Dean of the Faculty Dr. Caroline Solomon stood near the back of the JSAC Multipurpose Room, which was packed with people watching a physics presentation. 鈥淭his makes so much sense,鈥 she said. Solomon was referring to the clear and captivating lecture on 鈥淓ntangled Photons: Creation and Application,鈥 by Colin Paul Lualdi, a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But it was a sentiment that could be applied to all of the campus events that happened March 2-5 during the privateSTEM Sign Language Summit.

With nearly 300 registered attendees 鈥 both in person and online 鈥 it was one of the largest gatherings ever of signing professionals in the science, mathematics, and technology fields from around the world. The culmination of a year-long effort, funded by the National Science Foundation, the summit sought to explore how scientific concepts are communicated in different sign languages and how that impacts education and career outcomes for deaf people.

Two people sitting, facing each other and signing.

鈥淚t鈥檚 been an amazing experience gathering together these Deaf STEMists, educators, interpreters, linguists, and more, to not only discuss the development of communicating STEM in sign language, but also to get experts together to discuss STEM itself in a natural setting for them,鈥 explains co-principal investigator Dr. Christopher Hayes, assistant professor of mathematics, who organized the summit with principal investigator Dr. Alicia Wooten, associate professor of biology, and co-principal investigator Solomon. 鈥淭his is the first NSF-supported conference we know of where Deaf STEM researchers from a variety of backgrounds can present their technical STEM research, most of which is unrelated to deafness, to an audience of signers. Moreover, this is a special opportunity for our students to see research by and network with Deaf experts from outside of Gallaudet.鈥

Highlights for Hayes included the presentation by Mathis Brethome of the University of Toulouse in France on creating mathematical signs, as well as Gallaudet鈥檚 Dr. Regina Nuzzo鈥檚 entertaining introduction to statistics, which asked the audience to consider whether a German octopus could tell the future. (For the record, Hayes sided with the skeptics.)

The varied schedule featured programming related to five tracks:

-STEM Education for Students Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing (K-12, college, and graduate studies)

-Development and Dissemination of STEM Signs,

-Interpreting in STEM

-Research by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Scientists

-Sustainability of Signed Language Lexicons.

The presentations, panels, open discussions, and networking opportunities all focused on a common goal of ensuring that scientific concepts are accessible to deaf people at every level, starting with young children and building up through the top tiers of research. Attendees expressed their desire to remove barriers, encourage more deaf interest in science generally, and boost the numbers of deaf people who pursue careers in the field.

A person standing, facing two other people, signing.

Dr. Marie Coppola, a professor at the University of Connecticut and an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, was running around with a tripod to film people signing 1-10 in different languages. The videos are for a project related to her research showing that late language learners often struggle with understanding numbers. 鈥淚t鈥檚 hard to succeed in STEM without basic math proficiency,鈥 Coppola noted.

For Coppola, the summit was an incredible opportunity to share her work internationally while also marveling at how scientific education has advanced since her Deaf parents went to school. 鈥淚f only they had access to these materials and this pedagogy,鈥 she said. 鈥淚鈥檓 really moved by the creative ways Deaf people take advantage of the characteristics of sign language to express scientific concepts.鈥

Dr. Jessica Scott, an associate professor in deaf education at Georgia State University, said that it was heartening to see mentees involved in this movement. She used to tutor Asma Sheikh, an New York University Ph.D. student who gave a presentation with Dr. Christina Collison of Rochester Institute of Technology on incorporating ASL into mixed hearing/Deaf chemistry classes. And Scott Cohen, a doctoral candidate Scott co-advises, was part of a presentation on the development of sign language lexicons. “I’m聽excited to see the impact these emerging scholars have on these fields,” she said.

Work on the summit began in March 2023, when Gallaudet hosted a Founders and Leaders Workshop, bringing together an international group of scientists, linguists, and educators who have developed STEM sign language dictionaries and other resources. They shared their strategies and struggles, and brainstormed ways to collaborate and improve overall efficacy. Presentations at other international gatherings, including the XIX World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Jeju, South Korea in July 2023 and the Deaf Academic Conference in Vienna, Austria in September 2023, continued to bring attention to these issues.

The process sparked countless connections, many of which were highlighted at the summit. At the closing session, Aribeana Victor Cappa, who had come from Nigeria, stood up to thank everyone for being there. 鈥淲e see each other, we learn from each other, and new ideas come about,” he said.

And stay tuned for more progress. 鈥淲e have received many questions about when the next privateSTEM summit will happen, which showcases a need to continue this work,鈥 says Wooten, who is excited to build up more research and support for these topics.聽

Another goal of this NSF-funded project is a book, already in development, that will collect the past year鈥檚 findings. 鈥淭he really neat thing about this book is that it is a huge collaboration by individuals from all over the world sharing their expertise on where we are, what we need, and how we can do it,鈥 she says.

Combining this information globally, rather than focusing on just one country, is critical, adds Wooten. 鈥淒eaf in STEM is a universal thing,鈥 Wooten says.

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