Assistive technologies for people with communication disorders have come a long way in recent years. Apps on tablets, like iPads, help people with speech barriers to communicate their thoughts. Still, current technology is limited in that it does not allow users to clearly convey tone of voice, mood or individual personality.
Fortunately, undergraduate engineering students at Penn State and in South Africa are working to eliminate that communication barrier and will unveil the results of their efforts at the Learning Factory College of Engineering Design Showcase at 1 p.m. on April 28 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC) — created through a $5 million federal grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to Penn State and partner institutions — asked engineering students to develop assistive technologies that give a true voice to people with communicative disorders related to autism, stroke, traumatic brain injury, ALS, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.
Fourteen Penn State students have been working throughout the spring 2016 semester to answer the request. David McNaughton, professor of special education with a dual appointment in communication sciences and disorders, is mentoring students leading up to the showcase.
“This project helps create a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, so whatever work these students go into, hopefully, that awareness will play a role in their designs,” McNaughton said. “Ultimately, this process allows students to better understand the needs of people with disabilities and gets them to think about how technology can play a vital role.”
Students also met regularly with Godfrey Nazareth, a biomedical engineer who works on RERC on AAC projects and who himself has a diagnosis of ALS, in order to ensure that their technical development work addresses the needs of persons with disabilities.
Engineering designs for the greater good
Each semester, as part of the Learning Factory, engineering students take on different projects, many offered by corporations seeking innovations for products. There are more than 100 projects underway this semester.
Andrew M. “Mike” Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and instructor of engineering science and mechanics, is the instructor for the five projects this semester, including the teams developing assistive communication technologies.
“This is one of the most fascinating projects we have had, with a tremendous potential to improve communication capabilities for people with disabilities,” Erdman said. “Such opportunities to apply engineering skills to solve fundamental human needs energize our students and encourage them to continue to apply their technical abilities to improving the human condition.”
Matthew Vincent, a senior who is studying mechanical engineering, said this experience has introduced his team to assistive technologies.
“The background knowledge on assistive technologies that we had before this project was very little,” Vincent said. “Getting to learn about new technologies and ways to help people who rely on assistive technology has been a great process. The learning curve is always something challenging when it comes to something you don’t have much knowledge about, but it challenges you and it makes you a better engineer.”
An international effort to find a solution
As part of an international collaboration, Erdman has arranged for a group of students at The Belgium Campus in Pretoria, South Africa to also tackle the challenge. In previous semesters, students from the University of Leuven in Brussels have participated in similar virtual teaming challenges with Penn State.
“I have been very pleased by the determination shown by students, both here and at our remote partner universities, to overcome challenges and produce quality products,” Erdman said. “We have been able to make good use of the expertise of the team members, both here and abroad.”
Maddy Cook, a senior who is studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, said working with international students has been a welcomed challenge.
“We have to work around changes in time zones, written language and geographic separation. We’re fortunate that our deliverable is so technological and Web based, so it could really be a collaborative effort,” she said. “The team from Pretoria is absolutely great. They’re driven and incredibly smart. We were really lucky to be put on a team where we have three extra minds to help us.”
Kristél Hartmann, an engineering student at The Belgium Campus, said the experience has not only introduced her to new technologies, but also made her aware of the communicative challenges some people face, such as those with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“I learned a lot about people with ALS and found that it is quite sad that this type of technology isn’t developed as fast as cellphones are being enhanced. During this project, I am learning how much people need technology and for different reasons,” she said.
Hartmann also appreciates the opportunity to work with Penn State students.
“I hope that more universities find ways to enable their students to do projects with people in other parts of the world,” Hartmann said. “I think that it is very exciting and will result in extremely good products. People — students — all over the world will be able to communicate and build bonds that are so necessary. We need people who are able to communicate and work together, no matter their race or place of origin.”
In related news, the RERC on AAC and the Hintz Foundation Endowed Chair in Children’s Communicative Competence at Penn State is sponsoring a Student Research and Development Competition to enhance communication technologies for people with complex needs. The competition is designed to stimulate research and development for tone of voice through augmentative and alternative communication technologies. The student winner, who will be announced in July, will receive up to $4,000, which can be used in part to further their project development.