulted throughout the design process as experience experts who can help their sighted peers learn about alternative ways to learn the content and reveal new ways to help other sighted students who are who are struggling to grasp geometric concepts using the standard visual method of instruction.”
Dr. Kyle Keane with workshop participants.
In 2021, Project Aakaar evolved into an international cultural exchange program as students from SKEI in Bangalore India started to exchange their designs with students in Cambridge, MA, USA led by their teacher Marnie Klein at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School. Klein has been experimenting with various inclusive co-design challenges with her students who had conducted a project similar to Project Aakaar where her students designed adaptive devices for measuring medication without the use of sight. Through this remote collaboration, students have the opportunity to reflect upon the various cultural and contextual differences and similarities of addressing barriers to inclusion and full participation of persons living with disabilities in international and domestic life activities. The team is seeking resources to develop more of these educational intercultural inclusion programs.
Building on the lessons learned from transferring Keane’s MIT subject to India, in 2019, Keane connected with MIT postdoc Dr. Shiroq Al-Megren and together they partnered with Dr. Areej Al-Wabil, Professor of Software Engineering and Director of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Al-Wabil acquired support to bring Keane, Al-Megren, and a team of MIT staff and students to Saudi Arabia to kickoff a year-long assistive technology innovation fellowship called Co’Create. This collaboration was supported by the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) as part of WIPO's network of Technology and Innovation Support Centers (TISC) in the region, and the Saudi Health Council's National Lab for Emerging Health Technologies. The program continues to grow in 2022 with ongoing support from Alfaisal University's Office of Research and Innovation and efforts to sustain year-to-year knowledge transfer of best practices and resource sharing about assistive technology innovations in the region, which is full of many unique differences for Arab-speaking individuals living with disabilities trying to use assistive technologies developed for English that lack right-to-left text support. Keane and Al-Wabil were recently invited by the King Salman Center for Disability Research to discuss their upcoming national initiatives, including efforts to scale the Co’Create Fellowship to engage more universities within Saudi Arabia.
Co-create workshop held in Saudi Arabia.
From 2018-2020, Keane led a total of three engagements in Chennai, India which have continued to grow and develop behind the scenes and based on volunteer efforts. Through the continued support of local partners and MISTI-India, the communities of practice were able to establish year-to-year knowledge transfer of best practices for engaging in social impact in the region. This community of practice in Chennai also served as an exemplar for others seeking to engage individuals living with disabilities in every stage of the innovation process and ecosystem.
Reflecting on the various international and domestic initiatives, Keane shared his motivations for and definitions of success, he said “successfully establishing a community of practice requires the same benchmarks as helping achieve equitable inclusion for individuals living with disabilities: everything centers around achieving dignified interdependence through establishing accountable protocols for intentional collaboration and mutualistic support.” Keane and his partners seek long-term engagement and impact within communities and aspire to support local partners in doing a transfer of knowledge within their contexts.
Project Aakaar serves as an example of what is possible when a local team gets long-term support from an interconnected chain of helping hands. Keane says “the individuals on the Aakaar team are the heart and soul of service, but it takes a community of individuals who each have unique resources to contribute and are willing to find ways to help people forge new pathways for inclusion”. The Project Aakaar team is now working to grow their existing initiatives, help others apply their tools and processes in new geographic areas, and develop educational resources in other areas of study to help foster accessible and equitable education for all students.
Dr. Kyle Kean and Anna Musser with workshop participants.
Dr. Kyle Kean and Anna Musser with workshop participants in India 2020.