NJIT and WebTeam to develop tactile-friendly learning devices for children with autism

New Jersey Institute of Technology and WebTeam Corporation, a New Jersey-based IT company, have signed an agreement to collaboratively design and develop a customizable learning device that will help children with autism spectrum disorder master a range of skills-building lessons contained in the device's embedded educational software.

For the initial project, an NJIT team, including students, will work with WebTeam to develop a tactile-friendly 3D device with embedded sensors to interface with the company's iLearNNEarn2 program, which is a part of the ColorsKit package for management and a gaming model that uses touchscreen kiosks and mobile devices to deliver evidence-based learning sessions.

The sensor-embedded device would prompt the child through the sessions, monitor responsiveness, assess cognition, and adapt future learning sessions accordingly. The device would record the related data, allowing others involved in the child's intervention to share and review it. The device's outer form would vary; for young children, for example, it might be a toy with which they are familiar and include personalized images such as pictures of their rooms. The educational sessions are based on a curriculum developed by Eden Autism Services, a New Jersey-based not-for-profit organization that provides education and training to people with autism, as well as their families, teachers, and caregivers.

"Our goal is to identify the right technology in the marketplace, customize it for this population, and package it. We want to provide an educational tool that parents with little teaching experience can use, bringing them together on the same platform with teachers and therapists," said Nish Parikh, chief executive officer of Web Team, who added, "The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum and to reduce stress on them and their families. We want to make learning both smart and fun."

WebTeam chose to partner with NJIT, because the university is "a technology leader with the best engineers in the region," Parikh said.

"WebTeam has developed the program and we will deliver it, optimizing its interface, as well as its assessment, feedback and response capabilities, while also capturing the data," said Atam Dhawan, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, who will lead the NJIT team. As part of the intellectual property agreement, NJIT is jointly filing a supplemental patent to the patent WebTeam filed on its educational software.

"As the autism community prepares to recognize Autism Awareness Month in April, we applaud the collaborative efforts of academia and private sector companies such as NJIT and WebTeam, who are working year-round to develop innovative new tools for managing the challenges and opportunities posed by living with autism," commented Peter Bell, Eden Autism Services President and CEO. "This project is an outstanding example of how a public-private partnership applying shared knowledge and resources can improve the outcomes of those living on the autism spectrum."

NJIT students have been working on a learning device for children with autism disorder since 2011, when a team of Honors College students from the university's Interdisciplinary Design Studio (IDS) proposed developing an educational toy to engage children who might lose focus or interest staring at a computer screen and assess their cognitive abilities. Parikh, a member of the IDS External Advisory Board, was one of the sponsors who allowed the team to pursue research and development on the NJIT campus over a summer.

Dhawan said the new project will build on the team's technology, which was able to respond in simple ways to the children's choices, such as telling them they had or had not correctly picked the color the program prompted.

The next stage of the project will incorporate more sophisticated responses, including the intelligence to recognize whether a task is taking a child too long and the ability to respond by moving on to the next, so the child does not become frustrated. The device could be inexpensively customized to suit, say, robot or stuffed animal preferences, among other potential forms.

"I will put another student team together soon this year," Dhawan said, adding that the NJIT students, from a range of majors, could potentially be working with researchers, clinicians and software engineers on the device.

"The technology, combined with therapy, should enable children to enhance their potential and build upon it to become significant contributors to society. We want to help them to optimize their capabilities," he added.

"For our students, these are the sort of experiences that make what they're learning in the classroom real and give them the chance to develop real applications to help people with serious challenges," NJIT President Joel Bloom said at the signing this week.

WebTeam Corporation gained global recognition when it was awarded $500,000 in Verizon's Powerful Answers Award for pitching its innovative idea of autism management at homes and in the classroom. Out of the 15 winners, WebTeam was the only company from the New Yor-New Jersey metro area. It will utilize a portion of the award money to fund the project at NJIT, according to a company source.

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