You are sitting in a Harvard classroom ready for a quantum science lecture to begin. The professor steps behind the podium and begins her presentation: “The a-n-g-u-l-a-r f-r-e-q-u-e-n-c-y indicates how often a single p-a-r-t-i-c-l-e in the wave oscillates in time.”
Following and understanding a concept presented this way, with the professor spelling out each word, would add a whole level of difficulty to an already complex topic.
This scenario is exactly what deaf people experience on a daily basis. Because signs in American Sign Language (ASL) do not exist for many STEM concepts, interpreters are forced to fingerspell words in an effort to communicate concepts, forcing a deaf person to channel between ASL and English to make sense of topics discussed.
This can be exhausting and makes learning the content far more challenging than for other students.
A collaboration between Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials (CIQM) and The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC) is attacking this challenge, with the aim of increasing STEM opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
The project is led by Mandy Houghton, a former science teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf who first got involved during a summer internship at CIQM, part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Houghton was so impressed by how well the Harvard interpreters were able to convey the complex science concepts that she asked them where they learned the signs.
That led her to a group at Boston University, which was working to create content and new signs for as many STEM topics as possible.
As a deaf high school teacher, Houghton knew being able to accurately discuss more STEM topics in ASL could go a long way toward supporting deaf and hard-of-hearing students and inspiring them to consider careers in the field. Houghton became so passionate about the issue she left teaching and joined the project as manager.
Houghton and the team of deaf STEM experts began by generating ASL content for middle and high school biology, but National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to CIQM she shifted her focus to developing ASL modules on quantum science topics for undergraduate students.