The Hidden Eyes of Blind Cats

Posted by KristenM on April 9th, 2012

by Samantha Reed

Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed

Cats don’t need their eyes to see in the dark. It turns out they have something even better. This spring, 12-year-old SERC student Samantha Reed decided to find out if the same thing could help humans.

A few years ago, my family had a blind cat named Dede. When she went blind, she could maneuver around the house with ease, bumping into things very little. I began to wonder, how could she do this? When this year’s SERC science fair came around, I thought I should do some research on cats to see how they could maneuver without sight.

I soon found that a cat’s whiskers are like a sixth sense, helping them ‘see’ as well as feel. Then it came to me: What if something that acted like a cat’s whiskers could be used to help the blind? I immediately e-mailed my science teacher at SERC, Ms. Karen [McDonald], for advice. A few days later I heard back. She was excited about my idea and gave me a few pointers. Her idea was to add ‘cat whiskers’ to the end of canes. I seized her idea and created four canes, all of the same length, with foam pieces slid onto the ends. I then took the head of a broom and cut a whole bunch of the bristles off. I cut some of them in half and stuck them into one cane, which made my short-bristled cane. The rest of the bristles where used for a second cane, which was my long-bristled cane. I used some strings from the head of a mop for a third cane, which became my long, limp bristled cane. The final cane had nothing on the end, so it was my control.

Reed's father navigates an obstacle course with the long-bristled cane. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed)

After I finished the canes, I began work on four different obstacle courses, creating one obstacle course for each cane to be tested on continuously. I put the long-bristled cane to the test on the first course, the limp-bristled cane on my second obstacle course and the short-bristled cane on the third course. The fourth course was reserved for the control.

Of course when you do an experiment, you need victims…I mean, participants…because you can’t exactly do it all yourself. You need varied data. So I gathered my dad, three of my friends and one of my friend’s moms. After blindfolding my dad, I sent him through one of the mazes and timed how long he took to get through. Once my dad had gone through all four courses with their assigned canes, I sent my friends through in the same way: running them through the courses with a different cane for every course. During one of her runs, my friend McKenna remarked, “It’s a little scary, being blindfolded”–and it doesn’t help when you know you’re walking on a high balcony.

Reed examines the threads of the limp-bristled cane, made from mop hairs. That cane and the short-bristled cane worked best as "whiskers" for the blind, though she's still not certain why. (SERC)

Once all the tests were over, I got to work decoding the results. After averaging the test times for each cane, the short-bristled cane and the limp-bristled cane were the most efficient. I am not sure whether this was because everyone became more confident as they went along, or because one or the other cane was necessarily better. I hope that someday my idea could help the blind navigate more easily.


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Desiree ( says:

    Nice work Samantha! I’m surprised the limp-bristled cane was so successful. Way to use that scientific method to answer your question!

  2. Samanatha says:

    Thanks! i’m not quite sure why the limp bristled cane worked so effectively, but i think it was because my testers got a bit more confidant with being “blind” and navigating the obstacle courses.

  3. K. King says:

    Awesome, Samantha! Outstanding work and loved that you involved your dear ‘ole dad as a victim/participant!!

  4. Crystal says:

    Really creative project. Seems like it took a lot of planning and work to create all those courses and walking canes. Keep thinking outside the box! – no pun intended.

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