Helping Others and Learning Human-Centered Engineering During Summer Research Program

August 2, 2021

This summer, Paul Ruvolo, associate professor of Computer Science, is leading a summer research team including a mix of Oliners, students from other colleges, and visually impaired users to improve and expand a tech platform he developed that assists low-vision and blind people navigate their surroundings.

“The focus of the student’s research in my summer program is to understand how blind and low-vision people are navigating their spaces, what adaptations they already have, and then augmenting those adaptations with technology,” says Professor Ruvolo. “We are working to improve the technology and make it more useful.”

Clew is a free and open-source indoor navigation app designed for blind and visually impaired users to help them independently navigate in environments where traditional GPS-based applications don’t work. Professor Ruvolo was recently awarded a three-year, $343,380 National Science Foundation grant to further his work in indoor navigation, which he is doing through his ongoing research program called Creation of Assistive Technology for the Blind Through Largescale Co-Design.

Olin students Esme '24 and Berwin '24 hold up and point a smartphone camera at a code on a whiteboard to use the assistive technology app Clew.

Esme '24 and Berwin '24 use the assistive technology app Clew, to scan a code on the board in class.

During the 2021 summer research session with Professor Ruvolo, 10 students are working with 25 visually impaired people who act as co-designers by provided testing and feedback in a process to make improvements and additions to Clew and other assistive technology apps. In addition to focusing on technology evaluation and development, the program brings in folks who are blind or visually impaired who have run workshops on career opportunities in product design, programming, and accessibility to provide the co-designers with awareness of potential career paths. The co-design program was developed in collaboration with Fernando Albertorio, an entrepreneur and creator of assistive technology.

Three Olin student summer researchers hunch over laptops while working in the classroom.

Olin student summer researchers work on integrating feedback and anecdotal information into the app utilizing the Swift and Python programming languages.

“Often engineers think that the finished product is what people need even though it doesn’t have input from end-users,” says Berwin Lan `24, a student majoring in Engineering with Computing. “The most important thing I am learning is that you really need to talk to the people you are helping.”

“At Olin, we want our students to understand the impact of their work,” says Professor Ruvolo. “The students participating in this summer research program are learning that as engineers, we must do the work humbly and understand that you don’t have the experience of the person using the assistive technology. You have to interact with people, understand their daily lives, and seek their input.”

Associate Professor Paul Ruvolo in green shirt, works behind a laptop one-on-one with a student researcher, also behind a laptop, while sitting in a classroom.

Associate Professor Paul Ruvolo works one-on-one with a student researcher.

And Professor Ruvolo’s research students are doing just that as they communicate with the co-designers through direct messaging, Slack, or in focus group settings. They then integrate the feedback and anecdotal information they receive into the app utilizing the Swift and Python programming languages. This process is helping the summer research team understand more about end-user behavior of the co-designers and update and improve the app through an iterative process. The app utilizes algorithms from augmented reality and machine learning, which allows students to gain experience working in these emerging fields. 

Two summer research students in dark clothing connect a phone and app to a laptop via a white cord as two other team members look on.

Olin summer researchers connect the phone and app to a laptop as members of the team look on.

The intensive and focused nature of the summer research program adds to the Olin educational experience. “Summer research allows me to focus what I’m learning on a single project,” says Esme Abbot `24, a Mechanical Engineering major. “The number of hours we spend on research and applying that research makes it a richer, more immersive experience, and I’ve been able to get a lot more out of my computer engineering learning as a result.”

And the summer research program develops important skills that students can take into their careers. “I am spending more time thinking about the work I am doing in the lab and how to express its value,” says Berwin. “This teaches me how to talk about the work I am doing day-to-day in the lab, which is an important skill for future work.”

Most importantly, the summer research program helps Olin students set a course for their education and their future as an engineer.

“Having this research experience early in my college experience gives me a better perspective on what I want to do with my next three years at Olin,” says Berwin. “The summer research program is building important skills and values and helping me figure out what kind of engineer I want to be. The experience is showing me that I can pursue computer engineering and have a positive impact on people through my work.”

Three student researchers, including Berwin Lan '24 in the center, work on the tech platform project.

Three student researchers, including Berwin Lan '24 in the center, work on the tech platform project.