SLU Researcher, Collaborators Awarded NSF Grant to Create Software System that Generates Accessible STEM Content for Persons with Disabilities

A collaborative team of academia, industry, start-ups, and non-profits, led by Jenna Gorlewicz, Ph.D., associate professor in aerospace and mechanical engineering and associate dean of research and innovation in the School of Science and Engineering at Saint Louis University, was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator Phase 1 grant. 

Gorlewicz and her team aim to develop technology to enhance the quality of life, employment access, and opportunities for persons with disabilities, specifically individuals with blindness or visual impairments (BVI). 

The project titled, “Bridging the Fragmentation of Information Access — An Integrated, Multimodal System for Inclusive Content Creation, Conversion, and Delivery,” brings together collaborators including Pearson, Educational Testing Services, ViewPlus Technologies, Vital, Unar Labs, the Roux Institute at Northeastern University, and consultants with expertise in human-computer interaction, BVI, and STEM education of the visually impaired to address the growing gap of information access across the educational ecosystem.

Together, they will create the AIMS (Automated, Integrated, Multimodal Software) system that generates STEM content, including text and images, which students can access through sight, sound, and touch. 

Gorlewicz says much of the information we interact with today is visual — charts, graphs, schematics, presentations, and images. She adds this visual presentation widens an already persistent information access gap that needs to be more inclusive to individuals relying on nonvisual access, nor is it supportive of learning through multiple modalities. 

“This project breaks down pervasive accessibility silos exacerbated in STEM disciplines, converging across ideas, approaches, and technologies, to create a software system that provides inclusive content across various platforms and file formats,” Gorlewicz said. “The societal impacts of this work support persons with disabilities in being independent and active contributors in highly underrepresented STEM domains and serves national interests by advancing inclusive approaches to information access across educational and professional settings.” 

Saint Louis University was one of 16 multidisciplinary Phase I teams the NSF Convergence Accelerator selected for the 2022 Cohort, Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Through November 2023, the team will participate in an accelerated innovation curriculum while developing initial concepts and prototypes, expanding their network, and formulating a strategy for sustainability. In Phase 1, the team will create a prototype system that enables automated creation, conversion, and delivery of widely used, multimodal STEM content, informed by the publishing, education, and assessment partners.

Gorlewicz stated, “A tenet of this research is that we are working with communities of individuals with disabilities. Our own team have visual impairments, and we take the approach of learning from the community and its stakeholders and innovating with them, which is how this project began from its inception.” 

The output of the AIMS system will generate a digital, multimodal rendering that could be displayed on platforms such as computers, mobile phones, or tablets. It will also develop a physical, embossed rendering that can be printed on commercially available embossers deployed within educational and vocational settings worldwide. 

Educational stakeholders will iteratively evaluate this proof-of-concept. It will be scaled across partners toward developing an access ecosystem that works across tasks, contexts, hardware, and modalities and extends beyond individuals with BVI to the broader persons with disabilities community. At the end of Phase 1, the team will participate in a formal pitch and Phase 2 proposal evaluation.  Selected teams from Phase 1 will proceed to Phase 2, with potential funding up to $5 Million for 24 months.

“We are so pleased to have received this award, to be in company with the other outstanding teams that are a part of our cohort, and to have the opportunity to work on the pressing challenge of information access faced by many persons with disabilities today,” Gorlewicz stated. “We are ready to collaborate, innovate, and change how we think about and experience data and the accessibility of STEM content for the next generation.” 

About Saint Louis University

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 13,500 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.

About the NSF Convergence Accelerator

Launched in 2019, the Convergence Accelerator — a Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, or TIP, program — builds upon NSF’s investment in basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal and economic impact. Convergence Accelerator multidisciplinary teams use convergence research fundamentals and innovation processes to stimulate innovative idea sharing and development of sustainable solutions.