VALRICO — The instructions were to think outside the box and create a project different than the typical science fair poster.
“I emphasized the importance of not doing a volcano and making a mess,” said Darcy Fak, the sixth-grade earth science teacher at Navigator Academy of Leadership.
“I really encouraged kids not to just go to Science Buddies, pull something out of page 42 and do it. I wanted the kids to come up with something important to them; something that would actually make a difference.”
Fak said some students still went with the traditional projects, like showing the buoyancy of an egg, but there were other students, like Rome Nardin, who took those instructions and “went to town.”
Nardin, 12, created a video game designed for kids who are visually impaired.
The game, “Please Listen,” is played on a computer and requires players to listen and follow directions to navigate through different obstacle courses with the goal of obtaining a coin to advance to the next level.
And it includes a bit of dry humor.
For example, if the player runs into a wall during the game, Nardin can be heard saying: “No, you can’t go that way. You’re going to bump your head.”
Nardin was born with severe hearing loss and wasn’t able to talk until age three. He currently wears hearing aids and according to his mother, Amy Nardin, he’s just one level away from being completely deaf.
“He’s always liked gaming only because it’s so visual it helps him and relaxes him because he works so hard with hearing," she said.
So when assigned a project for his school’s science fair, Nardin thought the game was the perfect idea because he knows what it feels like to not have everything easily accessible.
Nardin started the process by conducting research, including on YouTube. He found examples of games that were tweaked to cater to visually impaired children, but none solely for that audience. He found some games for visually impaired adults, but none specifically for kids.
It took him two weeks to design the game, which involved coding everything himself and testing it with his classmates to detect any problems.
When it was time for the fair, many people including his peers, his teacher and other administrators were so impressed that he was nominated as one of the select few to represent the school at the Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair on January 27.
Navigator Academy of Leadership Valrico is a tuition-free public charter school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade that just opened this school year. Fak says there are about 500 students enrolled at the school and about 90 sixth-graders who participated in the science fair.
Of those 90, Nardin was among only three who qualified for regionals.
“I was overwhelmed with how much work and time he put into it,” Fak said.
“When he brought it in and gave me a quick run-through of it, I was overly impressed with the idea because I had never heard of this before. I had no idea how to even create a game. The humor he put into it, you can tell he was passionate about it.”
Fak believes Nardin can take his video game beyond the regional STEM fair and compete on the state and even national level.
She is encouraging him to explore competing in the Science Olympiad, which is one of the largest and most premier K-12 STEM science competitions in the nation.
The Nardin family is still shocked by the recognition the video game is receiving and are deciding how they want to market the game.
“We’re excited because we feel [Rome] tapped into a whole new world," his mother said.
“And it’s because he created something people could use. I can’t imagine he would not release it and create a website.”
But they haven’t arrived at a plan just yet. All they know is that Nardin desires to be a coder and game designer, and this was a step in the right direction.