Contact

Contact: Nicole Casal Moore

Media Relations & Research News Manager

Michigan Engineering

Communications & Marketing

(734) 647-7087

3214 SI-North

To signal “yes,” Grace Simon raises her right fist. For “no,” she shakes her head. And that, for the most part, is how the 13-year-old communicates with the world.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at six months old, Grace doesn’t have the muscle control to speak, sign or walk. But her capable mind understands spoken language. (She’s actually kind of nosy, says her mother.) She reads chapter books. Her favorite subject is math.

“She’s really bright on the inside, but she just can’t get it out,” said David Chesney, a University of Michigan lecturer in computer science and engineering who has built a syllabus around the sixth-grader.

This semester, the 73 undergrads in Chesney’s senior-level software engineering course are devising systems that could make it easier for Grace to communicate, play, or act more independently at school or home.

The course requires no textbook. Teams of undergrads are working on 15-20 Grace-centric projects that the students design themselves. They might enable her to play a board game with friends, to make her own art, or to share her thoughts in writing or perhaps even (electronically) spoken words.

Grace and her parents, Jennifer and Eric Simon, of Westphalia, Mich., are working closely with the instructor. They’ve come to class several times already. During their first visit, the sprightly teen dressed in a hot pink sweater and silver sandals steered her powered wheelchair across the room to demonstrate the motor skills she’s refined over the past decade to get herself around. To steer, Grace maneuvers a sort of joystick on the chair arm with her fingers and the heel of her right hand.

She also took questions from the class. Can she use a calculator? No. Does she get tired from moving? Yes. Does she like puzzles? No. Would she rather be able to type out words or speak through a text-to-speech program? With help from her mom, Grace answered yes to “speak.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but perhaps the greatest hope for the class.

“It’s been hard for us to get something specifically for her that could give her verbal communication. We have never come up with anything so far,” said Jennifer Simon, Grace’s mother.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Sitting by the dining table in their Westphalia house, Eric Simon and his wife Jennifer go over 65 initial software development ideas pitched by the Michigan Engineering students during a class taught by David Chesney. The Simons are picking their favorite ideas on how to help their daughter Grace (right) improve her communication skills.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Grace Simon is all smiles during the class where Michigan Engineering students pitch their software development ideas on how to improve the ways Grace communicates with the people around her.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Dr. J Kaufman of the University of Michigan Hospital facilitates dialogue between students and Grace in this introduction to her and her family in EECS 481 in the EECS Building on September 9, 2013.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Grace Simon and her parents listen to Michigan Engineering student Stephen Lanham pitch his software development idea on how to improve the ways Grace communicates with the people around her.

Engineering For Grace

Close

David Chesney, EECS Professor, helps facilitate a question and answer session in this introduction to Grace and her family in EECS 481 in the EECS Building on September 9, 2013.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Stephen Lanham, Mechanical Engineering BSE Student, asks a question about Grace in this introduction to her and her family in EECS 481 in the EECS Building on September 9, 2013.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Students ask questions to Grace Simon about her abilities in this introduction to her and her family in EECS 481 in the EECS Building on September 9, 2013.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Jennifer and Eric Simon, parents to Grace, facilitate dialogue between students and Grace in this introduction to her and her family in EECS 481 in the EECS Building on September 9, 2013.

Engineering For Grace

Close

Grace Simon is all smiles as her parents, Jennifer and Eric Simon kiss her simultaneously after they visited the class where Michigan Engineering students pitched their software development ideas on how to improve the ways Grace communicates with the people around her.

Today Grace doesn’t have a good way to enter information into a computer – whether that information is individual letters, whole words or selections from a list of options. And enabling her to do that is a crucial first step.

Grace has limited control of her hands and arms, so the students will design special interfaces that rely on tools other than a mouse and keyboard. They’ll explore a joystick similar to the one on her chair. They’ll look into an operating system called ASK Interfaces that previous students in Chesney’s class developed a few years ago. Designed to help people with other forms of cerebral palsy send email, ASK turns a whole tablet computer screen into one big button and tabs through options.

She could also potentially control a computer with her eyes. Grace recently tested that approach with Jacqueline Kaufman, the clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the U-M Medical School who connected the Simons and Chesney.

“I was impressed with how well she did,” Jennifer Simon said.

Communication systems such as the Eyegaze Edge track pupils with a camera and allow users select letters, words, blocks of text or other items with their eyes. The system costs more than $13,000. Chesney challenged his students to improvise with some of the cheaper technologies companies have donated to the class. Intel gave six Creative Interactive Gesture Cameras, which can recognize motion in three dimensions, as opposed to the typical two. Microsoft gave a dozen Kinect motion sensors that can track facial movement.

As for Chesney’s expectations, it’s hard to say. The Simons know there are no guarantees. “My threshold for success is widely varying,” Chesney said. “On the low end, my students would come out of EECS 481 with a better understanding that there are people out there with special needs, and that they carry that with them once they become software engineers. On the high end we’d have 15 systems that we give to Grace and say, “Here you go!”

And on the highest end, Grace would get a voice, or something like one.

“It’s exciting to think that’s a possibility,” Jennifer Simon said. She looked at her daughter and smiled, then teased. “But she might never shut up!

“I’d want to know what she’s thinking,” she continued. “What are you thinking? What do you know? What have you been dying to tell us and you haven’t been able to?"

About Michigan Engineering: The University of Michigan College of Engineering is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Eight academic departments are ranked in the nation's top 10 -- some twice for different programs. Its research budget is one of the largest of any public university. Its faculty and students are making a difference at the frontiers of fields as diverse as nanotechnology, sustainability, healthcare, national security and robotics. They are involved in spacecraft missions across the solar system, and have developed partnerships with automotive industry leaders to transform transportation. Its entrepreneurial culture encourages faculty and students alike to move their innovations beyond the laboratory and into the real world to benefit society. Its alumni base of nearly 70,000 spans the globe.

blog comments powered by Disqus