The Times West Virginian

December 5, 2013

Fairmont native incorporates touch into math, science learning

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — For Fairmont native Marjorie Darrah, being able to create software that incorporates the sense of touch into math and science learning is “like a dream come true.”

Darrah is in her her sixth year as an associate professor of mathematics at West Virginia University and is also the CEO of eTouchSciences LLC, based in Grafton.

This small company, formed in July 2012, is a spinoff of Information Research Corp. of Fairmont. She explained that eTouchSciences was started through a grant that IRC received two and a half years ago from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

In addition to Darrah, the team of eTouchSciences includes Brad DeRoos, president, and Kirill Speransky, director of research and development.

They developed and licensed a product for a specific audience — students who are blind or visually impaired.

Darrah said eTouchSciences saw a need because these students can’t take advantage of all the visual aspects of math and science in the classroom. The company created and is selling software applications that are not only good for sighted students, but are also fully accessible to blind students because the component of touch has been added.

A haptic device, which is in the form of a game controller, allows the students to feel the textures and shapes of a plant cell’s parts or be able to graph a line through touch, for example, she said. Visual — three-dimensional objects on a computer screen — and audio components are also part of the software apps.

“So it’s like a full package that addresses all the learning styles,” from visual to auditory to kinesthetic, Darrah said.

She said eTouchSciences developed 20 different applications, which cover a range of topics in science and math for middle school-age students, and hopes to offer a lot more in the future.

Each lesson goes along with a new Common Core Standard and includes different scenes where the student might encounter a question, problem or model. Self-checks are found throughout the lesson, as well as a quiz at the end.

The company worked with the West Virginia School for the Blind, the Texas School for the Blind and the California School for the Blind, as well as people in British Columbia, Canada, and tested visually impaired students, Darrah said.

Any parent or teacher can go to eTouchSciences’ website, www.etouchsciences.com, to purchase the apps, priced at about $10 each. The company is also a reseller of the haptic device, which costs around $200 — much cheaper than many years ago.

Darrah said she actually got introduced to haptic technology about 15 years ago. She saw how exciting this technology was and knew kids would love playing with it in the classroom, but the device was extremely expensive at the time.

“Even though we saw the great potential of the technology, we knew that the cost was just the barrier of it to be used in education,” she said. “It’s really positioned well in the realm of assisted devices.”

While entities around the country and world have done research in the area of haptic-based lessons, eTouchSciences is the first to actually create a product that people can buy on the market. Darrah said eTouchSciences is trying to get the word out about this product to teachers, students and parents and has done presentations at conferences, Darrah said.

“We’re getting a very positive response because there’s nothing out there like it,” she said. “There are games that use auditory, but there are no haptic-based lessons out there.”

Darrah hopes that the product will also catch on for students with other disabilities. Sometimes just seeing is not enough to be effective for students, but adding the components of feeling and hearing can help them. During tests in classrooms across the country, children who have been under-performing students showed that they really liked the apps, she said.

For its development of this software, eTouchSciences was awarded the StartUp Innovation of the Year award during the TechConnectWV Spirit of Innovation Awards Banquet in Morgantown in October.

Darrah said she was extremely surprised that the company won because the other competitors were also very deserving. eTouchSciences was pleased and excited to be recognized in this way, and this honor has helped spread the word about this tool for students.

Before moving to Grafton four years ago, Darrah spent most of her life in Fairmont. She received her bachelor’s degrees in math and math education from Fairmont State University, and obtained her master’s degree in math from West Virginia University. In 1995, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in WVU’s math department.

For 10 years, Darrah taught math at Alderson-Broaddus, and also served as chair of the school’s Natural Science Division during her last two years there. She went on to do math-based research and educational outreach for Fairmont’s Institute for Scientific Research, which later became part of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation, for five years before going to work for WVU.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.