Francis Quek, director of the Center for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, has received a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study embodiment awareness, mathematics discourse and the blind.

Quek uses the term “embodiment awareness” to convey the way in which a listener accesses and comprehends communications. This area of research is grounded in psycholinguistic theories that are based, in part, on the fact that when we speak, our embodied behavior of gesture, gaze, posture and facial expression become part of the communicative process.

“Our brain is designed to function within a body,” Quek said. “True communication includes the underlying mental imagery, which relates to what is said as well as what is displayed.”

Gestures help reveal the major points of accompanying words and help the listener focus on important elements of a conversation.

The NSF project also focuses on math discourse and education for blind students, who Quek says typically lag one-to-three years behind their sighted fellow students in math. Mathematical reasoning is rich in spatial imagery revealed in gestures, which have the capacity to create images that serve as “objects of contemplation.” When a graphic or illustration is available for math instruction, the lessons usually include gestures of spatial reference to the graphic.

Research with individuals who are blind suggests that they have remarkable capacity for visual imagery, memory and conceptualization and are able to access graphical content through tactile image technology.

However, Quek believes that lack of visual access to the embodiment of the instructor makes mastery of the material more difficult for blind students. He proposes to remedy this problem by giving blind students the use of tactile devices that can provide elements of embodiment awareness.

“How do you keep the student in communication with the teacher?” Quek asked. “One thing we can do is to build a series of devices that will send images to blind students, and make the images into something they can feel.”

He has assembled a multi-disciplinary team that includes Virginia Tech researchers in the fields of computer science, psychology, education, and disabilities research and services.

The team will perform a series of perception and action experiments to test how well the embodiment devices work. They will then perform a second series of experiments with blind and sighted students in mathematics instruction, captured on video. They also will run pre- and post-tests, to assess the quality and quantity of imagistic content and to determine the correlation, if any, between these and the formation of math concepts.

Quek said the project should have significant direct impact on inclusive mathematics instruction at all grade levels for visually impaired students. “Providing a sense of embodiment awareness to students who are blind has not yet been studied,” he said, “and it has the potential for empowering such students.”

Quek also predicts that understanding the channels for embodiment awareness will affect the design of future distance learning systems, and will provide insights on how best to provide embodiment cues to students in Internet-based instruction.