By Ammar Barbee ’24, Mechanical Engineering

2020 was full of setbacks for all of us — a global pandemic turned our world around and upside down. When faced with such setbacks, it is important to keep moving forward. Rather than thinking about what could have happened, you can think about exploring new opportunities that arise from the circumstances. This is exactly what I did last semester with a project that positioned me to be selected as one of the winners of the Rensselaer Change the World Challenge. If it were not for the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic and other hardships I incurred in my life, that project wouldn’t have been possible.

The Change the World Challenge, run by the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, challenges students to develop their ideas into viable business concepts. The project I pitched is a manufacturing process that allows anyone with a computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling machine to make installations with Braille features to support those who are visually impaired. Ultimately, my technology gives those working in architectural signage the ability to easily integrate the capability to make Braille installations with their existing CNC machines. This process would allow signage to become more accessible for the visually impaired.

For example, one area of opportunity lies in the nature trail industry, where sensory trails can be designed to be experienced without one’s visual sense. My technology would allow trails to add installations constructed with machined Braille features, in addition to tactile elements (such as the imprint of an animal paw print), all facilitated by CNC technology.

Now, it’s important to reflect on what led me to this work. In high school, I was a very active member on the FIRST Robotics Competition team. After having to leave the team due to personal circumstances, it felt like I lost my sense of purpose. Realizing that I had this blank slate to explore new opportunities, I decided to design and build my own CNC router. This suddenly gave me a renewed sense of purpose. When the pandemic hit and daily life changed, I decided to use the time to finish my machine. Both of these setbacks afforded me the opportunity to make a difference creating technology to benefit those who are visually impaired.

Therefore, when experiencing setbacks in your own life, be sure to see how they can inspire your life and work in new ways. Oftentimes, they can help you adopt a new perspective as you move forward to change the world.