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Code Jumper gives children who are blind the tools to code

The innovative technology teaches children who are blind or visually impaired how to code.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"You know how haunted houses have creaky doors or creepy monsters? I made the story go real loud, but real slow to make it seem scary," Tariq Trowell, a seven-year-old at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary in Louisville, KY who is visually impaired, tells me.

Tariq is talking about using Code Jumper, a coding language developed by Microsoft for children who are blind or visually impaired. Different from computer-based programming languages such as Python and C++, Code Jumper is an educational tool comprised of modular, physical pieces students can string together to create code. 

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It makes coding tactile and fun -- and it's highly customizable. Students can play single musical notes or complete songs, tell stories, use pre-set sounds and make their own sounds. They have control over speed, pitch and volume, too, which is what Tariq played with to make his ghost story. 

Technologies like Code Jumper help with career development, Tariq's teacher, Deanna Lefan, says. This is critical.

There are 63,357 children who are blind or visually impaired in the United States, according to a 2017 APH annual reportCornell University Disability Statistics estimate that only 15.7 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired complete a bachelor's degree or higher, based on 2016 American Community Survey data. That means fewer than 10,000 of those 63,000-plus children who are blind or visually impaired will earn advanced degrees if this trend continues. 

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH), a nonprofit organization in Louisville that makes braille textbooks and develops assistive technologies, wants to help change that statistic. It's handling the distribution side of Code Jumper – making sure it reaches classrooms and individual homes. 

"The problem is, students who are blind or visually impaired, have been left out of the equation. If you lack a visual channel, then all the animations and all the drag-and-drop that's happening on the screen [when learning to code] isn't accessible," APH president, Craig Meador explains. 

Code Jumper in the classroom

Today Lefan's classroom has six students – all of whom are blind or visually impaired. They're sitting at two small tables in groups of three practicing Code Jumper together. This is the second time her kids have tried out the coding technology ahead of its expected July launch. 

Breckinridge-Franklin teachers, APH employees and the school principal, Cathy Bosemer, all look on as the kids work on Code Jumper. "This is so great," Bosemer says, clearly moved by their enthusiasm. "It makes you appreciate what you have."

Nine-year-old Joshua Lewis, who is blind, teaches me how Code Jumper works. "You plug the pods into the hub and you turn the knob, which is the doughnut knob, it looks like a doughnut. It's the circle knob and it's flat and you turn it and it can choose sounds," he explains. 

Each Code Jumper kit has two main components – a hub and several pods. The hub is a hand-sized white plastic device that runs on four AA batteries. It has a large circular blue play button and a slightly smaller circular blue stop button. It also has a built-in speaker, volume control and four ports that look like traditional headphone jacks. 

Pods are smaller white plastic devices you attach to the hub via the ports. Each pod represents a line of code and has its own ports so you can continuously connect additional pods like a massive centipede, until you run out.

Joshua is a natural at coding and seems particularly interested in the technology. Lefan said he's wanted to learn to code since the summer, months before he knew about Code Jumper. His favorite part is hitting the play button on the hub so he can listen to everything he just created.

Joshua Lewis wants to be an inventor when he grows up.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Code Jumper app is required too and it's currently only available through the Microsoft Store, so Lefan has two Microsoft tablets in her classroom -- one per Code Jumper kit. The app on the tablet displays the lines of code and students can play it aloud to hear each line in succession.

The students start out by creating code to play the song Row Row Row your Boat. They work well together, taking turns connecting new pods. 

The main pods have two bright blue dials with different physical characteristics. The user manual describes the shorter, rounded dial as a "doughnut" shape -- that's what Joshua was talking about -- and the other as the "taller, ridged dial." The bright blue color, contrasted against the white, makes it easier for students who are visually impaired to see the dials. Having a "doughnut" and a taller, knobby dial makes it possible for students who are blind to differentiate between the two by touch.

The doughnut knob changes the sound, while the taller knob controls duration and pitch. Both groups of students successfully built the Row Row Row your Boat code, but their results sounded different. One table went with a more classic rendition of the song, while the other table played around with the pitch and speed to make it their own. 

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Learning curve

The teachers are learning to code alongside their students. Lefan tells me her students aren't nearly as intimidated by it as she is. "It's so much more natural for them because it's the world they live in," she explains. 

Lefan wants to start a coding club that's open to her students and their sighted peers. 

Meador describes Code Jumper as an "inclusion product," something anyone can try. It's specifically designed for ages seven to eleven, but Meador says children as young as five -- and even younger -- have learned Code Jumper. 

After learning the basics, the kids moved on to some more advanced coding with loop and pause pods. A single loop pod can play "row, row, row" in one go, rather than requiring three individual pods that play one "row" each. Pause pods briefly stop the audio so students can create different effects with the music and stories they create. 

Some students transitioned from playing music to making sounds of horses running and whinnying -- and Bugs Bunny saying "Hey, what's going on here?" 

Tariq, pictured left, is ready to take Code Jumper home with him. He thinks it would be funny to scare his family with some of the creepy noises. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Meador believes students who learn Code Jumper will have a much easier time transitioning to more advanced programming languages like Python. 

"We're looking at this [Code Jumper] as a career piece," Meador says. Microsoft, Apple and Google accessibility teams have spoken with him about the shortage of programmers who are blind or visually impaired. They're in high demand. 

"You can be blind and become a programmer. There are a lot of blind programmers out there," he adds.

Code Jumper will be sold starting in July through APH with lesson plans so teachers can learn how to implement it in schools with their students. Pricing hasn't been set yet, but a government grant will allow school districts to get these materials for free. Meador wants to make it as affordable as possible for everyone else, so parents can buy them for use at home. 

At launch, Code Jumper will be available in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but APH hopes to expand to other countries. 

In the meantime, Joshua and Tariq are dreaming big, although neither are setting their sights on coding per se. Joshua wants to be an inventor when he grows up. Specifically he wants to make flying cars. Tariq wants to be president.