Worcester Polytechnic Institute to Help Develop Novel Sign Language Technology

With a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, a WPI-led team will study new computer interfaces specific to sign language that could increase educational access and lifelong learning.

A Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researcher has received a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that could lead to significant breakthroughs in technology platforms for the ASL-signing Deaf Community. Erin Solovey, assistant professor of computer science, will investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of computer interfaces that will allow deaf individuals to navigate, search, and interact with technology completely in American Sign Language.

Members of the Deaf Community whose first or primary language is American Sign Language (ASL) currently engage with interactive computer tools presented exclusively in English, including those designed expressly for ASL content and educational materials. The lack of ASL-based navigation is in part due to the fact that the signed languages of the world have unique requirements that do not align with existing text-based user interface design practices. Therefore, the development of Sign-Language First (SL1) technology offers great promise for ASL-signing users and others interested in signed language content. SL1 design has the potential to level the playing field for deaf students seeking to access academic, linguistic, and other informational content online.

“This project takes a human-centered computing approach to build a foundation that advances understanding of how deaf individuals could work and learn in environments that are designed with their needs and preferences at the forefront,” said Solovey.

Jeanne Reis, M.Ed., co-principal investigator on the project, brings over three decades of experience and understanding of the need for this technology. Reis is director of the Center for Research and Training at The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC)—a nationally recognized leader in educational, therapeutic, and community services with deaf and hard of hearing children and adults. “Technology that is truly SL1 accessible has the power to enhance educational opportunities and facilitate lifelong learning, especially in science and technology,” said Reis. “It can also improve career opportunities in STEM fields, broadening participation in the workforce by an incredibly dynamic, creative, valuable—and very underrepresented—population.”

In this project, Solovey and Reis will explore previously developed and novel approaches that will allow users to engage with technological tools through a signed language with no reliance on conventional written language. To that end, they propose that all aspects of a user interface, including menus, search tools, and navigation buttons, be presented visually. The research team will look at the feasibility of incorporating photos, videos, illustrations, and characters representing the linguistic features of ASL vocabulary, such as handshapes, movement patterns, and location (i.e., placement on the signer’s body).

The team will base their early investigations on existing resources for deaf students created by Reis and Robert Hoffmeister, PhD, in projects done with primary funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MADESE). Both projects involved partnerships with The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC), Boston University, numerous deaf professionals and subject matter experts, and schools for deaf students nationwide. Reis and Hoffmeister’s work resulted in two groundbreaking tools: the ASL STEM Concept Learning Resource (ASL Clear), released in 2017, and the ASL Assessment Instrument (ASLAI), released in 2010. ASL Clear focuses on STEM concept learning in ASL; ASLAI is the first computer-based standardized and robustly normed ASL language arts assessment administered to deaf students across the country. Since both are real-world tools with a common need to engage deaf users in ASL without switching to written English, they provide solid context in which to explore the design of ASL interfaces and evaluation tools to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what new features can be added.

Throughout the three-year grant, the WPI–TLC team will work with researchers, software engineers, ASL experts, educators, and doctoral students, many of whom are deaf, to ensure that members of the ASL-signing community have key leadership roles and active participation in the project. The team will also collaborate with Gallaudet University, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Mass.


About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI, the global leader in project-based learning, is a distinctive, top-tier technological university founded in 1865 on the principle that students learn most effectively by applying the theory learned in the classroom to the practice of solving real-world problems. Recognized by the National Academy of Engineering with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, WPI’s pioneering project-based curriculum engages undergraduates in solving important scientific, technological, and societal problems throughout their education and at more than 50 project centers around the world. WPI offers more than 50 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs across 14 academic departments in science, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. Its faculty and students pursue groundbreaking research to meet ongoing challenges in health and biotechnology; robotics and the internet of things; advanced materials and manufacturing; cyber, data, and security systems; learning science; and more.http://www.wpi.edu

Colleen Bamford Wamback 
Associate Director of Public Relations 
Worcester Polytechnic Institute 
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Erin Solovey

Erin Solovey, assistant professor of computer science at WPI

“This project takes a human-centered computing approach to build a foundation that advances understanding of how deaf individuals could work and learn in environments that are designed with their needs and preferences at the forefront.” -Erin Solovey, assistant professor of computer science