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Twin sisters graduate from RIT/NTID, follow different paths

11 May

Two dark-skinned females with glasses wearing graduation caps and gowns, one has an orange master's hood, medallion, gold cords.

Born and raised in Irving Texas, twin sisters Joan “Jo” and Jane Bempong attended mainstream schools together from elementary through high school, and then decided to continue learning together in college when they were both accepted at Rochester Institute of Technology, supported by the university’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

At RIT they were able to live together, but follow different educational and career paths.

“I was always fascinated by technology,” Jo said. “Back in the day, MySpace piqued my interest in coding, so Computer Engineering seemed to be a good fit for me.”

But Jane had other interests. “I was always the person who people would come to for either advice or emotional support,” she said. “I always enjoyed being there for people ever since a young age, which is why majoring in psychology made sense for me.”

They plan to follow their different career interests after graduation, with Jo having accepted a full-time position at Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas, as a software engineer, and Jane either applying to graduate school or getting more work experience in the psychology/mental health field.

As they reflect on their time at RIT/NTID, Jo considers it the place where she grew as an individual.

“I came out of my comfort zone and became an entrepreneur, a researcher, and a leader aside from being an engineer,” she said.

And for Jane, “RIT helped confirm my career choice and increased my passion for the mental health field.”

RIT/NTID student Maya Penn to fulfill personal longing for service with Peace Corps mission

30 Apr

Dark skinned female with dark braided hair wearing a multi-color scarf and purple long-sleeved top.

Growing up in foster care, Maya Penn was surrounded by people who understood the value of sharing and caring for others. Just one month after Penn graduates with her bachelor’s degree in psychology from RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, she will fulfill her own personal quest for serving others with the Peace Corps in Africa.

Penn, who is deaf, is eagerly anticipating her two-year assignment— teaching deaf children in Ghana.  

“This will be a time of significant personal growth for me,” said Penn, who hails from the Bay Area in California. “And I’m just looking forward to impacting the lives of so many children, where there is such a need.”

Although Penn admits that she didn’t know much about the Peace Corps before applying, she knew that she wanted to travel and was hooked when she discovered that there were positions for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to work in schools for those who are deaf. After videophone conversations with Peace Corps volunteers and administrators, Penn applied, interviewed and was accepted into the program.

Penn says that this experience is a “big step” for her, and she is eager to learn as much as she can about different cultures. And even though she’s a bit nervous, she believes her related experiences as a teaching assistant in a school for deaf children, her work at summer camps and at RIT’s Margaret’s House child care center, and her experience tutoring American Sign Language will also contribute to her success in Africa.

And she’s no stranger to traveling in not-so-perfect conditions, having backpacked extensively through Central America and Jamaica.

“I believe that it’s so important for people to study or travel abroad,” said Penn. “It’s crucial to learn from and meet people from other cultures. There are so many opportunities that grow out of these experiences. Of course, you learn and grow in an academic environment, but what you can learn outside of the classroom is beneficial, too.”

At RIT/NTID, Penn was vice president of NTID’s Ebony Club, worked with the NTID Student Life team, was a community student advocate and was involved in theater. She also played intramural volleyball and basketball.

“I’ve loved so much about the RIT/NTID community, including the students, my mentors and all of the events and opportunities,” she said.

Sarah Sarchet, a lecturer at RIT/NTID, met Penn in 2016 when Penn was accepted into RIT’s WOCHA (Women of Color, Honor and Ambition) program.

“Maya is natural leader and a true empath,” said Sarchet. “We ‘clicked’ as a mentor/mentee pair because of how well Maya can relate to others. We both come from large families with many siblings as well as mixed-race families. We had many shared experiences, and our conversations flowed naturally, despite the fact that we had only known each other briefly. And she has been truly bitten by the travel bug. This makes her skilled at meeting new people and learning new cultures. She is unafraid of leaving her comfort zone to try new adventures.”

Of course, Penn says she will miss her parents, who are both RIT/NTID alumni.

“My mom is worried, of course, but she made sure that it’s safe and that I’m in good hands. She’s just so happy that I have the opportunity to do something like this with my life.”

After her work with the Peace Corps, Penn is thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in social work, driven by her time in the foster care system. But she also likes to keep her options open.

“You just never know what’s going to happen after two years in Africa.”

Winners announced for RIT/NTID Next Big Idea competition

26 Apr

Far left and right are two light-skinned males and in the center are four young woman holding check.

Five teams of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf went head-to-head April 25 during The Next Big Idea Competition, a Shark Tank-style business competition. Small World That, a central hub that connects the international deaf community through a website and app, took home the $5,000 first prize. 

Judges from the competition’s sponsor, ZVRS, a video-relay service headquartered in Clearwater, Fla., reviewed projects of the team finalists, asked questions and selected first-, second- and third-place winners.

First place: Small World That (Sarah Stanislow, international and global studies major from Pittsford, N.Y.; Lauren Putz, international and global studies major from Naperville, Ill.; Rachel Soudakoff, MBA student from Burbank, Calif.; and Priyanka Patil, computer science graduate student from Mumbai, India) Through the Small World That platform, users can locate other deaf and hard-of-hearing people and signers around the world. According to the team, “the hope is for deaf people to take advantage of the small community we have and form new connections with each another in a convenient way.”

Second place: VeeTV (Andrew Cho, administrative support technology major from Hayward, Calif.; Vincent Venutolo, mobile and app development major from Bensalem, Pa.; and Sami Williamson, political science major from Hampton Bays, N.Y.) VeeTV is a media and entertainment company specializing in delivering media content to the deaf community. By bringing sign language to mass media on a streaming platform, the company enables the deaf community around the globe to enjoy their favorite movies, television shows, music videos, social media videos and more. VeeTV took home the $3,000 second-place prize.

Third place: BodyEasy (Tony Nguyen, industrial design major from Pennsauken, N.J.; John Huang, graduate business student from Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Evans Seraphin, applied computing major from Brooklyn, N.Y.) BodyEasy is a wearable assistive device that enables users to reduce the pressure on the back when lifting heavy objects. BodyEasy won the $2,000 third-place prize.

Other finalists included Yovato (Joseph Ruggieri, finance major from Hopewell, N.J., and Michael Wentland, mechanical engineering technology major from Lynnwood, Wash.), who  hopes to revitalize the sports industry by preventing knee injuries, and ASL Ripple (Emmanuel Perrodin-Njoku, biomedical sciences major from Washington, D.C.; Kaytlyn Johnson, Master of Architecture major from Fargo, N.D.; and Dara Levy, nutrition management major from Carmel, Ind.), an American Sign Language consulting firm serving interpreting programs within universities and organizations that focus on providing ASL interpreting services.

The Next Big Idea competition is an annual event where teams of students combine skills related to their individual majors to create innovative products, technology or businesses. Teams work with mentors on their projects and compete before judges for cash prizes. This year marks the seventh anniversary of the competition.

“The Next Big Idea competition is the culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work, creativity and innovation on the part of these student inventors and entrepreneurs,” said Gerry Buckley, NTID president and RIT vice president and dean. “It’s evident that many of these projects contain the perfect blend of technology, art and design, while also providing a much-needed benefit to the community. I look forward to one day seeing some of these products move forward to production and sold in the marketplace.”

Researchers at NTID demonstrate accessible rower at Imagine RIT festival

24 Apr

Male student with beard and glasses writes on a clipboard while working on rowing skull.

As part of Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival, researchers at NTID’s Center on Access Technology will demonstrate an accessible rower that enables deaf and hard-of-hearing rowers to follow verbal coxswain instructions during competitions. Festival visitors can sit in a canoe and test their reflex response times by using a game pad to reply to visual cues displayed on a smartphone.       

The idea for the accessible rower came about in 2016, with the addition of a deaf rower to the RIT men’s rowing team roster, with the possibility of other deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes joining the squad. In rowing competitions, rowers are required to follow commands from the coxswain, who determines the speed of the boat.

According to Wendy Dannels, a research faculty member in NTID’s Center on Access Technology and one of the project coordinators, the solution provides a visual display showing transcription and/or illustration of the coxswain’s commands. The application was developed to help the athletes synchronize with the coxswain by using a custom Automatic Speech Recognition engine. The engine is offline so the deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes can utilize the technology without internet connection.

In addition to Dannels, project team members are Steven McClusky, a fourth-year software engineering student from Blue Springs, Mo.; Joseph Stanislow, instructional/support faculty member, NTID Information and Computing Studies; and Brian Trager, associate director of the NTID Center on Access Technology.

Deaf undergrads from across the country to conduct research at RIT/NTID this summer

23 Apr

Light skinned male and female in lab coats, safety goggles and blue gloves work on science experiments.

For eight weeks this summer, Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf will be home to the first all-deaf cohort of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), bringing deaf and hard-of-hearing students from across the country together to do research. 

The cohort of three RIT/NTID students, and one student each from the University of California, Berkeley; Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida; Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.; Ohlone College in Freemont, California; Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio and Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, includes six women and three men, all of whom are deaf or hard-of-hearing. 

“Students were selected in a competitive process on the basis of who showed strong potential for research and fit in well with our current projects,” said Bonnie Jacob, assistant professor in the mathematical modeling program. “The projects are all from science and math, and include graph theory, astrophysics, biochemistry and analytical chemistry this year. There have been other REUs that invite one, two or a few deaf students each year, but we are the first REU to host a full cohort of students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.” 

A Research Experience for Undergraduates program generally runs in the summer for eight to 10 weeks. Undergraduate students come from different universities, along with some from the home university, to be immersed in a research experience with guidance from a faculty mentor. 

This particular REU is a three-year award from the NSF, and will run for three summers, with the grant totaling $303,000. Students are paid a stipend, receive housing and some meal support and travel. They also have an opportunity to present their research at a conference. In addition to the research experience, RIT/NTID is adding writing coaching, a research boot camp that involves mathematical and scientific training and professional development sessions tailored specifically to students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. They also will have presentations by invited guests. 

“REUs are exciting programs because faculty mentors and students work side-by-side on original research,” Jacob said. “The opportunity to simultaneously make scientific discoveries while watching the students transform themselves into researchers is awesome. A full-time research experience over the summer often is a critical part of an undergraduate student’s preparation to go to graduate school or enter a career in a scientific or mathematical field. We are very excited about our group of students this year: they come from all over the country, have a diverse set of backgrounds, and also have a variety of career goals. They will come together this summer with the common thread of being undergraduate students who are deaf or hard of hearing and are eager to do science and math research. Several students have told me that they’re excited about the program. I know I am!” 

For more on the project, visit the RIT/NTID REU website: https://people.rit.edu/bcjntm/REU.html.