Students spend summer developing technology for underserved community in India


August 17, 2015

Electrical and computer engineering students Maya Lassiter and Erik Pintar had no ordinary summer internship — they spent nine weeks in Bangalore, India, developing technology for blind, deaf and differently-abled children as part of the iSTEP summer internship.

“I said no to my dream internship to instead develop technology for the deaf and hard of hearing and blind in India,” said Pintar, who will be a fifth-year scholar studying ECE and Human-Computer Interaction. “I thought I was crazy to do so — but it was worth it.”

iSTEP, or “innovative Student Technology ExPerience,” is a unique research internship started by TechBridgeWorld in 2009 that’s designed to give CMU students the opportunity to conduct technology research projects in developing communities. The program took place in Bangalore with the Mathru Educational Trust, an organization that provides free education and programs for the blind and differently-abled. The Mathru Educational Trust is comprised of a residential school for the blind and a residential school for the deaf and differently-abled.

“Coming out of a liberal arts high school where my interest in technology was uncommon, I had yet to see a connection between my technical future and my humanitarian background,” said Lassiter, a junior studying ECE. “iSTEP was the first program to show me this connection.”

The team, made up of Lassiter, Pintar and fellow CMU students Amal Nanavati (Computer Science) and Minnar Xie (Art, Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction), worked directly with the Mathru School for the Deaf to develop a digital sign language dictionary creation tool, called Signbook, and Speak Up!: a suite of voice powered sound games for preverbal children. They also observed the blind school’s use of braille tutoring technology developed by past iSTEP teams. 

Signbook, Pintar’s primary project, allows the teachers to create entries for words and common phrases. Because sign language is not universal, Signbook is able to create a digital repository for American, Hindi or Kannada (the local language) sign language. Development of the application involved intricate knowledge of video formats for efficient processing speed. “With my background in ECE I was really able to get down to the zeroes and ones behind the technology,” said Pintar.

Lassiter primarily worked on the speech and sound games, which were created to help hearing-impaired students learn pitch and volume through interactive gameplay. “The process often seemed cyclical and was difficult across our time constraints and language barriers,” said Lassiter. “Learning how [the Mathru School] was using and forming our ideas into ones of their own gave me experience in something I have been wanting to understand for years.”

While there, the students were visited by Professor Gowri Srinivasa, a former CMU Ph.D. student who worked under the supervision of Professor Jelena Kovačević, department head of ECE. Srinivasa, head of the PES Center for Pattern Recognition and Professor of Information Science and Engineering at PES Institute of Technology, also invited the students to give a presentation at PESIT.

“Looking at the CMU students' enthusiasm, spirit of innovation, commitment to the cause and efficiency in getting so much work done in such a short time sure made an impact,” said Srinivasa. “PES students have been inspired to reach out to work on such projects.”

This year marked the last of the iSTEP program, but its effects are long-lasting. “The program definitely changed my outlook of my career,” said Pintar. “I am more cognizant of others who don’t have access to technology and am now asking myself, how can my work benefit them?”

“However disparate their stories and training, they were united in their cause to make a difference for the better,” said Srinivasa. “The passion for this work that each of them exuded, the commitment to follow this through and the way they worked beautifully together truly exemplifies the spirit of collaboration and multidisciplinary research that is the hallmark of CMU.”

Video: Mathru School for the Blind

Video: Mathru Center for the Differently Abled

Related People:

Jelena Kovačević

Related Links: