What happens when you touch something, asks Misa Suzuki, G-’24. “Does the touch stay on your hand or go to your brain?” That was a question she asked students at the Maryland School for the Deaf Columbia Campus (MSD-C) during a recent visit introducing them to the wonders of the nervous system and scientific research. “Students were almost too excited,” she says. “One kid even got up on stage with me.”

Two women with animated expressions lean over a table that has crayons and paper on it. The back of a child's head is visible across from them.
The “In Your Hands” team — Misa Suzuki, Bonnie Barrett, Wadha Alshammari, Marjorie Bates, Phoenix Cook, Michaela Okosi, Joseph Palagano, and Masashi Tamura — created activities in ASL that they used with students at the Maryland School for the Deaf Columbia Campus.

Suzuki and a team of fellow graduate students from several disciplines — Linguistics, Education, Psychology, Accessible Human-Centered Computing, Deaf Studies, and Neuroscience — spent the past year developing educational resources through their project, “In Your Hands: Promoting Early Diverse Deaf Engagement in the Cognitive Sciences.” Funded by a grant from the Cognitive Science Society Broadening Participation in Cognitive Science Initiative, the project has several parts: creating lesson plans, producing a video, and building a website, all designed to cultivate interest and provide greater access for deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, and deafdisabled K-12 students.

They often met several times a week to pull this off, says Bonnie Barrett, G-’24, who co-led the team with Suzuki. “This was something that all of us took on willingly on top of our schoolwork and job duties,” says Phoenix Cook, G-’24, who was inspired to be part of a team paving the way for the next generation of deaf scientists. Joseph Palagano, ’22, notes that there is no standard curriculum for introducing cognitive science to K-12 students. So developing a program specifically for deaf children learning in both American Sign Language and English was a chance to conjure a sculptor’s creativity. “With an end goal in mind, a set of tools, and faith in each other’s abilities, we began to carve away,” he says. “We committed ourselves to delving into uncharted waters.”

To test out their ideas, they needed an audience, so Suzuki and Barrett reached out to several schools with a short ASL video describing their goals. All of the schools responded positively, Barrett says, and then came an invitation to visit MSD-C in May. Standing in front of the kids there, leading them through activities, skits, and games, the team truly got to see the impact of this work. “It was a lot of fun, and of course, quite fulfilling to see our project come to life,” she says. They did five hour-long sessions with a total of nearly 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade over the course of the day.

Four people are at the front of a large room facing an audience. Behind them is a screen with the words, "Cognitive Science."
Teachers at schools for the deaf, Gallaudet faculty members, and other experts helped the team members develop lesson plans that kids would understand and enjoy.

The first group was the youngest kids. “Everything is new to them,” Suzuki says. “We explained that the brain controls everything in your body. If you are biking, cooking, or eating, that is your brain.” These are abstract concepts, but team members tried to find familiar ways to help the kids see the connection. “Think about the sign for ‘understand.’ It is by your brain,” she says.

The kids really enjoyed passing around a model of the brain, adds Barrett, who notes that older kids were also intrigued by the equipment used to do experiments. “Team members described EEG and fMRI, and then shared a bit about work in AI and virtual reality before we moved into our discussion about bilingualism and the brain,” Barrett says. This discussion led to a chance for a role-play activity that helped kids understand what research looks like — and that they could grow up to be researchers — Suzuki says.

With each new topic, it was powerful to witness the kids’ reaction to the material. “You could see it in their faces. Recognizing the benefit of bilingualism — this was something they had not thought of. This is going to be life changing,” Suzuki says.

The experience proved that the team is on the right track with the “In Your Hands” project, which has benefited from the help of advisor Dr. Deanna Gagne, as well as other Gallaudet faculty, teachers at several schools for the deaf, scientists working in the field, and other community members. “Their support, and the care that so many people beyond our team have put into this project, have really made a huge difference in what we have created,” Barrett says.

These experts gave the team tips on what kinds of activities would work best for students. So when Suzuki presented her question about touch, she didn’t ask for a show of hands. She had students vote with their feet by moving to one side of the room or the other. These collaborators also ensured that the lesson plans aligned with the overall science curriculum. “They thought it was a great idea to have our team of people who actually work in the sciences teach and emphasize that science is for all, and there’s so much we can do with it,” Barrett says.

That is a message “In Your Hands” has amplified by gathering photos of deaf scientists from around the world. “We intend to share these images in our video and on our website so students can see actual living scientists, and get a sense of where scientists work,” she adds.

The video, which will be released later this year, features an introduction to cognitive science delivered by 15 deaf, signing individuals, including some kids. “It’s really important for that representation to be there,” Suzuki says. “You won’t get the same level of engagement unless you see someone like yourself. We want the audience to feel like their peers are talking to them.” The filming sessions provided extra opportunities to engage with the subject matter and collaborate. “Each actor had unique ideas, perspectives, and ways of conveying information in ASL, and we worked together to translate the material,” Barrett says.

This is only the beginning for the team, which plans to continue with “In Your Hands.” They will visit Kendall Demonstration Elementary School this fall, and MSD-C has asked them to return. “You can do a lot in an hour. But there is so much more possibility there,” Suzuki says. Wadha Alshammari, currently in the M.A. in Deaf Education program at Gallaudet, hopes they can schedule more one-on-one time for students so they can ask questions — and she can learn more about them. “I’m from Saudi Arabia, where the culture is different. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of experience with signed language, so it is interesting to see how it is taught,” she says.

The team will make their lesson plans available to anyone who wants them, and they would like to also translate the materials into other languages so that the program can be used internationally. “We have learned from our mistakes and acquired new skills, making this a rich experience that I will certainly apply in my home country, Saudi Arabia,” says Alshammari, who plans to establish a new school for deaf children and teach there. Suzuki wants to bring it to her native Japan as well.

They are all committed to spreading this information as widely as possible and setting an example for deaf children everywhere. “Growing up, I never met any deaf scientists or scholars,” Cook says. “I only met deaf people who worked at a press shop or taught ASL, so I felt like this field was out of reach for me, or I wasn’t destined for it. By being a deaf scientist, I hope to help lift that barrier of internalized audism and open deaf children’s eyes to the world of possibilities that’s before them.”

After all, when you touch something — or someone — that sends a message to the brain.

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