RENO, Nev. (775 Times, NV Globe) – A new National Science Foundation-funded center will utilize a combination of artificial intelligence and robotics technology to assist youngsters with speech and language issues.
The College of Engineering and School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno will participate in the $20 million, five-year initiative coordinated by the University at Buffalo.
Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering David Feil-Seifer is a co-principal investigator on the project, as is School of Medicine Associate Professor and clinical educator in speech-language pathology Abbie Olszewski, who is a senior personnel member on the project designed to address a nationwide shortage of speech-language pathologists and provide services to children ages 3 to 10 who are at increased risk of falling behind in their academic achievment.
The AI Institute for Exceptional Education, which was announced on January 9, would establish a national institute to research artificial intelligence systems that identify and support young children with speech and/or language processing issues.
The institute includes nine academic institutions, including the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Buffalo, as well as Stanford University, the University of Washington, Cornell University, the University of Texas at El Paso, Penn State University, and the University of Oregon.
The award is expected to provide around $1.25 million to the University, which will be shared roughly 60-40 between the College of Engineering and the School of Medicine.
“Information and communication technologies are a focus for the College of Engineering,” Dean Erick Jones said. “Designing the information and communications technologies that will drive the future are a priority, and we are excited to be working with top universities around the country on this project.”
The new AI Institute for Exceptional Education is the National Science Foundation’s 19th AI institute.
“AI institutes are very prestigious,” Computer Science & Engineering Chair Eelke Folmer said. “This AI institute specifically seems to try to develop an automated, AI-powered solution to help children with speech problems. Dave has built an impressive record of doing (AI) research with high societal impact, whether it is developing robots to help kids with autism or using robots in K-12 to get more kids interested in STEM education. Given Dave’s strong track record in this area, I am not surprised he was asked to participate in the $20 million award.”
The AI Institute for Exceptional Education will focus on supporting the millions of children nationally who require speech and language assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. More than 3.4 million students are anticipated to get speech and language assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but there are only around 61,000 speech-language pathologists to provide them. These children risk falling behind in their scholastic and socioemotional development due to national speech-language pathologist shortages and delayed or unmet interventions during the COVID-19 epidemic.
The AI Institute for Exceptional Education will address this gap with two advanced AI solutions: the AI Screener, which will improve early detection of potential speech and/or language impairments and disorders, and the AI Orchestrator, which is an app that will assist speech-language pathologists in providing tailored evidence-based interventions to students.
Feil-Seifer, who works on robotics and robot-human interaction, will be involved in both solutions. He will be leading the “embodiment” portion of the project: basically, designing a robot that will interact with young children who have been identified for speech and language assistance.
“When the time comes to give this thing a body, we’re going to be the ones figuring that out,” Feil-Seifer said. “This will be a new technology, requiring researchers to figure out everything from what sensors will need to be on the robot to how it looks.
“Once we have the physical design picked out, a lot of software technology goes in to making that design work. Our group will develop the software enabling the robot to interact with the environment.”
He also stated that the technology is not intended to replace existing speech and language pathologists, but rather to build solutions that would assist speech-language pathologists in better serving their clients.
“The focus of the AI Institute is to ‘scale up’ the services provided by speech-language pathologists, and we can’t do that without collaborating with computer science engineers,” Olszewski said.
Northern Nevada school districts may be part in the planning stage
It may be some time before speech-language pathologists get access to this technology, but northern Nevada schools may see it sooner rather than later, since Feil-Seifer and Olszewski anticipate some testing to take place locally, with participants’ knowledge.
Olszewski is an associate professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology who also teaches at the University’s Speech and Hearing Clinic. She also serves as the director of the University’s Speech and Hearing Clinic’s Language and Literacy Development Center. Her position in the grant draws on her clinical education background as well as her 25 years as a speech-language pathologist in educational settings and clinical practice.
“We have the potential to go into the local schools and hope to partner with Washoe County School District,” Olszewski said. “Ultimately our hope is to serve all Nevada school districts, urban and rural. Our goal is to include children of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. There is a statewide shortage of speech-language pathologists, so this could help to identify children with speech and/or language related concerns earlier and to identify these children we have missed due to insensitive tests.”
The AI Screener will monitor and listen to children in the classroom, gathering samples of their speech, facial expressions, gestures, and other data. It will provide weekly summaries of these encounters to assist instructors in monitoring their pupils’ speech- and language-processing abilities and, if necessary, will recommend a formal examination with a speech-language pathologist.
Generally, the earlier speech and language issues are treated, the more likely children will flourish academically and socially.
According to the University of Buffalo, the AI Orchestrator software will assist speech-language pathologists, the majority of whom have caseloads so huge that they are obliged to deliver group-based therapies for children rather than customized care.
The app solves this by offering individualized information based on the requirements of the pupils. It continues to assess students’ development and adapts lesson plans to ensure that the interventions are effective.
“We also hope to have children in speech and language services for shorter time spans due to the improved intervention services,” Olszewski said. “In other words, the AI Institute for Exceptional Education will leverage artificial intelligence to scale up the services provided by speech-language pathologists.”
The research team will guarantee that the data acquired by the AI Screener and AI Orchestrator follows ethics and privacy requirements.
Participants will be given information about these plans. According to the University of Buffalo, the team will deploy prototypes of each system in around 80 classrooms, reaching 480 kindergarteners throughout the country.
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