Welcome Back, Students!
Elizabeth Davis & Maxine Eskenazi
Among the returning Carnegie Mellon University students this week is Elizabeth Davis (CS'14), whose interests in math, science and the French language led her to pursuing a major in computer science with a language technologies minor.
Working side-by-side with faculty member Maxine Eskenazi (DC'73), she created a smartphone app for non-native speakers and will test the app this fall.
"Computer science is relevant in so many fields," said Davis. "And I like that CMU emphasizes the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that brings together interesting ideas from absolutely everywhere."
Choosing CMU was a no-brainer when she learned she wouldn't have to give up any of her interests — which include playing violin and Scottish fiddle. She's even going to France next semester for further study in language technologies.
"It's so interesting to see all the things I like come together like this for me," said Davis, who keeps the rust off her music abilities by playing with CMU's All University Orchestra for non-music majors.
The app she created is designed for non-native speakers to learn which words could cause miscommunication with an audience.
"Say you're going to give a presentation. You load the text of your presentation into the app. Based on your native language it will tell you the words your audience may misunderstand if you don't pronounce them correctly," she explained. "If you know ahead of time that your pronunciation of 'crowds' could sound like 'clouds,' and it would make just as much sense to hear 'clouds' in that context, then you have the opportunity to practice pronouncing that word. Or maybe you'll decide to use a different word in its place."
Eskenazi added, "So, any student going to a conference can use the app to prepare. And because the technology is in the form of an app right now, we are looking forward to getting a lot of people to test it so we can see how they react to using the app for learning and what precision issues there might be."
She and Davis are already planning more uses for the technology.
"The next thing we need to add is speech recognition so that the app can respond as a student practices pronouncing a word," Eskenazi said. "Then perhaps we can add multiple word phrases or expressions. For example, these are the expressions I use. How might people misunderstand what I'm saying?"
Eskenazi says the breadth and expertise in language technologies at CMU has been critical to the success of this project. And she noted that a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), funded by the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), made the project possible.
"SURGs and SURFs make it possible for students to pursue ideas that have never been researched before," Eskenazi said.
CMU is one of 14 campuses to participate in the SRC Undergraduate Research Opportunities (SRC-URO) program. It is designed to attract and retain students in science and engineering disciplines relevant to technology-based industries and to encourage their enrollment in graduate school by providing sustained undergraduate research experiences and mentoring relationships.
Davis, like many other undergraduates at CMU, enjoys being able to work on something novel.
"I thought what can I lose by trying this? And I got to learn all about what research is like a lot earlier than most people," Davis said. "Research is fun."
Eskenazi added, "Students get a feel for what academia is all about and a better idea of whether they would enjoy graduate school. It also gives them a way to apply what they are learning. By using what you learn, you get deeper knowledge and you have a better chance of being able to use it later in life."