Exploring Inclusive Technology, Access for All

A summer research experience for undergraduates allows students to develop technology that aims to help people with disabilities

Jul 14 2023 | By Bernadette Ocampo Young | Photo Credit: Computer Science Department/Columbia Engineering
The CEAL group with REU students

The CEAL group with REU students. Front row, from left to right: Sophie Ana Paris, Chloe Tedjo, Joshua Bassin, Ethan Chang. Back row, from left to right: Leo Zhang, Yves Maximillian Tseng, Brian A. Smith, Gaurav Jain. Credit: Computer Science Department/Columbia Engineering

A cohort of students from across the U.S. are spending part of their summer at Columbia Engineering working on a common goal–to ensure that technology is accessible to all.

The eight students, chosen from 149 applicants, are participating in the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program, where students work with faculty from Columbia Engineering and Cornell Tech on ongoing research projects. Aside from their interest in accessibility, most come from colleges and universities that do not offer research opportunities.

This year, three students from Penn State University, New York University, and Texas A&M University are conducting research under Brian Smith, assistant professor of computer science at Columbia, focused on making images and videos more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Also at Columbia Engineering, Professor Steven Feiner’s XR projects are immersing three students in research that explores how to make mixed reality experiences accessible to people with mobility or dexterity impairments. While Shiri Azenkot, an associate professor at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, is guiding students through making virtual reality experiences accessible to neurodivergent people. 

“There is usually a five to six-year lag in making new technologies accessible,” said Smith, who directs the Computer-Enabled Abilities Laboratory (CEAL), where they develop inclusive technology that aims to help people perceive and interact with the world around them. As a recent recipient of Columbia Engineering’s Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award, Smith also is committed to improving diversity and inclusion by encouraging everyone from diverse backgrounds to pursue engineering as a field of study or a professional vocation. 

“If we introduce undergrad students to this kind of research, then we lay the foundation so they can become technology researchers at universities and PhD programs, and in industry.”

REU students discussing a project with PhD student Gaurav Jain. Credit: Computer Science Department/Columbia Engineering

The goal is for the REU students to experience research life in New York City. Aside from taking part in world-class research at Columbia and Cornell Tech, they also get to explore the city together with trips to museums and other social activities. At a recent meeting, they shared their experience working as volunteers at a conference, chose some side projects to take on, and figured out which programs they need to use to code. Of course, projects were a topic of discussion, but lab members also talked about life outside the lab, like dealing with city life and fun things they did over the weekend.

“We hope this will spark their interest in increasing accessibility and open up a path for them to a career in research,” said Smith.

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