UW News

August 2, 2007

New Computer Science academy welcomes hearing-impaired students

History shows many deaf artists and inventors, including Thomas Edison and Ludwig van Beethoven. So why are deaf people mostly absent from today’s digital revolution in communications technology? The UW is spearheading a national effort to encourage deaf and hard-of-hearing students to pursue computer science.

This summer the UW is offering an intense, nine-week computer science academy for tech-savvy students in their late teens or early twenties who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The inaugural Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf & Hard of Hearing in Computing kicked off in June, welcoming 10 accomplished students from around the country. The curriculum includes a first-year computer programming class and a digital animation course. By the end of summer the students will have created animated films, which they will show off later this month at a public screening.

The academy was created to boost the number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in computer science. Numbers right now are very low, said Program Director Richard Ladner, a UW computer science professor. This summer represents the first of at least two years’ funding for the academy, which is run through the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) office and the Department of Computer Science & Engineering.

“The first goal is to build up the capacity of these students to become successful in computer science,” Ladner said. “A secondary goal is to give them the excitement, give them the motivation — so they have the capacity and the desire to succeed.”

So far, he said, he’s been pleased with the students’ progress.

In a classroom in the Paul Allen Center, the instructor flicks the classroom lights on and off twice to get the students’ attention. The scene is familiar — the teacher lectures, the students shy away from presenting their work. But the classroom is a visual cacophony. The instructor, computer science senior undergraduate Michael Carson, asks students to describe the story line of their animated films while interpreter Heather Benjamin stands at the front of the class and translates into American Sign Language. At the same time, a computer-assisted real-time translator sends printed transcripts to an overhead screen. One student who is both deaf and blind follows the lecture by keeping his fingers on top of an interpreter’s hands, in order to sense the movements.

“Communication generally isn’t a problem at all,” Carson said. The experience is very similar to helping teach the animation course during the regular school year, he added.

The academy is the latest in Ladner and colleague Sheryl Burgstahler’s quest to recruit more diverse students to the field of computer science (see earlier article). The participants in this year’s academy range in age from 16 to 24, and have different levels of hearing ability. They were selected because they had exceptional math and science skills and came recommended by their teachers. This year all the participants are male — organizers say they hope to change this in future years.

Some were interested in computers and have studied the subject before. Michael McAllister, 19, a computer science major at High Point University in Charlotte, NC, said he’s been interested in computers since the seventh grade.

For others, this is their first chance to study computers. Lorne Farovitch, 16, a high school student from Tucson, Ariz., says he’s always liked playing video games and wondered what was going on behind the screen. The programming class “helped me to know the inside of the computer,” he said. Asked to name the academy’s high points, he said: “If I write a program and at the end it actually works, that’s my favorite part.”

So far, the students have gone on field trips to Microsoft, Boeing and Adobe and met with deaf or hard-of-hearing employees at Microsoft and Boeing. Professionals working at Oracle, IBM and Cray also traveled to the UW to meet the class and speak about their experiences as deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the computing industry.

“One thing I like about this program is it really provided a lot of role models for us,” said Bobby Jackson, 19. “In Memphis, the only deaf role models I know are teachers,” he said. “I came here … and realized that computer science really applies to modern society,” he said. “So I became really fascinated by it.”

The students’ costs are covered through the National Science Foundation grant that funds the program. But the students are hardly on vacation. When asked what they have been doing in the evenings, the students respond through an interpreter that they have been catching up on their animation storyboard and the Java programming class. In between, they have also visited the Space Needle, gone on the Ride the Duck aquatic bus tour and experienced campus life. A few students are teaching sign language to the barista working in the Paul Allen Center lobby.

For many, it’s their first experience at a large university, and their first experience living in a major city like Seattle. “It’s nice. It’s big,” said Adam Zaelit, 20, a student at Stephen Austin State University in Keller, Tex.

The deaf and hard-of-hearing community holds a special interest for Ladner. Both of his parents were deaf and taught in deaf schools. They attended the country’s only university for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., when it was still a college. Ladner’s father went on to earn a degree at the University of California, Berkeley at a time when the school offered no accommodations for people with disabilities — his father simply read the textbooks and then wrote the exams without ever attending a lecture (see earlier story about Ladner and his family).

The academy hopes to address a longtime deficit of deaf people in computing fields.

“If deaf or hard-of-hearing people are interested in computers, they’re told about repairing computers. And there’s so much more they could get involved in,” said program coordinator Rob Roth, a part-time employee at the UW who is himself deaf.

There are no exact statistics on the number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in U.S. universities. Raja Kushalnagar, a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Houston, says he currently knows of only one other deaf doctoral student in computer science.

Kushalnagar is employed as a teaching assistant with the academy. “He’s way overqualified,” Ladner said. Kushalnagar studies how brain images differ in blind people and deaf people. He applied for the position because he wanted to participate in the summer academy and act as a mentor to the younger students.

“It is lonely as a deaf academic in the computer science field,” Kushalnagar said. “Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people do their research in psychology, social work or deaf education.” He believes computing research offers a chance to make a difference also.

To celebrate the completion of the summer session, the class will hold a free public screening of their animations on Friday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. in 125 Electrical Engineering. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The program includes a short video of this year’s program that will be turned into a promotional film for the academy. Refreshments will follow.

For more information, see the Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf & Hard of Hearing in Computing Web site.