A research student at Qatar Foundation (QF) member Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) collaborates with a QF partner university, and a QF school, to come up with tools to better understand the educational needs of children with autism.
"Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." It is a well-established fact that the benefits of collaboration are endless. From networking with a diverse mix of people, to indulging in inspirational ideas, finding innovative solutions, and heightened productivity, a connected community allows for enhanced efficiency and problem-solving.
Qatar Foundation (QF) is an apt example of such an ecosystem - a unique model that homes world-class universities, and some of the region's finest schools and research institutes, all within walking distance of each other. Being within such close proximity gives students the advantage to interact, exchange ideas and collaborate with peers from different universities, often leading to cross-campus collaborations.
The research of Bilikis Banire, a Ph.D student in computer science and engineering at QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), is an accurate example of such inter-disciplinary research teamwork at QF. The task - applying engineering tools to understand the educational needs of a child with autism.
Banire is working alongside Dr. Dena Al Thani and Dr. Marwa Qaraqe, both Assistant Professors of Information and Computing Technology at HBKU, Dr. Bilal Mansoor, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at QF partner university Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ), and teachers and experts at Renad Academy - part of QF's Pre-University Education (PUE) - on an innovative project to non-invasively measure the attention span of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Banire's research uses commercially available facial recognition software and a webcam to track changes in facial expression and eye gaze that occur while children are engaged in an attention test. And it is pioneering for two reasons.
First, it uses a unique combination of facial expressions and eye tracking to gauge the attention span of children with ASD. Second, it offers a way of measuring attention in a non-obtrusive manner - which is important, as those with ASD can sometimes have a heightened sensory response under certain settings, and may not respond well if attention monitoring is done by gadgets involving physical contact such as goggles or caps.
"Changes in expression normally happen on facial landmarks or 'hotspots' on the face, such as eyebrows and cheekbones," says Banire. "In our research, these changes in expression and eye gaze were compared and co-related to the outcomes of the attention test."
The raw data of these facial landmarks, along with eye tracking from the attention test is fed into an algorithm that will be used to design a model to predict and monitor attention.
The contactless approach will help teachers and instructors to better predict when a student with autism is about to react negatively to a specific task, or needs a break. Additionally, changes in facial expression and eye-tracking can also trigger a warning that alerts a student with autism, who may be distracted, to refocus on the task at hand.
To carry out her research, Banire needed an attention test suitable for students with autism. She knew regular attention tests, which are often attempted on a piece of paper, would not work. That's when Dr. Mansoor, from TAMUQ's mechanical engineering department, stepped in.
"As an engineer, I have always been keen to develop a more effective way of delivering my lessons to my undergraduate engineering students," says Dr. Mansoor. "For me, mixed reality (MR) presents us with so many possibilities."
"Instead of lecturing about the structure and arrangement of particles at an atomic level, I knew that students would understand the concept better if they wore MR goggles and interacted with a virtual atom. The same principle can be applied in teaching those with autism. So, when I heard that Bilikis was looking for someone to help design an attention test like the MR test I had developed at TAMUQ, I knew we could help."
Those with ASD tend to learn and understand differently, they often prefer three-dimensional formats to traditional learning modes. As they do not react positively to wearable devices - such as MR goggles - Dr. Mansoor helped create a similar test that could be viewed on a 3D monitor, providing users with a device-free, virtual experience.
While taking part in the test, the participant's facial expressions can be monitored through a webcam and analyzed by the algorithm in the facial recognition software. The software to gauge facial expression is already used for various purposes. however, according to both Bilikis and Dr. Mansoor, using it to assess the attention span of children with ASD is a groundbreaking step.
For her research, Banire also reached out to experts at Renad Academy - a specialized QF school for students with mild to moderate Autism Spectrum Disorder - who offered suggestions and recommendations on the parameters that need to be measured. Conversations with therapists and teachers at the school helped her understand - and appreciate - the complexities of ASD that affect the attention span of those with the condition, helping her fine-tune the attention test.
Banire has also been able to involve experts and students diagnosed with ASD from QF and non-QF schools in her study. Students from Step by Step - a Doha-based school for children with special needs, including ASD and other volunteers - have participated in the attention tests that TAMUQ helped Banire develop, providing data that is contributing to the success of the research.
Sherri L. Miller, Director of Renad Academy, believes this project emphasizes how collaborative research leads to faster, more effective results, as well as helping to advance QF's research into ASD.
"It is such a fabulous opportunity for Renad to support people all around the world who have ASD, by collaborating with researchers in Education City," says Miller. "The work they are doing is commendable, as it is an innovative means to gather data without disturbing students with ASD."
"We are thrilled to contribute to this research, which will no doubt break down barriers that inhibit our students from engaging with the world."
The work they are doing is commendable, as it is an innovative means to gather data without disturbing students with ASD. We are thrilled to contribute to this research, which will no doubt break down barriers that inhibit our students from engaging with the world.
Across the centuries, history has shown that some of mankind's most significant achievements have occurred in places where people with differing talents have worked together for the common good. QF recognizes, practices, and promotes this ethos - ever since its establishment in 1995, it has encouraged its entities, experts, and members of its own community and wider society to partner with each other in order to realize shared goals.
After a month that marked World Autism Awareness Day, Banire's research reflects QF's commitment to enhancing inclusion and accessibility for those with autism. And, it highlights how QF is at the center of making Qatar a cradle of collaboration - collaboration that produces discoveries with real-world, human benefits.