UW News

June 27, 2013

Competitive STEM program at UW targets deaf, hard of hearing students

UW News

Summer academy classroom

Deaf and hard of hearing students learn the basics of animation during their first class of the summer.U of Washington

Finals are barely over for University of Washington student Jessie Zhang and already she’s excited to be back on campus. Zhang, who just finished her freshman year, will learn programming skills, meet mentors in the tech industry and try her hand at animation – all while speaking with her cohort and advisers through signing and technologies that help her communicate.

Zhang joined 16 other deaf and hard of hearing students from around the country June 24 to participate in an intensive summer of computer science courses, industry tours and networking.

“I’m hoping to get a head start on what I want to pursue at the UW,” Zhang said.

The UW program, called Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing, is the only one of its kind in the nation that offers a full quarter of academic credit to incoming college students or those who just finished their first year.

Students will present their animation films at 7 p.m. Aug. 16, in the UW Electrical Engineering Building, room 105.

It also gives deaf students a chance to explore an academic field they may not have already considered, said Richard Ladner, a UW professor of computer science and engineering who started the academy six years ago.

“It has many facets and a richness that many programs don’t have,” Ladner said. “It really opens up their worldview to what they can do.”

Teaching assistant works with student.

Teaching assistant Brett Morris (left) answers a question of student Brian Podlisny during class.U of Washington

The program, which runs through Aug. 23, will end after this year. It was the brainchild of Ladner, born to two deaf parents, who has decided after 42 years at the UW that his time as program lead is complete.

Still, this year’s class is the largest and most competitive yet, said Robert Roth, the academy’s director. After its final summer, the program will have graduated more than 80 students.  A number of those alumni have majored in computer science fields and have returned to the Seattle area to work.

Matt Starn, a software development engineer at Microsoft, was a summer academy student during the first year of the program in 2007. He came after his sophomore year at University of California, Los Angeles, where he hadn’t yet decided what to major in. After the summer quarter at the UW, Starn decided to transfer to Rochester Institute of Technology, where he studied computer science.

“The summer academy played a big role in identifying computer science and helping me pursue it,” Starn said.

The program’s field trips around the city and networking visits to local companies helped Starn “fall in love” with Seattle, he said, which is partly why he returned to the area for work.

transcription service

Some of the students use a computer-assisted real-time translation tool in which spoken words are transcribed into captions, seen at left.U of Washington

Summer academy students live on the UW campus and take a nine-week computer programming course for college credit, plus a certificate class in animation. They produce short animated films at the end of the quarter and present them at a community event.  Graduate students and alumni of the program serve as tutors and mentors throughout the summer, and participants visit a number of local tech companies, including Google, Microsoft and Adobe.

Graduates of the program’s first year are starting to land jobs or enroll in graduate programs. Some, like Starn, are at tech companies, while many are pursuing degrees at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which houses the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Others are completing programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

Before the UW experience, they often were the only deaf or hard of hearing students in their high schools, so learning to communicate within a deaf community is a big part of the program, Ladner said. Some learn American Sign Language for the first time.

“This is the beginning of their networking lives,” he said.

Students asks a question

Student Joshua Slocum, standing, asks a question during animation class.U of Washington

Google software engineer Anna Cavender has helped with practically every aspect of the summer program its first several years while she was a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. She has seen students forge lasting friendships and land highly competitive jobs through networking.

“The transition to college can be a little extra daunting for deaf and hard of hearing students,” Cavender said. “This program helps students navigate the hurdles and introduces them to other students with similar backgrounds and interests.”

The summer academy is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and the National Science Foundation. It’s part of the UW Alliance for Access to Computing Careers, which is a collaboration of the UW department of computer science and engineering and the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology center.


For more information, contact Ladner at ladner@cs.washington.edu or 206-543-9347.