Gallaudet University’s Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2) is pleased to announce it received a $40,000 grant award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), “Innovations from Visual Signed Languages in the Advancement of Avatar and Robotics Translation.” The project was proposed by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto and Dr. Thomas Allen, co-principal investigators of VL2, and Melissa Malzkuhn, VL2’s digital innovation and media manager.

VL2 is a Science of Learning Center (SLC) on Visual Language and Visual Learning, one of six SLCs funded by the NSF that were established to support cross-disciplinary research to present new lines of thinking and inquiry into the science of learning for the benefit of education and society. The purpose of VL2 is to advance the science of learning related to how aspects of human higher cognition are realized through one of our most central senses, vision. VL2 focuses on how early experience with a visual language changes the brain’s visual attention and higher cognitive systems and provides fascinating advantages in language learning, reading, and literacy in the young deaf visual learner.

The intent of the grant is to expand the scope of the center’s work by making connections among the science community, educational needs, and technology and industry.

“The grant provides a new means for VL2 to advance its commitment to marrying important research findings with their principled and meaningful application to society,” said Dr. Petitto, who is also VL2’s science director. “For example, center findings have identified specific ways that early exposure to a signed language facilitates young deaf children’s acquisition of reading English. This in turn has led to the creation of innovative bilingual ASL-English reading apps that are soon to be released by members of the VL2 team.”

“The purpose of this new NSF project is to connect avatar technology, robotics, and visual language acquisition,” said Dr. Allen. “Our goal here is to develop and advance the existing bilingual ASL-English educational reading apps to foster language fluency for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing individuals with the aid of innovative avatar and robotic technology.”

At the specific level, the NSF funds will allow the team to study how children learn, use, and look at, VL2’s interactive bilingual apps by examining the children’s patterns of eye gaze with its soon to be acquired state-of-the-art eye-tracking equipment. Based on this research, VL2 will advise designers of avatar and robotic technology in the creation of research-based translational products to serve as innovative learning aids in homes and schools for all visual learners, especially young deaf children.

“This study is only the beginning of what VL2 aspires to achieve in translating research into educational resources to ensure early and strong exposure to bilingualism for young deaf children,” said Malzkuhn.

In VL2, researchers study learning processes in monolinguals and bilinguals across a lifespan in order to promote optimal practices in education in both formal and informal settings. VL2 conducts research across multiple disciplines in order to understand how the visual modality is used in learning, especially language learning, from infancy to adulthood.

VL2’s research and work is organized around five strategic focus areas:

  • Visual and cognitive plasticity
  • Language development and bilingualism
  • Reading and literacy in visual learning
  • Translation of research to educational practice
  • Integration of research and education.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number SBE-1041725. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.

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