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February 13, 2006

Psychology professor heeds parents' pleas for help

By Jennifer McNulty

Twenty years ago, psychology professor Dominic Massaro never dreamed his investigation of how humans comprehend language and speech would benefit hearing-impaired and autistic children.

Dominic Massaro
Psychology professor Dominic Massaro helped develop an interactive software, below, that assists children with language challenges.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty
Image of animation

A 4-year-old boy with language problems practices his narrative and comprehension skills with Timo Stories.

But such is the journey of an academic whose pursuit of "pure research" took him in unexpected directions.

Over the course of two decades, Massaro and associate researcher Michael Cohen (Ph.D. psychology, '84) developed facial animation software to explore how auditory and visual cues work together to aid our understanding of the spoken word.

The star of his work was a "talking head" that his research team nicknamed "Baldi." By replicating and manipulating the facial movements and sounds of speech, Baldi helped Massaro understand the power of what we see when we hear people talk--a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has watched the lips of a speaker to help follow a conversation in a noisy room.

"People use many different features to perceive speech, and the visual is naturally integrated with the auditory," said Massaro.

Baldi proved a powerful tutor during a research project with deaf and hearing-impaired children at a school in Portland, Oregon, where Massaro's software helped children acquire the skills of language and speech. Children at a Santa Cruz school for autistic children also used the technology and demonstrated vocabulary gains.

Increasingly, parents asked Massaro about acquiring similar materials for use at home.

But Baldi was a research tool, not a commercial product. Massaro had a hunch his work could be developed to benefit children with language challenges, whether due to sensory limitations, autism, learning disabilities, low socioeconomic status, or because they were learning English as a second language. But he didn't know how to go about it.

The requests continued. "These parents were desperate, and we didn't have anything to give them," recalled Massaro.

Then the mother of an autistic boy heard Massaro speak at a conference. Her husband, an entrepreneur, contacted Massaro, and after a couple years of planning, fundraising, and negotiating with the university to license the software, Animated Speech Corporation (ASC) was born.

So far, ASC has brought two products to market, the CD-ROMs Team Up with Timo: Vocabulary and Team Up with Timo: Stories. Like Baldi, Timo is an animated tutor that helps children build their language skills. Timo introduces new words, gives children image and text cues that facilitate their learning, and gently urges students to try again when they make mistakes. Colorful graphics and engaging content--vocabulary lessons include segments on animals, geography, space, weather, people in history, and government--complete the package.

Children give the CD-ROMs high marks, according to speech-language pathologist Chris Soland, who works with about 36 children with severe to profound hearing loss at Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland. The children rave about Timo, she said.

"It's the first thing they ask when they come to work with me: 'Can I do Timo today?'" said Soland. "They love it. There's something very engaging about it, because it's interactive."

Children can practice their skills independently with the CD-ROMs, which make the CDs a great way to supplement classroom lessons, added Soland. "Most kids really enjoy adult attention, and this replicates that in a positive way," she said. "And it never gets tired! It's always available and ready to help them learn."

The results are impressive: Students at the Jackson Hearing Center in Palo Alto who used the tutoring software to boost their vocabulary had an average retention rate of 98 percent after 30 days, according to research Massaro conducted with psychology graduate student Joanna Light (M.S. psychology '02).

"They not only like it, but they learn from it," said Soland. "They're learning it in a fun way--that makes all the difference."

In studies conducted with the assistance of researcher Alexis Bosseler (Porter '99, psychology), Massaro found that autistic children at the Bay School and Natural Bridges Elementary School in Santa Cruz had an 85 percent retention rate of new words 30 days after they had learned them. Massaro says children like the immediate feedback they get while working with the program.

"It's the old-fashioned idea of time on task," added Massaro. "Children devote more time to it and get a better result."

Because children can use the materials without adult supervision, the CD-ROMs free up parents to enjoy "quality time" for other activities. "Autistic children with irregular sleep patterns can work with Timo anytime," noted Massaro.

Meanwhile, Massaro continues to use Baldi in his academic research, the latest focus of which is improving vocabulary and pronunciation among native Spanish speakers in grades K-2 who are learning English in school. "Working with Baldi can be less intimidating for kids learning a new language because they don't feel shy about making mistakes," he said.

Over the years, Massaro's research has been published in many of the top peer-reviewed journals in his field--the litmus test for academics. Reflecting on the "real-world" applications of what began as pure research, Massaro acknowledges a new and different sense of satisfaction.

"When I started in psychology, I never thought I'd do anything like this. I really stumbled into it," said Massaro. "It has been very rewarding. People tell us we've helped their kids, and that's great."

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