To unlock the power of reading, Lego now sells bricks with Braille, and a phone app is helping 350,000 people in the Horn of Africa learn in their native tongue.

By Cameron Pugh

1. United States

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio completed more than a full year in space, breaking the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by an American.

On the International Space Station, Dr. Rubio spent his 371-day trip conducting investigations to better understand how humans might adapt to living and working in space. Projects ranged from studying the effects of microgravity on the genetic processes and growth of bacteria, to installing solar arrays on his spacewalks.


In a NASA video he narrated in English and Spanish, Dr. Rubio said experiments with hydroponics and aeroponics for tomatoes was his favorite project. “I love working with that little plant and seeing it grow and develop,” he said.

Tools For New Readers, From Braille Lego To A Somali Phone App
Frank Rubio floats inside the cupola, the International Space Station’s “window to the world.” NASA/AP/FILE

Dr. Rubio and two cosmonauts returned to Earth in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27, together completing the third-longest mission in human spaceflight. After spending so long among the stars, Mr. Rubio says he is excited to see solid ground again. “Hugging my wife and kids is going to be paramount,” he said before leaving the space station.

Sources: NASASpaceflight InsiderThe New York Times

2. Brazil

Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld Indigenous land rights in a watershed decision, prompting widespread celebration by Indigenous people across the country. The ruling serves as a precedent for future land claims nationwide.

Santa Catarina State had evicted the Xokleng tribe from a nature reserve in 2009, which prompted the tribe’s appeal. The state defended its case using the argument that an Indigenous group must have been physically present on Oct. 5, 1988, the day Brazil’s Constitution came into force, to have legal rights to its land. Yet many Indigenous people in Brazil have been forcibly removed from ancestral lands, and the Xokleng had been subject to killings that reduced their population in the early 1900s and during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

The court rejected the state’s claim, with Judge Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha writing, “We are caring for the ethnic dignity of a people who have been decimated and oppressed during five centuries of history.”

Tools For New Readers, From Braille Lego To A Somali Phone App
Indigenous people celebrate in Brasília after a victory at Brazil’s Supreme Court. UESLEI MARCELINO/REUTERS

Indigenous advocates are still watching a bill in Congress that would allow encroachment on Indigenous lands and isolated tribes, with the bill’s supporters calling for the development of the areas and the assimilation of the residents. Studies have found that recognition of Indigenous land rights leads to lower deforestation rates and other benefits such as carbon sequestration.

Sources: The GuardianHuman Rights WatchWorld Resources InstituteInter Press Service

3. Denmark

Lego is selling bricks with Braille coding for blind and partially sighted children and their families. The Danish company has been testing the bricks in consultation with organizations serving blind individuals and said it hopes the toys will provide opportunities for parents and siblings to learn the Braille alphabet alongside their relatives.

Each brick has studs corresponding to the touch-based alphabet, and a small printed letter or number. Braille bricks are available for English and French speakers, while German, Italian, and Spanish bricks will launch next year. Parents say the new toy has helped their children feel more included. “Lego braille bricks are accessible for her without being really different for other kids, so she gets to play and learn just like every other child,” said Lisa Taylor about her 7-year-old daughter.

Tools For New Readers, From Braille Lego To A Somali Phone App
C Lego’s new Braille bricks include a small printed letter, allowing families to play with them together. OURTESY OF LEGO

Though some say Braille has become outdated amid more advanced speech-to-text technology, the European Blind Union says learning Braille leads to improved language abilities and higher levels of education for people with limited vision.

Source: The Guardian

4. Somaliland

At least 350,000 people are using a phone app to learn to read and write Somali, an official language of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Somaliland. Sahamiye Foundation, the nonprofit that created the Daariz app, estimates that 70% of late primary school students in the Horn of Africa cannot read a simple story in Somali. In a region beset with conflict, drought, and poverty, Somaliland officials cite a similar illiteracy rate for adults. Much of the population is rural and pastoralist, which also makes it difficult for children to attend school.

The 2-year-old app provides virtual lessons in reading, writing, and comprehension, as well as a digital library.

Daariz blends personalized feedback with a reward system of collecting virtual camels – a revered symbol of prosperity. Daariz also works offline, which helps meet the needs of remote users and women, who often face barriers to education. Ismail Ahmed, a co-founder of the foundation, said that in an increasingly cash-free society, literacy will increase the independence of small-business women who must read to process mobile payments at market.

Tools For New Readers, From Braille Lego To A Somali Phone App
FILE – Photo of a woman using the Daariz app in a market in the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland. Photo taken in May 2023 and provided by the Sahamiye Foundation

The foundation has provided inexpensive smartphones to some schools and hopes to add programs for math and science to the app. Some 20 million people around the world speak Somali.

The Daariz app is available on Google Play and on the Apple Store.

Sources: Saxafi Media, BBCVoice of AmericaHapa Kenya

5. Australia

A citizen science program found that removing macroalgae by “sea-weeding” substantially increases coral regrowth. Led by researchers from James Cook University, volunteers helped pull seaweed by hand from two sites off the coast of Magnetic Island in a three-year study. Coral cover in this central part of the Great Barrier Reef increased by at least 47%, and macroalgal cover decreased by more than half.

Seaweed is a natural part of any reef system. However, when extreme events – such as climate change-induced coral bleaching or cyclones – kill large amounts of coral, seaweed growth can surge, outcompeting coral and limiting its regrowth.

Tools For New Readers, From Braille Lego To A Somali Phone AppMany coral reefs globally are being replaced by seaweed as climate change and other stressors devastate ecosystems. But scientists say seaweed removal is a low-cost, nontechnical method that can significantly improve reef health.

“A project like this enables people to take ownership of their local environment and also makes them aware that there are small things they can do to help our planet,” said researcher Hillary Smith. The team is searching for other locations where the technique might be useful.

Sources: James Cook UniversityJournal of Applied Ecology

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