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Shaping the Future of Software
Practice Makes Perfect Speech

by Alicia P. Gregory

The Problem: As part of their therapy, kids come into UK's Communication Disorders Clinic and play speech games on equipment that costs $10,000. "But they can't take that big computer, and all its attached hardware, home with them," says Jody Deem, associate professor and director of the division of communication disorders at UK. "Just sitting with a book and Mom or Dad at home is boring."

The Goal: Make it cool to do daily speech therapy practice at home. Target ages five to 10.

Photo of PDA-based software programGraduate students JenChi Cheng, Li Luo and Yan Zhang designed a jumping monkey for their PDA-based software program aimed at getting kids excited about their speech therapy homework.

The Assignment: Create software (first for a workstation, then for a PDA or for the Internet) that uses the same kind of positive feedback the kids get with games on the big computer at UK.

The Challenge: "Speech is an enormous signal," Deem says. "In an adult female the vocal cords vibrate about 200 times in one second. In a male, about 100 times per second. That's just for a single vowel sound like 'ah.' For sounds like 's' and 'th,' the vibrations are at the level of 5,000 to 7,000 times in one second. So when you're talking about analyzing a child's speech for sound errors in a whole sentence, the computer needs to analyze thousands of data points each second." That's why the UK computers are so pricey. Is it possible to scale a this down to work on a PDA?

The Result: Hayes's students focused on recording vowel sounds. They created software that incorporated positive feedback, say, when a child said "ah" loud enough, an animated bird flapped its wings or a monkey jumps. "The students were so creative, and they had a lot of fun working on this project," says Hayes.

Deem was most excited about the Web-based software. "The average home computer has a lot more storage capacity and processor power than a PDA, so you can make even more cool reinforcements—more monkeys, more sounds," says Deem. "Some of the students even built in the ability for the speech language pathologist to log in and see how much homework practice the children have done and how many attempts they've gotten right.

"What Jane's students did is a wonderful step in the right direction in terms of taking speech analysis to a more portable level," Deem says. "It's not going to replace the big computer—the child will need to come in for the full-blown analysis at some point— but what the students did will keep a child fascinated by the speech therapy homework, and that's an accomplishment."

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