Collaborative student group aspires to break down barriers to STEM education | Computing


As a 2019 Illinois freshman in computer science, Ayesha Kazi knew right away that an idea presented to her by fellow freshman Mona Jawad in bioengineering was worth considering. to be continued.

The ASL Aspire team featured at SocialFuse, including Ayesha Kazi and Mona Jawad (left to right, bottom row) as well as Ethan Gaughan, Ryan Martin and Reilly Brennan (left to right, top row).

From his research work on cochlear implants with a professor from the College of Applied Health Sciences Justin Aronoff, Jawad acknowledged that there was a difficult hurdle for deaf students as they tried to engage in STEM classes and content.

The vocabulary is unique and jargon-heavy in STEM classes, creating that barrier that causes many to lose interest in science and math at a young age.

To compensate for this problem, Jawad had a rough idea to create an app that could engage these students around STEM vocabulary in a unique way. How to achieve this was a bit more uncertain, however.

Kazi hadn’t gone too far into IT to be fully confident in her abilities yet, but she could network with people who had. Quickly, a team began to form.

Two years later, they completed the first prototype of the application called ASL Aspire. The team is also working to convert the technology to Google Chrome, helping to introduce it into a school setting. And they were even one of 10 student teams to win at the Make-a-Thon Health 2021 led by the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

“I remember meeting Mona for the first time, and as soon as she told me about this project, I thought I needed to help,” Kazi said. “Application development was a whole new world for me because it didn’t match what I had learned yet. But I told him I could put together a team of people who could do it.

“I had taken a video game design course, so I’m helping with some of the design and content components. But once the team was formed, things started to go a lot faster.

A total of 11 students are currently contributing to the effort, which harkens back to Jawad’s original inspiration. This includes a CS team of Ryan Martin, Abe Baali, Reilly Brennan, Ayesha Kazi and Aditi Adya (formerly); an education and strategy team made up of Sumayyah Hussain, Sri Medisetti, Amy Lee and Ethan Gaughan; and an art and design team made up of Parima Michareune, Joy Lin, Natalia Dabrowska and Liz Troy (former).

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“I was a James Scholar, and that was the undergraduate research project I chose, ”Jawad said. “I immediately went out and interviewed between 10 and 15 educators to ask them what was the biggest barrier to making deaf students feel more confident in STEM classes. Overall they told me it was STEM vocabulary.

The application they are working on is a game, the interface for which they have designed STEM exercises related to vocabulary words.

There are challenges for students, like crossword puzzles, currently based on biology and chemistry terminology.

“I’m part of the education and networking team, which means I’m working on the design of the game’s program. I help select the words we use for each topic’s vocabulary, which we post. on our social networks and during various events such as SocialFuse and Founders Forge“Said Ethan Gaughan, a junior in bioengineering.” I like working on it because it gives me the opportunity to think critically about something other than engineering work. It’s good to work on something knowing that its only purpose is to help people who might use it.

Then the group seeks to add to its functionality with the educators. One way might be to keep track of participants’ scores to encourage greater student participation – never to discourage them or hinder their efforts.

Students and teachers could use this feature to find strengths and identify weaknesses to support efforts in specific areas.

A screenshot of the ASL Aspire game.
A screenshot of the ASL Aspire game.

The group built the application on the Unity platform, using C # scripts. This area of ​​technical development has benefited from their mentor, Illinois computer science professor Lawrence Angrave.

“Professor Angrave answers all the questions we ask and gives us time to help us learn whenever we need his help,” Kazi said. “He’s a great teacher to work with because he wants to help us be successful, and he has all the technical knowledge we need when questions arise.”

Angrave said he appreciates his role as a teacher, teacher and mentor because of this exact interaction.

“I see huge interest from our students in doing something that is inspiring or compelling. As a teacher we just have to fan the flames, but the spark and the desire is already there for many of our students, ”said Angrave. “It was evident from the first meeting that this core team had mountains of enthusiasm, vision, persistence and the ability to work effectively to create something worthwhile. “

For Kazi, the success of this project illustrates what the college experience is.

“I graduated this year, but I don’t want to stop working on it. I’m emotionally invested at this point, ”Kazi said. “Being a major in STEM, seeing with my own eyes that there is a language barrier here for these students breaks my heart.

“I want to see how far we can go, how far we can help.”

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