WOOSTER, Ohio — For those with cognitive disabilities, simple communication can be a daily challenge and a source of considerable frustration, but a team of students from The College of Wooster is working to help ease that burden. The students, in collaboration with Prentke Romich Company, are taking a fresh look at the subtleties of linguistics in an effort to further enhance the company’s language and assistive technology products.
Recent graduates Steve Schott and Shannon McKnight, along with rising junior Arpan Roy, are working with advisers Simon Gray and Diane Uber through Wooster’s Applied Mathematics and Research Experience (AMRE), an innovative eight-week summer program in which students serve as paid consultants to provide solutions for specific problems in business, industry, education, government, and the non-profit sector.
“Our objective is to create a system that is more personalized, one that will motivate the individuals to communicate better by giving them access to the words and concepts they want to discuss,” said McKnight, who earned dual degrees in neuroscience and philosophy at Wooster.
Prentke Romich, an industry leader in the field of assistive technology and augmentative communication for almost half a century, has worked with AMRE on a number of projects during the past 20 years, but this endeavor is more interdisciplinary in nature. In addition to McKnight’s background, Schott brings his interest in neurolinguistics (how the brain stores, learns, and uses language), while Roy adds a combination of computer science, physics, and mathematics. The result has been a veritable “Dream Team.”
“I have been very impressed by this group,” said Uber, professor of Spanish and an expert in the field of linguistics. “They have been tremendously creative, and I think one of the things that has aided them is their ability to speak more than one language. They are well aware that communication is much more than a group of words strung together.”
In the beginning, the trio was given only basic information. “(Prentke Romich) did not want their biases and past experience to affect our research,” said McKnight, who applied some of what she learned from her Senior Independent Study project (Wooster’s nationally acclaimed undergraduate research experience). “They didn’t even want us to see their devices before we started.”
That freedom has enabled the group to chart its own course. “We basically started from scratch,” said Roy. “Our primary objective was to make it easier (for those with cognitive disabilities) to communicate.”
What they decided was to focus their attention on cognitive impairment rather than motor impairment. They then concentrated on autism spectrum disorder because they felt it was an area that was underserved. “Our charge was to design software that was intuitive, efficient, flexible, and easy to learn,” said Schott, who added that his previous research at Wooster empowered him with a “yes I can” type of attitude.
The trio is now ready to present its findings and recommendations to the company. “We will deliver a series of functional specifications for a system that will look completely different from what is now in use,” said McKnight. “One of the ways we propose to do this is through the use of games, which we believe will keep individuals focused and help them advance to the next level of understanding.”
Not only will the company and its clients benefit, but so will the three students who worked on the project. “This has been the perfect springboard into neuroscience research for me,” said Schott. “It will be a bridge to opportunities at the professional and clinical level.”
Roy was equally enthusiastic. “This was my first real research experience,” he said. “It was great because it introduced me to the practical applications of real-world solutions to real-world problems.”
Likewise, McKnight found considerable value in the process. “This has opened my eyes to the fact that my research really can make a difference in terms of helping others.”
And that may have been the most important lesson of all. “We don’t really know how much of our work will be implemented,” said Roy, “but if anything we did helps to make life better for others, then it will all have been worthwhile.”
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