The 2023 Global Year of STEM Sign Language Lexicons kicked off at Gallaudet University on March 1 with the Founders and Leaders Workshop. The three organizers — Dr. Caroline Solomon, director of the School of Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health; Dr. Alicia Wooten, assistant professor of Biology; and Dr. Christopher Hayes, ’12, assistant professor of Mathematics — received a conference grant (grant number 2309972; $99,960 for 12 months) from the National Science Foundation to fund the event, as well as the STEM Sign Language Lexicon Summit, which will take place in March 2024.

Presenters at the workshop
One of the workshop organizers, Dr. Alicia Wooten, assistant professor of biology at Gallaudet, presents with Dr. Barbara Spiecker about Atomic Hands, their ASL-based video education platform.

The overall aim of the project is to address how deaf people learn science and create STEM signs. “Over the last 25 years, people have developed lexicons on their own, but no one has discussed what’s working and what’s not,” Solomon says.

That has contributed to an explosion of signs, often with multiple signs used for a single term, such as “bacteria,” she explains. “I’ve seen it on the hand and on the cheek. I’ve also signed ‘bug,’” Solomon says. A constant stream of new American Sign Language (ASL) signs is being created to keep up with the latest advances and discoveries, and anyone working across several STEM disciplines may end up using different signs for a technical term that has various meanings depending on the context.

Sign variations can be beneficial, especially if the differences help users better understand the concepts involved. But when deaf scientists operate in silos, it is harder for them to collaborate and to educate the next generation, Solomon says. That’s why she believes it is critical to bring everyone together to try to answer a question: “What are the consequences, guidelines, and principles of STEM sign language use?”

The Founders and Leaders Workshop gathered a core group of scientists, linguists, and educators from around the world who have developed STEM sign language dictionaries and other resources. They began with brief presentations introducing their work. (These were recorded for a webinar that is now available online.)

Participants at the workshop.
Group of scientists, linguists, and educators participating in the workshop.

The variety of approaches represented include the Texas Math Sign Language Dictionary, which features English and Spanish words alongside ASL and Signed Exact English signs, as well as Atomic Hands, an ASL-based video education platform co-founded by Wooten and Dr. Barbara Spiecker. International visitors also showcased their projects, such as the Czech Republic’s Dictio, which allows a user to type in a Czech word and see the corresponding signs in several different sign languages.

Despite coming from so many different places, the similarities between the projects jumped out at Senan Dunne, assistant professor in Deaf Education at Dublin City University, who presented about the Irish Sign Language STEM Glossary he is creating with colleague Dr. Elizabeth Mathews. “It’s been lonely to work in a vacuum,” he says. “I am seeing that the challenges we face are the same that others are facing.”

The group explored these connections throughout the two-day workshop, tackling issues around how signs are being created and disseminated and how to assess their efficacy. The best strategies — both in terms of language and technology — need to be shared, says Dr. Christopher Kurz, director of the Mathematics and Science Language and Learning Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Participants at the workshop
Discussion among workshop participants centered on the ethics and linguistic underpinnings of STEM sign language lexicons and who works on them, the goals and assessment of STEM sign language lexicons for K-12 education, and the long term sustainability and future of STEM sign language lexicons.

“We’re all developing platforms with great features. It would be great if we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel each time,” he says. Kurz is also focused on how to vary signs used in educational settings depending on the target audience. For example, he points to the word “gravity,” which elementary age students learn about in terms of how the Earth pulls on us. “But for college age students, their understanding is different — it’s about time and space,” says Kurz, who notes that signs can evolve along with understanding. “We need to build that scaffolding into the curriculum.”

Dr. Liona Paulus, a linguist and deaf interpreter who presented on the German project Sign2MINT, appreciated being in such a supportive environment for the workshop. “I am in a Deaf space and I can breathe,” Paulus says. “This has been all about collaboration.” That is a feature that also stood out to Amelie Josselin-Leray, associate professor of English linguistics and translation at the University of Toulouse in France. When she has worked on spoken language lexicon projects in the past, institutions have led the process. So Josselin-Leray was impressed by how this conversation emphasized inclusion. “Because of Deaf culture and identity, the community has a say about whether a sign is acceptable,” she says.

The workshop was a reminder that there is still much more to do, adds Dunne, who is intrigued by how artificial intelligence and signing avatars could impact their projects in the future. “It inspired us to go home with new approaches to our work,” he says. And it started a conversation that will continue through the 2023 Global Year of STEM Sign Language Lexicons. The next event will be at the World Federation of the Deaf World Congress in Jeju, South Korea in July.

Momentum will continue to build for STEM Sign Language Lexicon Summit, in March 2024, which will be open to all individuals with an interest in the issue. “This includes educators, STEM professionals, linguists, students, interpreters, and parents,” Wooten says. “The Summit program will address the future and directions of STEM sign language lexicons for K-12, post-secondary, and STEM professionals in a digitally rapidly changing world.”

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