Fulbright alumna Maurita Harris develops video game to help teach German Sign Language

Sep 25, 2018

When Maurita Harris set out to learn American Sign Language, she started with an ASL dictionary.

It was a perfectly reasonable place to start, and as she quickly learned, one of the only places, too. As Harris looked through the dictionary with a friend at a library, she pondered a question:

“Why are there so few technological resources for learning and using sign language?”

That question served as the impetus for a video game that Harris, a recent NC State graduate, is creating overseas. As a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar, Harris is in Berlin working to develop the game, tentatively called “Chatty Hands,” that will help teach German Sign Language.

Harris, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in May 2015, is one of three recent College of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates who received a Fulbright grant this year.

To create the game, Harris is taking courses in sign language in Berlin with her faculty adviser, Dr. Matthias Rötting of the Technische Universität. She’ll also be working with the Sign Language Lab at Georg-August Universität in Göttingen, Germany.

“If you want to learn sign language, you either have to find ways to teach yourself or find a course,” Harris said. “Hopefully this game offers another option for those who want to learn German Sign Language.”

Thanks to books like “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and meeting two influential German women when she was a child, Harris said she became interested in German culture at a young age. She took those curiosities with her to college, where she decided to learn German through NC State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

German is one of 15 languages the department teaches, and German Studies is one of its four major concentrations.

“Many of my friends thought I was crazy, since I was taking Spanish at the time and had to go to German class right after Spanish,” Harris said. “At moments I thought I was crazy, too, but I wanted to pick it up and did.”

In addition to a background in German language and culture, Harris also has some experience with the gaming portion of her current project.

While at NC State, she served as an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Psychology’s Gains through Gaming Lab, which examines the relationship between video games and important psychological constructs. Serving under the lab’s co-director Jason Allaire, she worked on a variety of projects, including one in which she observed how a commercial video game, “StarCraft 2,” helped the cognitive abilities of older adults.

Harris also served as a research assistant in the Learning, Aging and Cognitive Ergonomics (LACE) Lab. There, among several other projects, she studied whether static images or videos were better for teaching someone American Sign Language.

The Fulbright provided an opportunity for Harris to continue her studies in Germany. She applied for the program, while looking into graduate school and worked with NC State’s Coordinator of Distinguished Scholarships and Fellowships,Tiffany Kershner, to fulfill all the scholarship requirements.

“Applying for a Fulbright is an arduous process, but well worth the effort,” Kershner said. “By its very nature, a Fulbright requires awareness of and involvement in other languages and cultures. So whether an NC State recipient is majoring in Humanities and Social Sciences or not, the college is integral to the success of any application.”

When her Fulbright ends, Harris will begin graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she plans to earn a doctoral degree in engineering psychology. Her long-term goal is to become a professor, teaching human factors psychology with a research lab focusing on older adults, robotics, health devices and futuristic technology.

“Not only would teaching allow me to have a direct impact on students,” she said, “but I would also have the ability to make an impact on a field I love.”

This story originally appeared on the NC State College of Humanities and Social Sciences web page.  You can find the original story here.  

October 27, 2015

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