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Classic Interactive Resource Updated to Empower Users



All Systems Are Go!, a Flash-based interactive developed to teach students about human biological systems, is perpetually one of the most popular tools on Science NetLinks. It is now poised to reach even more students with updated, accessible features.

"Our goal was to re-design the original game to make it more inclusive of children with disabilities and more engaging for everyone, whether or not they had an identified disability," said Bob Hirshon, Program Director for Technology and Learning at AAAS and principle investigator for the Kinetic City Empower Project. Hirshon and co-principle investigator Laureen Summers, Project Director of AAAS' Entry Point!, launched the project last year, with the goal of updating five of the original Kinetic City STEM-focused afterschool activities to make them more accessible to students with various disabilities.

"Assumptions still remain that students with disabilities aren't as capable or as imaginative, and we still need to work to combat those stereotypes. Students with disabilities need to be included in all science activities," Summers said. "All Systems Are Go! was a place for us to begin to educate teachers how to make every science activity more accessible so all students can participate equally. Students with disabilities have the potential to be natural scientists, using experimentation and creativity just to get through their day. They should absolutely be included in all science activities."

One of the most significant changes to the game is that the user no longer needs to be able to see the screen or hold a mouse in order to play. By using the Tab key and space bar/Enter key on their keyboard, the user can navigate between sections of the game and highlight elements they want to select. Additionally, all of the text that appears on the screen is now also available as audio, and students can use the Tab key to trigger the narration.

When users select a body part, a larger picture will appear on the left side of the screen. Both print and audio cues will alert users to what that body part is and its function.

"We got feedback on the original All Systems Are Go! game from a wide range of children, including many with physical, sensory, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities," explained Hirshon. "Experts in universal design and special education also provided input, and two software engineers at Microsoft (both legally blind) helped reprogram the game."

Another change to the game includes altering its color palette to use more high-contrast colors between text and game elements and the game's background. This helps make the game more legible, particularly to users with low-vision disabilities.

The use of high-contrast colors and the removal of images behind the text help users with low-vision or reading disabilities focus on the text. The new version is on the left; the original is on the right.

"We brought the revised game back to the kids who were helping us play-test the game, and researchers from the Center for Children and Technology in New York took notes while the children played the game and then interviewed them and their teachers. Overall, they engaged more fully and effectively with the new game," said Hirshon.

If you have played All Systems Are Go! in the past, you may not immediately notice the new features mentioned above. However, you probably will notice that you no longer need to drag the parts of the body over to the left side of the screen, but have the options of moving them by dragging them, clicking on them, or selecting them using the Tab key and space bar. This also means that users are alerted to wrong answers at the time of selection, eliminating the need to start a round over when making an error. One more obvious change is that parts of the body no longer return to the right side of the screen after a system has been completed. Researchers found students were distracted by their reappearance among the unused game elements, rather than making it an enhancement to the learning process.

Game play in the new version (left) of All Systems Are Go, as compared to the original version (right).

Hirshon concluded, "While the changes to the game explicitly help blind and low-vision users, they also make the game more accessible for children who have difficulty reading text or who can focus more sharply thanks to the additional highlighting of a selected object and the audio information."

You can read more about the Kinetic City Empower Project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation’s AISL (Advancing Informal STEM Learning) Pathways program, in a recent article in K-12 STEM Education.