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Lofty aspirations: ASL Aspire is working to bring STEM to ASL users

In the summer of 2020, Mona Jawad worked on the staff of a Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering summer camp run by the University of Illinois’ Grainger College of Engineering. The program aims to provide pre-college opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups in science and engineering, but she saw a disconnect. Jawad performed research with cochlear implants in the laboratory of Justin Aranoff, a Professor of Speech and Hearing Science at the U of I, where she met many deaf and hard-of-hearing patients. But, despite the summer camp’s otherwise remarkable diversity, she did not see a single deaf participant, even a deaf applicant. She decided, “I wanted to do a project to try and bridge that gap and start bringing more kids into STEM education.”

That project grew into ASL Aspire, a startup whose leadership I recently spoke with over Zoom. The next step, Jawad told me while on her lunch break, was getting in touch with Ayesha Kazi. They met through the Women in Engineering program during their first semester at the U of I. Kazi, sitting in front of a bookcase in her Wisconsin home office, described the experience as going through a journey together. They had both entered Grainger College undeclared, and they bonded over the experience of exploring classes and deciding on majors. So, when Jawad approached her, Kazi remembers saying, “Yeah, of course I’m down to join!”

According to Jawad, Kazi proved to be an excellent recruiter. Whenever they needed someone, Kazi would say, “Oh yeah, I know a person.” The team grew to nine members in the first two weeks. They took advantage of group chats with their fellow majors — bioengineering for Jawad and computer science for Kazi — and used the word-of-mouth to draw recruits. Ryan Martin, the lead of the software team, heard about the venture through one of these chats. From his bedroom in Champaign, he said that joined the venture six months in on a whim because he saw it as a chance to use his computer background for good.

The next question was what kind of tool to develop for classroom instruction. They interviewed fifteen educators who work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. When asked what makes students light up in the classroom, the response was always the chance to use smartphones and play computer games. The team decided to develop a browser app a la Quizizz or Kahoot! with games to teach scientific vocabulary in American Sign Language.

The biggest obstacle to teaching math and science to deaf and hard-of-hearing students is the lack of signs for technical terms. (In chemistry, for example, it is estimated that 80-90% of the terms do not have ASL signs.) ASL users and translators must either spell the terms out, significantly hindering classroom instruction, or approximate them with signs from everyday language, increasing the already-large divide between deaf scientists and the rest of their fields. There has been a push in the last few years to correct this deficiency: deaf and hard-of-hearing scientists are actively inventing technical signs. However, it is still an ongoing process, so any instructional tools must be flexible to the evolving standards.

There are two kinds of games in the ASL Aspire app. The first is pre-programmed content-focused games, where the player walks through in a story-like fashion and learns not just the vocabulary but also the science behind it. Jawad likened this to a “tutoring experience.” The second consists of customizable vocabulary modules, where educators can add their own content based on the demands of their course and the needs of their students. The instructor has access to a dashboard where they can view statistics on student performance. Martin emphasized that they want the app to be a supplement to what is already being taught in the classroom.

Aside from the obvious challenges in representing ASL, an intrinsically three-dimensional language, on a two-dimensional screen, the team found the design process difficult because they were college students trying to imagine what middle-schoolers would want to play. They proceeded by interviewing both teachers and students about what they would want to see in an app. The app was beta tested in six middle schools including Frankin Middle School in Champaign Unit 4 School District, where they received valuable feedback from enthusiastic instructors.

For all the planning and development, ASL Aspire got its first break when it was selected as a winner of the 2021 Health Make-a-thon in the Carle College of Medicine. With the $10,000 prize, they could start the process of turning their idea into a business. For the second round held this past April, they formed a business plan and considered how they would enter the market; the venture was selected as a winner and awarded $20,000. Then, the group was selected to join the eighth cohort of the iVenture Accelerator for U of I student-led startups, where they are receiving support over the summer and opportunities to expand the venture.

Despite being spread out all over the world during the summer months, the team still works together virtually and returned to Illinois for the iVenture Demo Day in Chicago last month. They are planning to launch a pilot program in the fall and have a full release in the spring of 2023.

Top photo provided by Mona Jawad.

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