Winning Health Make-a-Thon Team Aspires to Remove Barriers to STEM Education


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ASL Aspire Header
ASL Aspire Header

Computer science student Ayesha Kazi was in her first-year at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2019, when bioengineering student Mona Jawad inspired Kazi to leverage technology to help deaf students overcome obstacles in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning.

Stemming from her work researching cochlear implants with College of Applied Health Sciences professor Justin Aronoff, Jawad recognized that there was a tricky barrier present for deaf students as they tried to engage with STEM courses and content.

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

To offset this issue, Jawad had a rough idea of creating an app that could engage these students around STEM vocabulary in a unique way. How to accomplish that was a bit more uncertain, though.

Kazi hadn’t waded too far into computing yet to feel fully confident of her capabilities, but she could network with people who had. Quickly, a team began forming.

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

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

“I had taken a game design class, so I help with some of the design and content components. But once the team formed, things started moving a lot faster.”

ASL Aspire Team Members
ASL Aspire Team Members: 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).

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

“I was a James Scholar, and this was the undergraduate research project I chose,” Jawad said. “I immediately went out and interviewed somewhere between 10-15 educators to ask them what the biggest barrier was for deaf students to feel more confident in STEM courses. Across the board, they told me it was STEM vocabulary.”

The app they are working on is a game, the interface for which they 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 work on designing the curriculum of the game. I help select what words we use for each subject’s vocabulary, what we post on our social media, and pitching at different events like SocialFuse and Founders Forge,” said Ethan Gaughan, a junior in Bioengineering. “I like working on this because it gives me a chance to critically think about something besides engineering work. It’s nice to work on something knowing that its sole purpose is to help people who could use it.”

Next up, the group is looking to add to its functionality with educators. One way could be keeping track of participant scores to encourage further student participation – never to deter or detract from their efforts.

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

The group built the app on the Unity platform, using C# scripting. This area of technical development benefited from their mentor, Illinois CS professor Lawrence Angrave.

“Professor Angrave answers any questions we come up with and provides time to help us learn whenever we need his help,” Kazi said. “He is an amazing professor to work with, because he wants to help us succeed, and he has all the technical knowledge we need when questions come up.”

Angrave said that he enjoys his role as a teaching professor and mentor because of this exact interaction.

“I see a tremendous interest by our students to do something that is inspirational or compelling. As faculty we just need to fan the flames, but the spark and the desire is already there for many of our students,” Angrave said. “It was obvious from the very first meeting that this core team had mountains of enthusiasm, a vision, perseverance, and the ability to work effectively to create something worthwhile.”

For Kazi, this project’s success exemplifies what the college experience is about.

“I’m graduating this year, but I don’t want to stop working on this. I’m emotionally invested at this point,” Kazi said. “Being a student in a STEM major, seeing first-hand that there is a language barrier here for these students is heartbreaking to me.

“I want to see how far we can take this, how much we can help.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this article can be found here.

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This story was published November 17, 2021.