If you’re a hearing person who has ever seen sign language used, you’ve probably wondered how an entire language can be displayed with simple motions of one’s hands. In some disciplines, certain ideas may be harder to convey than others.

A number of years ago, Carol Marchetti, a professor in the School of Mathematics, realized that some of her deaf students who communicated through the use of an interpreter were having a hard time understanding some phrases and words used in class.

“One of the interpreters, Penny [Arndt], she and I worked together for a number of years … and she would often ask me ‘Am I doing this right? This is really confusing.’” Marchetti then realized some of her deaf and hard-of-hearing students were unable to grasp some of the concepts used in class, particularly the concept of “fail to reject.”

To help resolve this, Arndt and Marchetti organized a team to help deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn statistics better. An NTID tutor, Jane Jackson, and three deaf students who had already completed the course aided in the project.

A number of years ago, Marchetti and her team applied for an initial grant through NTID Research Center for Teaching and Learning to fund their project. The main goals of the project were to discover where the problem in learning statistics lies and to figure out how the statistics department can remedy some of those hindrances.

“My team suggested ways to draw a visual for things, such as ‘population’ and ‘sample,’” Marchetti commented. “Not only that, it matches up to how Penny signs it.”

This past summer, the team applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and received nearly $400,000 in grant funding.

The team’s grants will fund the research for the project in terms of data gathering, and then most of the money will be used to create supplemental learning tools that will be available online for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to use. Marchetti and her team brought in many visual communication experts to help them find what works best in aiding the students to learn.

The supplemental learning tools will include “microvideos” that explain a topic in a fairly short amount of time. These videos will be placed online for the students’ convenience and students can select videos on a plethora of statistics topics.

“If you go on YouTube, you can find multitudes of tutorials, but they’re not all accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing students,” Marchetti added. “We’re trying to make this for a group as broad as possible.”

According to Marchetti, the learning tools will include three main characteristics: Communication, Access and Persistence.  

In class, the team coordinates with the interpreters to help them determine which signs work best to accurately convey the topic. For example, Marchetti started using the phrase “can or cannot reject,” eliminating the double negative contained in “fail to reject.”

Marchetti hopes the research will expand beyond the Deaf community.

“It’s really interesting that I think it can help not just deaf students. If you’re a visual learner, that might help you,” Marchetti said. “There are a number of students [for whom] English is a second language.” Incorporating access to the topic material as well is of high importance to Marchetti and her team.

“What we would like to see is a broader impact … it might make this course more accessible to students,” Marchetti said.

“The ultimate goal, though, is to be able to help students learn statistics,” Marchetti commented. “Hopefully we’ll get more deaf and hard-of-hearing students to stay in STEM majors.”