According to a BBC report, technology companies are facing a digital skills gap. There’s a severe shortage of programmers and engineers. Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, England is working on a potential solution to the shortage called Project Torino. The project exposes visually impaired schoolchildren to coding concepts at early ages using a physical programming language. If people with visual impairments could be turned on to coding concepts early enough, they might be more likely to choose math, programming, or engineering as careers. The World Health Organization says 285 million people in the world are blind or visually impaired, most of whom live in low-income environments. In the U.K. 75% of working age adults with visual impairments don’t have jobs, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) reports. Microsoft and RNIB see these numbers as a chance to help both visually impaired people and technology companies.
Project Torino is a joint effort by the RNIB and the Cambridge Research Labs.The major program goal is to introduce children to mathematical and strategic thinking at an early age, preferably from 7 to 11 years old. Most children are first exposed to coding with typical paper-based text and graphics, which can be difficult for the visually impaired. Project Torino uses colored blocks of wood to represent functional coding pods. The pods are connected via thin colored cables. Moving and connecting single pods or groups of pods with assigned functions help the children learn functional order and strategic thinking.
In 2016 Microsoft’s team tested Project Torino with about a dozen students to get feedback and work the bugs out. This year the group is expanding testing to 100 students. The Microsoft team believes the project can also serve school children with challenges such as dyslexia and autism. If people excluded from other careers due to personal challenges see coding and engineering as meaningful, accessible career paths due to their early exposure to physical programming, that will be a huge win for them as individuals and for our society at large.