Engineering Student Ideas Aid the Hearing-Impaired

A new grant encourages senior engineering students at UT Dallas to explore not just what technological marvel they can devise, but what good they can do.

Senior design class is a rite of passage for engineering students, and the $128,000 National Science Foundation grant supports teams of senior design students who put their skills to use on behalf of patients at the University’s Callier Center for Communication Disorders.

“What we want to do is help our students understand that their engineering skills can have a lot of societal benefits,” said Murat Torlak, an associate professor of electrical engineering and recipient of the grant supporting the students’ projects. “Sometimes they don’t understand this in the midst of their intense technology education. But this program allows students to see the societal benefits of their engineering skills – that they can improve people’s lives. And Callier is a natural place to do this sort of work.”

The grant will support at least 10 projects over five years. During the program’s inaugural year, two teams have already completed their projects.

One created a PDA/smart phone application enabling patients to carry out self tests on their ability to identify vowel sounds. Physicians rely on test results to evaluate a patient’s condition, and the application could enable time at the doctor’s office to be spent addressing the patient’s condition and treatment rather than conducting tests.

The other team designed an assistive listening system that can wirelessly transmit audio directly to a hearing aid. Providing clear audio untarnished by any extraneous sound that might be picked up by a hearing aid’s microphone, the system could be used in a movie theater, a school lecture hall, or when watching TV or listening to the radio.

“Technology is increasingly and successfully addressing the many challenges that people with hearing impairments face on a regular basis,” said Dr. Linda Thibodeau, professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and coordinator of the Pediatric Aural Habilitation Program at the Advanced Hearing Research Center at the Callier Center. “It’s very important for the Callier Center to continue working with the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science on projects like this one because there are still many devices and technology that need to be developed. The engineering students have the capabilities to design hardware and software, and the audiology experts at the Callier Center understand the challenges people with hearing impairments face and the limitations of the current technology.”

The program’s success will be gauged by feedback from participating students and from Callier patients and staff. But the students working on the self test application have already indicated their satisfaction.

“With a prototype product that can successfully test the patient, measure the ambient noise and record the results, we feel we have developed the functionality to the point where a clinician can easily customize the program to fit his or her interests and needs,” the team concluded in its final report. “There are still lots of tasks that need to be accomplished before this software can be said to be completed, but these tasks will be left to future senior design students. To emphasize, the true value of engineering is not its complexity but its practical use. We hope that the final software will be used by clinicians who work closely with hearing impaired patients on a regular basis.”

In addition to Thibodeau, Torlak’s other collaborators on the NSF grant are Dr. Nasser Kehtarnavaz and Dr. Philipos Loizou, both professors of electrical engineering. The assistive listening system project for home use was presented by one of the students, Mihail Bantic, at the annual conference of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America in June and included in the conference proceedings.

Senior engineering students show off their creation: a PDA/smart phone application enabling Callier Center patients to carry out hearing tests on their own.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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