IU senior's research on AI software to detect dyslexia earns Provost's Award

Diagnosing a child with dyslexia can be a long and expensive process that often occurs too late. Indiana University Bloomington senior Katie Spoon has been researching a way to speed up this process using artificial intelligence to analyze children's handwriting.

The work, which recently earned a Provost's Award for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity in the category of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, has the potential to reduce the number undiagnosed cases of dyslexia, as well as help children access the accommodations they need as early as possible.

"An estimated 20 percent of kids have dyslexia or some other language-based learning disability," said Spoon, who is enrolled in the accelerated master's degree program at the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. "Those students need to be detected by second grade because, if you struggle to read in third grade, you're more than four times more likely to drop out before finishing high school, and only 2 percent are detected by second grade."

Katie Spoon sitting on the stairs in Luddy Hall.View print quality image
Katie Spoon. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

Spoon earned the award for designing a system, using neural networks, that analyzes handwriting samples to detect signs that correlate to a higher risk for dyslexia. The technology has been shown to detect the condition with greater accuracy than parents and teachers.

"Katie's research has the potential to improve our education system in terms of identifying children sooner who should be assessed for learning disabilities," said Katie Siek, an associate professor at the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering; Spoon's work on dyslexia began under her guidance. "This takes some of the burden of documenting handwriting off of teachers and caregivers."

The research has also impressed David Crandall, an associate professor at the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. Spoon used her work with Siek as her final research project in his introductory computer vision course.

"In a class of 80 Ph.D. and M.S. students, Katie -- a B.S. and M.S. student -- conducted one of the most innovative projects," Crandall said. "While most others worked in groups, she did all of this alone," said Crandall, who nominated Spoon for the award along with Siek.

Siek's academic interest in dyslexia began after her own daughter's diagnosis, which took years. Spoon was drawn to the topic because of her mother's background in special education.

"It's up to parents most of the time to push the schools to diagnose their kids," Spoon said. "A lot of times they need some type of evidence, and this project could provide that evidence so they can be detected sooner."

Spoon's main focus this semester has been data collection. Three to four times a week, she travels to elementary schools and other Bloomington-area organizations such as Boys and Girls Club and Girl Scouts to examine students' handwriting.

Katie Spoon teaching about dyslexia in Luddy Hall. View print quality image
Katie Spoon teaching about handwriting and dyslexia. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

"I come in and teach a lesson about machine learning and data security," Spoon said. "I tell them what research is and what data is because a lot of them don't know that. And then we talk about how you can teach a computer to learn something."

As part of Spoon's classroom visits, she uses Google Quick Draw software, which tries to guess what a person is drawing, to demonstrate how technology can use artificial intelligence to recognize shapes.

After she explains her project and her goals, Spoon offers the students the opportunity to participate in the study.

"We ask them to write some words, write a paragraph and then write a short story," she said. "Some of them are creative and some aren't, but it's really fun to see the differences."

Once all of the data is collected, Spoon hopes the end result will be a manageable program that parents can use to upload their child's handwriting for analysis.

"It would basically compare a student's sample to everyone else in our data set," Spoon said. "It would run the model and then it would give you a result."

She said there is no prior research like this for kids' handwriting. Spoon and Siek hope to make data collected under the project available as an open source resource so other researchers to use it in the future.

Spoon added the data collection process is currently in progress and encourages interested parents to work with their children to participate online.

In addition to the Provost's Award, Spoon's research on dyslexia has earned her the 2019 NCWIT Collegiate Award.

Meet the other Provost's Award recipients:

  • Meredith Buckley

    Buckley has been recognized in the category of Creative and Performing Arts for her work in design and her dedication to IU's Fashion Design Program. She is earning two undergraduate degrees: a Bachelor of Art in fashion design and a Bachelor of Art in the Individualized Major Program. Her individualized major degree is titled "Creative Director for the Sport of the Arts," also known as color guard performance.

    Buckley has also been an ambassador for IU and the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, sharing her experiences with potential students and explaining all IU has to offer. She was nominated by Deborah Christiansen and Lori Frye, faculty in the Fashion Design Program.

  • Blake Himebaugh

    Himebaugh has been recognized in the category of Professional Inquiry for his work on research economics. He has conducted research on the regulation of sharing economy companies (i.e. Uber and Airbnb) as well as pursued work on federal approaches to regulating the sharing economy. He is currently co-writing a full-fledged law review article for publication based upon a student paper on these topics. He was nominated by Abbey Stemler, an assistant professor of business law and ethics in the IU Kelley School of Business in Bloomington.

  • Joshua Lee

    Lee has been recognized in the category of Social and Applied Sciences for research that formed the basis of his honors thesis, titled "Speech Rate Effects on VOT in a 3-Category Language: Evidence from Hakha Chin." Hakha Chin is spoken in Chin State in western Myanmar and also by about 10,000 Burmese refugees in Indiana.

    For the project, Lee learned how to conduct field work in linguistics and to design and deploy a speech production experiment. The work represents an important contribution to the field because there is little acoustic phonetic work on Hakha Chin. In the fall, Lee will begin doctoral studies under a full scholarship in linguistics. He was nominated by Kelly H. Berkson, an assistant professor of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Linguistics.

  • Grace Semler

    Semler has been recognized in the category of Humanities for her work in the field of history. Along with a record of academic excellence and leadership in class discussions, Semler has done extensive research on World War I nursing, specifically British and Canadian nurses on the Western Front. She hopes to develop her work on this topic into a full research paper. Semler was nominated by Jason McGraw, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of History.