Feelin' DNA inspires visually impaired science students with 3D-printed models

According to the National Science Foundation, 40 percent of the general population pursues a STEM career. And less than 8 percent of the visually impaired population will do the same. But one startup at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is looking to change that.

Feelin’ DNA, founded by UNC biology and biomedical engineering students, is inspiring the visually impaired by providing tactile learning tools for STEM subjects. STEM curricula often focus on visual aids, textbooks and online images that are largely inaccessible to visually impaired students. The Feelin’ DNA team works to translate those images into 3-D models with simplified shapes and tactile cues that facilitate learning for visually impaired students as well as their peers.

40% – the portion of the general population in STEM careers

8% – the portion of the visually impaired population in STEM careers

50 – the number of teachers Feelin’ DNA aims to reach with 3D model resources 

4 – the number of makerspaces at UNC that provide technologies like 3D printing

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Since its launch last fall as a result of a genetics class assignment, Feelin’ DNA continues to flourish. They bridge the gap between STEM topics and the visually impaired community by building 3D models with multi-sensory and interactive features especially designed to fit the needs of these students. Currently, no other organizations are filling this gap, which presents Feelin’ DNA with a unique opportunity to improve lives.

“One of our purposes in life is to serve others,” says Rachael Hamm ’18 and Feelin’ DNA co-founder. “The problem is complex, and it’s not something that we can solve on our own. However, I believe we will make a difference by creating an accessible learning environment for those who have sight loss. Witnessing someone finally understanding a concept is what keeps me inspired.”

Most recently, the team attended the National Federation of the Blind’s YouthSLAM, an annual event that allows visually impaired students in high school hands-on learning opportunities in the STEM fields. Through YouthSLAM, the team was able to teach sessions, using 3D models developed and created at Carolina. In addition, the team taught a class with the first congenitally blind cancer geneticist in the world Mahadeo A. Sukhai. Sukhai, who continues to serve as a mentor to the team, has been so impressed with Feelin’ DNA that he is presenting on their behalf at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students this fall. This winter, the team is hoping to co-present with him at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, where participants will discuss recent developments in science and technology.

But launching a startup can be intimidating. For Hamm, having a science background and not a business background made starting Feelin’ DNA feel daunting. “Having confidence in your idea is crucial, but finding the right support from friends and family is what can help make your great idea become reality,” says Hamm. “To get where we are today, Feelin’ DNA relies on numerous campus resources and support.”

A grant from the APPLES Service-Learning Program’s Robert E. Bryan Fellowship provided seed funding for Feelin’ DNA. The fellowship is designed for undergraduate student teams who want to create social impact locally or globally through the creation of an innovative project that addresses a community-identified need.

Rachael Hamm, UNC '18
“I believe we will make a difference by creating an accessible learning environment for those who have sight loss. Witnessing someone finally understanding a concept is what keeps me inspired."

Feelin’ DNA also received support from Innovate Carolina, with a sponsorship to support the travel of two students to teach the two courses at YouthSLAM in Baltimore this past summer. Innovate Carolina, whose mission is to be the place where innovators thrive, works to strengthen the University’s innovation network, helping the UNC community turn novel ideas into practical benefit.

In addition, Feelin’ DNA uses the BeAM makerspaces to fabricate the 3D models. BeAM’s network of makerspaces provides opportunities for collaboration in the design and making of physical objects for education, research, entrepreneurship and recreation. A biomedical engineering class is also helping the team with the development of code for designing new models.

Feelin’ DNA continues to build on their success, using its website as a platform to collaborate with educators, students and scientists to provide access to a repository of 3D models, ultimately encouraging visually impaired students to pursue a STEM career. They have earned non-profit status and are working to launch a pilot program for high schools, which will allow teachers and others to directly download 3D files from Feelin’ DNA’s website to print for their classrooms. Feelin’ DNA is looking to expand the program to at least 50 teachers across the nation. In addition, Feelin’ DNA will attend the Clinton Global Initiative this fall where they will share their Commitment to Action (CTA) and receive additional support to make the CTA a reality.

Want to get involved with Feelin’ DNA? They have an immediate need for students to learn the 3D press. In addition, you can donate via their website at https://www.feelindna.org/ or contact feelin.DNA@outlook.com.