Shooting for the moon

In her Language and the Brain course, linguistics professor Kathryn Schuler asked 30 undergrads to think big about big problems—and their solutions didn’t disappoint.

Schuler in the classroom
Linguistics professor Kathryn Schuler (right) wanted her students to think big. Throughout the semester, they worked on passion projects, following a Google X model to allow for unconstrained ideas to solve grand problems.

To most people, using complete and understandable sentences comes naturally, reflexively. But someone with a language disorder called Broca’s aphasia often has trouble producing fluent, grammatically correct speech, forgetting a noun or even speaking words out of order. 

Members of the Acquired Disorders team discuss their project
Members of the Acquired Disorders team discuss their project, an app that could help someone with a language disorder called Broca’s aphasia communicate more easily.

Penn undergrads Sarah Nam, Rose Rasty, and Dori Domi had an idea: What if they built an app that could help someone with the disorder communicate more easily? The person could speak a sentence into the phone, and following a series of questions, the app would offer alternative framing structures—all in the person’s own voice. “We thought that could help retrain [the brain] after an injury,” says Nam, a junior from West Chester, Pennsylvania. 

The app never came to life, but really, it was never intended to. It was one of eight linguistics moonshot projects created by undergraduates in assistant professor Kathryn Schuler’s fall 2018 Language and the Brain course. Each session covered a different topic—sign language, bilingualism, evolution—to give the students a baseline. Throughout the semester, they also worked on passion projects, following a Google X model to allow for unconstrained thinking about grand problems.

Schuler got the idea after a conversation with Bruce Lenthall at Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “I was concerned that students with very diverse interests would be taking the class and that they might feel disappointed with just a single lecture on what they were curious about,” she explains. “That’s how the moonshot project was born, to allow students to explore their interests.” 

Quickly, ideas began to take shape. There was Nam’s acquired disorders group, and one on language and music. Another group wanted to better understand the relationship between internal and external speech. And then there was Matthias Volker’s team, which focused on sign language. 

“We were thinking really big at first; we wanted to revamp the deaf education system, but we knew that we weren’t the right people to do that, as three hearing college students,” says Volker, a sophomore from Washington, D.C. Feedback from Jami Fisher, who runs Penn’s American Sign Language (ASL) program, helped the group find a new direction.

“We were encouraged to reframe what we were thinking about, from change to support,” he says. “Instead of reinventing the wheel, she suggested we look at the existing resources out there and how we could be a system of support.”

Members of Team PAH explain their project in the classroom
Members of Team PAH explain their project, an online American Sign Language video-lecture database focused on common middle and high school subjects like chemistry, history, and biology.

Heeding that advice, Team PAH as they called themselves, which included Ari Trueswell and Carmen Lugo, turned its moonshot into an online ASL video-lecture database focused on common middle and high school subjects like chemistry, history, and biology. “It reinforces what they’re learning in the classroom, but also reinforces their language skills,” Volker says. 

It’s the first time Schuler has taught the class, and she was impressed by the students’ dedication and ingenuity. Each week, they posted write-ups on a class blog and provided peer feedback. They pitched their ideas in front of the class and changed course based on recommendations from content experts and their classmates. They dreamed up outside-the-box ideas and weren’t afraid to look foolish. 

“The point of the moonshot program at Google X is to allow innovation to happen in a way that’s not constrained,” Schuler says. “The real innovation usually comes when it’s a crazy idea. To have an outlet to pursue a few of those is useful.” Of course, this was a college course with a grade endpoint, not a real-world product susceptible to business critiques and economic whims. But the underlying notion remains true: Offering 30 students a chance to think big about big problems leads to imaginative and clever solutions. 

“There was a lot of freedom,” Nam says. “We were encouraged to think for ourselves and think with each other. It wasn’t just a professor feeding us information. It really changed the way I approach my learning in general.” 

Nam says she and her classmates don’t currently have plans to take the app further than the template they created for Schuler. Neither does the sign language team. And though Schuler admits it would be “super cool” if any of them decided to continue work on the projects, her goal was, of course, to offer a positive learning experience. “This is a useful avenue for students because it helps lessen that fear of failure,” she says. “If an idea is not great, it’s not great. But maybe it’ll be cool—and maybe it will help you become a little more unconstrained in your thoughts.”    

Kathryn Schuler is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania