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Louisville hosts inaugural Abacus Bee finals for students with visual impairments

An abacus with white beads and a red background
American Printing House for the Blind
Participants were tasked with solving equations using the millennia-old math tool.

Equations like 2+6+9-4+5+2 are easy to solve using a calculator. But students participating at the American Printing House for the Blind’s (APH) inaugural Abacus Bee finals were tasked with solving such problems using only a millennia-old tool.

Participants from Washington and Florida showed off their equation-solving skills Saturday at the Kentucky School for the Blind.

Competitors, ranging from ages 5 to 21, were given math problems to solve in their heads or on an abacus, then submitted answers in large print or with a braille writer.

Leanne Grillot, APH’s senior director of outreach services, said the Abacus Bee is an important opportunity to generate interest in STEM fields.

“We have found that people believe that individuals who have vision differences either can’t do math or shouldn’t do math,” Grillot said. “At the American Printing House for the Blind, we know full well they sure can, we have evidence of it. And so our goal was to produce a fun, but challenging event where students can be recognized for their math skills.”

Qualifying students from regional bees in the fall were brought to Louisville for an all-expenses-paid trip to the finals.

All participants in Saturday’s finals earned a medal with a tactile version of the competition’s logo on the front and “Abacus Bee” written in braille on the back.

The top prize winners received tools that translate three-dimensional figures to two-dimensional figures to help students with visual impairments better understand geometry.

Grillot described the Kentucky School for the Blind as “bubbling with excitement” during the competition.

“You have kids who are enjoying being around like kids, so individuals with varying vision loss, [and] excitement from the parents who joined in to watch their students succeed,” Grillot said.

The bee gave students a chance to connect with others over not only a shared life experience, but similar interests in math, as well.

“It’s been really neat to see the ‘Oh wow, where do you go to school?’ or ‘Oh, you’re in that grade?,’” Grillot said. “They start going ‘Oh well, what do you want to do when you graduate?’ and ‘I never thought of that, that’s really cool,’ so it’s that type of connection.”

APH hopes to continue the Abacus Bee going forward.

“Especially since it’s so popular overseas, it’s just a really cool thing to have here, and we’re looking forward to having it for years to come,” said APH public relations manager Sara Brown.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.