Student Intern Talia Brown Collaborates with MIT and Harvard Researchers on Google Glass app for Children with Autism
Bryn Athyn, Pa. — On August 7th 2020, Bryn Athyn College senior Talia Brown presented research at the IOSSBR* international conference, sharing findings from a single case study she administered related to the use of a Google Glass app for children with autism.
*The International Organization of Social Sciences and Behavioral Research (IOSSBR) gathers professors, scholars, students and practitioners from over 35 countries to exchange ideas and collaborate.
Google Glass comes to Bryn Athyn College
Remember Google Glass? This promising technology seemed to disappear just as quickly as it had appeared on the market; apparently, the Glass could pick up sensitive information, and therefore wasn’t suitable to the general public. However, the product made a comeback in niche markets after Google partnered with app developers to create software that could go on the Glass. With this brilliant pivot, the Glass could be marketed for specific purposes such as therapy, productivity and education. One such developer, Brain Power LLC, partnered with Google in 2014 to create apps for the Glass that support students with autism.
In early 2019, Bryn Athyn College professor Fernando Cavallo, Ph.D., came across an article in a scientific journal showcasing Brain Power’s research. The article claimed that the Glass offered the “world’s first artificial intelligence intervention for students with autism,” and that when students spent 3 weeks of wearing the Glass with the app for five to ten minutes, one to two times per day, parents and teachers noticed significant positive changes. Since Cavallo had connections with a local middle school (and one that happened to be known as a center of excellence for children diagnosed with autism) he contacted the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Ned Sahin to learn more. Cavallo discovered that Sahin not only worked as a professor at Harvard, but served as the founder and CEO of Brain Power, whose team had been granted an office in the Kendall Center, a Cambridge-based hub of world-leading innovation, known for its high concentration of entrepreneurial start-ups.
Though Sahin was in China at the time, and Cavallo in Italy, the two began exchanging ideas over email, and eventually determined that Cavallo’s team at Bryn Athyn College would carry out an external, independent research study on the effectiveness of the Glass for students with autism. After all, although Brain Power currently had children actively using their glasses in schools throughout Massachusetts, they had conducted all their research internally. Sahin expressed openness to whatever the Bryn Athyn team discovered, even if it meant finding no significant changes. Cavallo explained, “Dr. Sahin, like a true researcher, said, ‘Data is data and we’ll run with that.’”
New Layers of Neuroscience Measures
As Cavallo gradually received support of Brain Power’s review board, as well as the principal, teachers and parents from the local middle school to utilize the Glass for students with autism, he realized his research project could evolve into something even more sophisticated. Instead of relying simply on automated data from the Glass, or reports from
teachers and parents, Cavallo could offer two additional layers of research. First, he could conduct neuropsychological tests related to various social-cognitive measures such as attention, affect recognition, and facial memory both before and after the intervention. Secondly, he could work with his neurofeedback colleague, Harry Brubaker, to conduct Quantitative Electro Encephalogram (qEEG) tests, which involve putting an electrode-covered cap on a client before and after the intervention to detect changes in brain waves.
In addition to these two new layers of research, Cavallo proposed a twist on the qEEG data. Generally, a client’s qEEG “brain maps,” from before and after an intervention are compared to other neurotypical brains. However, Cavallo proposed using a newly emerging paradigm, “z-builder,” which compares a brain to itself. Developed by one of Brubaker’s colleagues, Dr. Tom Colora, this z-builder scale allows for more sensitivity in detecting change, and useful for students with autism, many of whom, even after an effective intervention, might not show a significant change when compared only to neurotypical clients. Overall, the addition of these new layers of research increased the interest from the Brain Power team, and they agreed to supply Cavallo with the Google Glass (normally worth over $1900 with the app included), for free.
Talia Brown Comes Aboard
Hoping to assemble a small-scale research team for the project, Cavallo asked the Bryn Athyn College psychology faculty if they knew of a capable student for a research internship. The department unanimously recommended current junior, Talia Brown.
Brown, who had come to the College in 2018, choose Bryn Athyn because of the small class sizes, the proximity to her home in Chester County, PA, and the opportunity for closer relationships with professors. Two years in, Brown says, “I can say for sure I was right about the small school size allowing for more connection. I’ve met some really great people here at the College. The professors are very easy to talk to. Even the deans are very invested in everyone, and it’s easy to get a more personal relationship. They will sit with you, and help you.”
According to Cavallo, Brown, “immediately volunteered, and was very energetic.” He explained, “Brown operates as if she’s already a grad student. She shows a high level of expertise, efficiency, and ability to take direction, and she can turn that into something concrete.” Interestingly, Brown would later take Cavallo’s neuroscience and research courses, but only after first spending months working as his research assistant, learning on-the-job neuroscience, and collecting legitimate, useful scientific research.
Big Learning Curves
In October of 2019, Cavallo and Brown met with the Brain Power team virtually, with Cavallo introducing Brown as the research assistant. Then, since Cavallo and Brown expected to launch the intervention at the local middle school, Brown spent time becoming familiar with the teachers and students there, as well as learning how to use the Glass so that she could later explain the various applications to students, and even train the teachers in how to administer the intervention to their students.
Brown would get feedback from students, taking notes about what worked and what didn’t, and send the notes off to the Brain Power team, trouble-shooting any tech issues directly with the researchers there. At one point, when she was having trouble with a pair of the glasses, one of the MIT tech researchers, Mr. Aaron Shute, flew down from the Kendall Center to Bryn Athyn to help her. Brown said, “Mr. Shute even brought us a second pair of glasses so that it would hopefully work better and we could actually roll out the intervention.” Through this process, Cavallo deeply appreciated Brown’s capable and mature work ethic: “I did not need to hold Brown’s hand, and I couldn’t appreciate that more. She took initiative and capably communicated with PhD level researchers.”
Brown also met with Dr. Cavallo and Mr. Brubaker (the local qEEG expert) to administer neuropsych tests, score the rating scales, keep records of the students’ brain scans, and organize the data.
Having begun the internship with no knowledge of neuropsychology, Brown expressed gratitude for the support she received along the way. She said, “Dr. Cavallo and Mr. Brubaker were so patient with me, and amazing to work with. They gave me a crash course on the different brain waves, what they mean, the different regions of the brain, and how to read a scan.” She added, “During that process I learned a lot about what is actually involved in neurolopsychological assessments.” Cavallo, however, hands the credit right back to Brown: “My colleagues and I have all had the luxury of decades of learning what’s significant and what’s not. Talia has had to step up, read up on the literature, digest a lot of information in a short amount of time, and she did a wonderful job. It’s quite impressive.”
In November of 2019, Cavallo proposed that in order to help Brown get comfortable with the intervention, she first administer a pilot, single-case study with one student. Brown agreed. For this study, the client came to the College with his mother 3-4 times per week for 15-20 minute “playtime” sessions, over a total of 4 weeks. Each week, he’d put on the glasses, and Brown would sit across from him and engage him on various games and activities developed by the Brain Power team that would purportedly enhance his attention, social skills and other areas of desired improvement.
For example, Brown might say, “Let’s try the face-to-face app (one of the games on the glasses where arrows direct a student to look in Brown’s eyes).” Once the student engaged, he would get a visual “reward,” where stars pop up, or a silly hat would appear on Brown’s head. As Cavallo explained, “We’re using technology so students with autism will be heads up, not heads down, looking out instead of looking in so much, thereby helping them process more environmental stimuli than they normally would.”
Brown kept notes throughout the pilot. In fact, these notes would come in extremely useful when it came time to present the research. As Cavallo explained, “Talia was so much of a professional that our ‘dry run’ met the criteria of a proper experimental design. She kept meticulous records. Because of that, we were able to submit her research as a pilot single case study.”
Results of the Pilot Study
Cavallo and Brown’s study at Bryn Athyn College had sought to determine if after 3-4 weeks they actually would find a change in brain wave patterns using the qEEG brain maps and neuropsych tests. Could the Google Glass intervention really be that powerful?
The results from their single-case study indicated that yes, it may actually be that powerful. In 4 out of the 5 areas measured — affect recognition, theory of mind-verbal, theory of mind-contextual, memory for faces, and memory for names – both the child’s brain scans and neuropsych tests showed significant improvement. (The fifth measure, memory for names, may not have improved significantly because the student already happened to be very proficient at this rote task.)
Cavallo said, “We never expected the brain maps to show these changes after only 3 and a half weeks. It’s quite remarkable. We’ve worked with children with autism and you rarely see those scores jump up like that.” Then he added, “What’s more fascinating is the level of research information that Brown has been able to process, alongside a team of researchers and doctoral level people, and be able to hold her own, ask questions and contribute.”
COVID-19 Throws a Wrench
From October 2019 to March 2020, Brown and Cavallo had been working to compile their findings in order to do the larger study and present their information to the public. They had identified and received parental permission for 5 students who would be getting the intervention, had completed and scored all the preliminary testing, and had trained the teachers to use the intervention with students. When COVID-19 hit, however, students were no longer in schools, and the research had to be postponed.
Despite the letdown, Brown appreciated the care offered by Bryn Athyn College during this time. She remarked, “Even when we were sent home due to the coronavirus, Dean Nelson personally reached out to check in and ask I was doing. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. You never hear about things like that at the larger schools.’”
The single-case study also proved useful to the Brain Power team, as it was the first independent study of their product, as well as the first to offer the neuropsych and the brain-based testing layers. For this reason, Cavallo hopes that the College will continue to work with Brain Power in the future (if/when things go back to normal) for further testing and research.
Brown Presents at International Conference
Cavallo and Brown began writing up their results to publish in a scientific journal for behavioral research. In June, when calls came for research presentations for the International Organization of Social Sciences and Behavioral Research (IOSSBR) conference, Cavallo, Brubaker, and Brown submitted their abstract from the case study, and got accepted. After a couple months of preparation, on August 7th, Brown presented her slideshow and research on the final day of the 3-day conference, sharing her work with various other professors, students, and scholars from around the world.
After Brown’s presentation, she opened the floor for questions. The moderator took the first opportunity to speak, asking, “Are you sure you’re an undergraduate student? Because you sound like a grad student to me. In fact, I think you’re 30 seconds away from being a PhD student. Anyone else agree?” Other participants responded with “absolutely” and “whole-heartedly.” Cavallo echoed their feelings, saying, “I couldn’t agree more, and am so proud of her. I’m very grateful to have been invited to this conference because Talia had the opportunity to present her research and findings to a wider audience.”
While Brown found the research with Cavallo “super rewarding,” she also feels drawn to the counseling side of psychology, and therefore intends to pursue a PsyD after graduation. Brown is eager to make a positive difference in others’ lives. She says, “After having been diagnosed a few years ago with depression and Bipolar II, I began to gradually feel better because of support from friendships here at the College, from speaking with the College counselor, and from medication. I want to be able to help those who’d felt the way I’ve felt.” Brown currently has an internship at Mainline Rehabilitation, where she offers group therapy targeted at adults with memory loss or autism, working to help them with social skills and communication. Technically now a “super senior,” Brown will graduate at the end of this Winter term after only two and a half years at the College. She plans to present her research as her senior capstone project. She says, “I feel incredibly lucky that I got to do this internship here, and to have received so much support.”