Leonardo Vergara

10th semester of Systems Engineering: Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla Colombia

EPICS in IEEE asked team participant Leonardo questions about his experience in the Eyeland EPICS in IEEE project at Universidad del Norte in the IEEE Colombian Caribbean Section. This project has been supported by EPICS in IEEE since 2021 and the team has made incredible progress. The main objective of this project is to raise awareness towards including people with low vision and blindness in English learning by designing and implementing an accessible and inclusive mobile application for a Colombian public school. The project team partnered with the Educational Institution La Magdalena School located in the south part of Barranquilla and serves a mid to low-income population. In addition, the team partnered with the Fundación María Elena Restrepo-Fundavé whose mission is to work for the inclusion of people with visual disabilities (blindness, low vision), deafblindness, and multiple disabilities associated with visual impairment, through programs and services. 

Please briefly introduce yourself and your role within the project team.

Since August 2021, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of an EPICS in IEEE project. My name is Leonardo Vergara and I am a member of the development team for the Eyeland EPICS in IEEE project. I am currently in my 10th semester of Systems Engineering at the Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, and I am on the verge of graduation. Within the team, my primary role has been as a software developer, focusing on both web development (backend and frontend) and more recently, mobile app development.

How did you get involved with the project?

I became involved with the EPICS in IEEE project in August 2021, right at the beginning of my sixth semester of studies. At that time, my database professor, Miguel Jimeno, presented me and a few other classmates with the opportunity to participate in this project.  He emphasized its substantial social impact and its promising future aspirations. It was at that moment that I realized this project would be an ideal avenue for my professional development, while simultaneously contributing to a project with a truly meaningful purpose. Thanks to his guidance, we’ve been able to bring out the best in ourselves to drive the project forward.

Can you describe the Mobile Application the team designed?

The Eyeland mobile application falls into the category of a Serious Game, as it combines educational content with engaging interactive activities. Currently, it is exclusively available for Android devices.

The English content is tailored to a level A1 and is designed for high school students. The application incorporates accessibility techniques for individuals with visual impairments. These encompass visual aids such as high contrast, font size adjustments, and specific typography choices. Additionally, the app is optimized to work seamlessly with Android’s Talkback functionality, providing crucial auditory support.

The learning methodology revolves around five tasks, each structured in a linear learning module with distinct phases: Pre-Task, During-Task, and Post-Task.

The learning journey initiates with the Pre-Task, where students acquire concepts by responding to questions. Subsequently, students engage in the During-Task phase, which encourages collaborative real-time teamwork among groups of three students. Each student assumes a unique role, fostering both collaborative and competitive skills as teams vie against one another. Finally, the student undertakes the Post-Task individually, which serves as an assessment to evaluate their productive English language skills.

Within each Task, we incorporate a diverse range of visual and auditory resources, along with various dynamic elements aimed at sustaining the student’s focus and motivation throughout the learning process.

It’s worth noting that the app is used in conjunction with a dedicated web platform for educators. This platform enables the creation of real-time sessions for the During-Task phase and facilitates the evaluation of results for the Post-Task.

Have you been able to test the app with anyone?

Yes, in addition to the students at the La Magdalena District Educational Institution and the members of the Eyeland project team, we were able to conduct testing with some of my fellow classmates. They provided us with valuable feedback, expressing positive impressions. They noted that the app bears similarities to other Serious Games like Duolingo but stands out for its accessibility features tailored for individuals with visual impairments. This unique aspect makes it an especially compelling option within the educational technology landscape.

How does this project compare to your normal engineering classes?

This project stands out from my regular engineering classes in several significant ways. While my academic courses provide me with a strong theoretical foundation, EPICS in IEEE, and particularly the Eyeland project, offers a hands-on, real-world application of the concepts I’ve learned.

In my typical engineering classes, the focus is primarily on individual assignments, theoretical examinations, and small projects. In contrast, Eyeland involves collaborative teamwork, where I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with a diverse group of individuals, each bringing their unique strengths and perspectives to the table. This dynamic has not only enhanced my technical skills but also fostered skills in communication, project management, and teamwork.

Furthermore, Eyeland requires a multidisciplinary approach that integrates software development, accessibility considerations, and educational content creation. This holistic approach challenges me to think beyond the traditional boundaries of engineering and consider the broader impact of our work on society.

Describe your experience with interacting with the high school students.

Interacting with high school students was an incredibly unique experience. As members of the development team, we had the opportunity to witness firsthand the initial impact of the Eyeland application on these students, including those with visual impairments. This allowed us to observe how the students engaged with the application and learn from their interactions to further enhance the app. Although we received constructive feedback on areas for improvement, we were encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive reception overall. It underscored the collective effort of our team, from the graphic designer to the development team, the educators, and the project manager. This positive response also served as a powerful motivation to continue pushing forward with the project, armed with the valuable insights we gained.

What challenges has your team faced while working on this project? Did you have to pivot or change plans throughout the project?

The primary challenge in this project has been navigating collaborative work with various stakeholders, understanding their needs, and being adaptable to changes. This is because we adopted an agile methodology for the first time, which was a new experience for me in my academic career. One notable example is the data modeling process, which had to be reevaluated on multiple occasions.

Fortunately, with resilience and adaptability, we were able to address the key requirements and ultimately achieve the current functional state of the application.

What have you learned from this experience?

This experience has been a profound learning opportunity. Professionally, I’ve gained expertise in agile methodologies and developed a strong understanding of inclusive design principles. Collaboration and communication skills have also been greatly enhanced. Personally, it has reaffirmed my belief in technology’s power to create positive social impact and ignited a sense of social responsibility.

Future plans for the project?

The app holds immense potential thanks to its numerous strengths, such as those mentioned earlier, as well as its content personalization features. However, on a personal note, I have completed a significant phase of this project and am currently in the process of wrapping it up alongside the development team. Of course, if my assistance is needed in the future and circumstances permit, I would be more than happy to contribute. I have a deep appreciation for this project and am familiar with its intricacies.

What do you hope this project does for the visually impaired community? Do you have a wide-scale goal? 

I have high hopes for the impact of this project for the visually impaired community. Firstly, I envision the application being implemented in numerous classrooms, starting in the Caribbean region and expanding to encompass all of Colombia. This expansion should prioritize schools with visually impaired students, ensuring they have the opportunity to learn English alongside their peers.

Additionally, I anticipate the application undergoing ongoing development and maintenance to allow for content customization and the potential addition of new tasks. Ultimately, I hope this application sets a precedent, inspiring future technological solutions that address similar challenges. This way, we have the potential to make a wide-reaching social impact indirectly.

What are your future career plans?

In the medium to long term, I plan to pursue further studies, with a focus on a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence. This field holds immense promise as it finds applications in a wide array of sectors. I hope to make substantial contributions to technological advancement and the resolution of complex challenges in the future.

Feel free to add any additional comments about the project or your experience. 

This project has been an incredible journey, allowing me and my teammates to combine our passion for technology with a meaningful social cause. The collaborative efforts of the team, the positive feedback from students, and the potential for broader impact in the visually impaired community have been truly inspiring. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of EPICS in IEEE and the Eyeland project, and I look forward to seeing the application’s continued growth and success. This experience has not only enriched my technical skills but also reinforced my belief in the power of technology to drive positive change in society. I am excited to carry these lessons and experiences forward in my future labors.

Would you recommend an EPICS in IEEE project to other university students?

Absolutely, I would highly recommend an EPICS in IEEE project to other university students. It offers a unique opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to real-world projects with meaningful social impact. The experience not only sharpens technical skills but also fosters teamwork, communication, and problem-solving abilities, which are invaluable in any career path. Moreover, the sense of fulfillment from contributing to a project that makes a positive difference in society is truly rewarding.

This project is part of The Fischer Mertel Community of Projects which supports students solving challenges that will benefit their communities in a tangible way through EPICS in IEEE. Supporting these student projects honors two IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Society (EMC) Hall of Fame engineering leaders by helping us remember the dedication and contributions of Joe Fischer and Herb Mertel to the field of engineering. Support for the Fischer Mertel Community of Projects was donated through the IEEE Foundation. EPICS in IEEE would like to thank the Fischer and Mertel families for their donation to support this project and those in future years.