Local students building an app designed to help non-verbal students communicate

If you sit down at a computer near high school students Andrew Gosselin and Justin Kruskie, you'll need to prepare yourself for a fast-paced conversation. The pair ricochet ideas (and good-natured insults) off each other as they enthusiastically explain and demonstrate the assistive communication application they’ve spent the last year creating at the Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center.

Gosselin, a Bay City Central High School senior, and Kruskie, a senior at Essexville Garber High School, met during the fall of 2017 in the classroom of Jesse Dockett, the Computer Programming Instructor at the Bay-Arenac ISD.

Justin Kruskie and Andrew Gosselin

Dockett said the then-juniors quickly mastered the standard curriculum and wanted new challenges. Gosselin and Kruskie talked to Mark Lyons, who works with technology for special education students in the school district, and he told them about an assistive communication system that some students find difficult to use. The system offers numerous choices, making it difficult for users to find the right words.

Andrew and Justin looked over the program and knew they could improve the design and functionality.

Late last school year, they began creating an app to help non-verbal students communicate with people who don’t know American Sign Language.

In the beginning, they mapped out their ideas on a whiteboard in a classroom but today, they open up their app, called VoicED, on a computer. It takes less than 5 minutes to demonstrate how the simple icons and basic phrases work. They hope the simplicity puts the app within reach of all non-verbal students, including those with learning disabilities.

Gosselin and Kruskie work together at the Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center

VoicED features a simple, clean, black and white design. Short conversational phrases and simple icons march across the bottom of the opening screen.

The user first selects from these opening phrases, which are typical of those used at the beginning of a sentence. Examples of the phrases include “I want”, “We need”, “We are,” and “I have.” After the user touches one of the phrases, another set of icons and phrases opens. The second set of options includes common phrases that go along with whatever the user already selected. Options include “a drink”, “help”, “bathroom,” or “Mom.” As the user selects options, he or she builds a sentence that displays at the top of the screen. Very quickly, the user can tell a teacher “We need a break” or “I need help.” The system also offers options for communicating urgent needs with one touch.

The phrases Andrew and Justin included in the initial version of the app reflect typical instructions, questions, and answers heard in classrooms. The app also allows customization. Users, parents, teachers, and administrators can add phrases to the app for each student. For example, if the student is studying music, a teacher could add the names of instruments. A student who loves sports might want to add athletic equipment. School administrators can access statistics about what phrases and words students use most and least often, so they can add or delete options to meet each student’s needs.

Andrew and Justin deliberately designed the app to be compatible with both Apple and Android products in order to help as many people as possible.

The app features a clean, simple design, making it easier for students to use

More testing is needed before the app sees its first user, Dockett said. The pair hopes to find a graduate Speech-Language Pathology student interested in testing the app to move it one step closer to debuting in a classroom.

While they wait for that to happen, Justin and Andrew have built a website at https://ccrstudios.us/voiced touting VoicED’s features. The website describes their vision for the app: “For those with learning disabilities, their tools are mass produced for the crowd, not for their specific needs. But we provide everybody the same opportunity to find success when times are hard. Our software isn’t designed as a One-Size-Fits-All. It’s designed for you. Take a look at our VoicED app. It’s your Voice for Education!”

The app already won honors in the A.H. Nickless Innovation Award competition. On Nov. 30, the Nickless Foundation told the teens that they had earned a $1,000 grant to develop the project and were one of 20 teams that moving on to Phase Two of the competition. In Phase Two, Justin and Andrew will compete for up to $25,000 in scholarships for themselves and a STEM education grant of up to $20,000 for the school. Winners will be announced on April 6.

In early December, they had the opportunity to show their work to a statewide crowd when they took the VoicED app to the 18th Annual Student Technology Showcase (STS). During the day-long event in the Michigan State Capitol Building, students in kindergarten through 12th grade from around the state demonstrated technological projects. Lawmakers, business leaders other citizens saw first-hand how technology is used in classrooms across Michigan.

Gosselin plans on earning a degree in Computer Science, and Kruskie is pursuing a degree in Business with a minor in Computer Science.

For Gosselin and Kruskie, building the app has helped them build a friendship. When they enrolled at the Career Center, they didn’t know each other. Now, they work together two days a week in the Career Center classroom and three days a week as programming interns at Newtech Automotive Services. Many evenings, after work, homework, and sports practice, they’re back in front of their computers and working out better ways for the app to help people.

It’s a lot of time, but they don’t mind. “We want to change people’s lives to make them better,” Kruskie said.

At this point, the app is already making a difference in Justin and Andrew’s lives. Dockett said computer industry experts have noticed their work and talked to the students about the possibility of additional internships in the future.

For now, their immediate plans are similar to those of most other high school seniors. After graduation, Gosselin is headed to Delta College and then to Northwood University to earn a degree in Computer Science. Kruskie is considering Saginaw Valley State University or Central Michigan University. Whichever university he chooses, he plans to pursue a degree in Business with a minor in Computer Science.

“They’re on track to do some pretty cool things,” Dockett said.
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