Oakville teens headed to worlds after creating method to help people learn English

Oakville Beaver

It was about two-and-a-half hours into a marathon brainstorming session and Stephanie Catricala had heard the discussion range from helping seniors with technology to teaching a second language.

She couldn’t help but be intrigued when student Andrew Strauss threw out the idea of creating a new language.

As she listened, her dad walked by. Pausing for a moment to listen to the students, he turned to Catricala and smiled. She let the discussion play out and when the students finally settled on their topic — a tool to help people struggling with English learn the language — their coach was thrilled.

It wasn’t until the decision was made that Catricala, who has taught at her parents E-Bots shop in Oakville and recently opened her own in Hamilton, let the students know she had a degree in linguistics.

“All these years I’ve been teaching robots,” she said. “So to have my two worlds collide was pretty special.”

So, too, is the work the students produced for the project element of their First LEGO League (FLL) competitions. The Oakville-based team, The Phonetics — Kieran D’Mello, Justin Goping, both Iroquois Ridge students, Liam Maloney (St. Thomas Aquinas), Stauss, (Hillfield Strathallan), Edward Gao, Ismaeel Mohammedally and Griffin McLean of Mississauga and Yasmin Harris of Toronto — recently won the Ontario West regional competition to earn a trip to the FLL World Festival in St. Louis, Missouri.

Though their project is of special interest to Catricala, she has allowed the students to make their own discoveries. She did provide them with her university textbooks as a starting point to their research.

The team of Grade 8-10 students believes it has assembled the building blocks to help people better comprehend the English language. Its creation, FAFL (Fonetik Alfabet For Learning), simplifies the language by eliminating the elements that confuse people who are learning it.

“There are so many exceptions in the English language, like I before E,” said Griffin McLean. “We created a language where there are no exceptions.”

The team did not have to look far for inspiration. McLean’s sister Lizzie, a Grade 4 student, has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her process elements of the language.

“She’s a smart girl, she just fails to memorize the all the rules,” McLean said.

“Ph makes an f sound,” added D’Mello. “That doesn’t make sense to her.”

To overcome that, words in FAFL are presented as they sound — queen is kween and phone is fone. It also eliminates silent letters and homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently). Also gone are the letters C and X.

“The reason we got rid of them is because they make two sounds,” D’Mello said.

Three letters from the Greek alphabet were introduced to replace certain sounds (theta, for instance, replaces th).

In doing research, the team met with Lizzie’s educational assistant and the head of special education with a local school board and did a teleconference with the creator of a phonetic language in England.

The team created a program to translate English to FAFL and vice-versa.

They also devised a test, using their English classes and a selection of adults as test subjects. After a brief tutorial on FAFL, people were asked to spell words and translate sentences in both FAFL and English. Sixty per cent of all the mistakes made were in English, a language the subjects had used their entire lives.

While there are computer programs that will assist people struggling with the language by converting spoken word into text, the team says they don’t address the problem.

“It’s like giving a child a calculator instead of teaching them math,” McLean said.

The team says FAFL eliminates a barrier to learning by allowing a child to focus on what they’re learning rather than the language. Lizzie’s EA has started using FAFL with her at school and McLean said she finds it easier.

“It totally blew me away that someone is using something we created,” D’Mello said.

The next step would be to have FAFL introduced in a classroom as a pilot project and they have met with school board officials. They have also identified it as a useful tool for anyone learning English as a second language.

They point out that FAFL is not meant to be a replacement for English, but a bridge to learning it.  Anyone using FAFL would gradually be weaned off it as they learn the rules of the English language.

Still, the project makes up only one-third of the team’s mark. To capture E-Bots’ second world title — The Sentinels won in 2011 — the team will still need a strong performance from its Lego robot. The team’s robot has to finish in the top 40 per cent of the 107 entries in order to win.

In the robot portion of the competition, teams are given a standardized board and have to build and program a robot to complete as many tasks — such as collecting rings and shooting a soccer ball into a net — as possible in two-and-a-half minutes. The operators are only able to touch the robot once it has returned to a home base, when they can change programs and add attachments to perform different tasks.

The team must problem solve as it addresses different tasks. For instance, the team’s robot is modeled after a forklift. But for one task, lifting straight up and down would not work, so they had to devise a way to raise an object in an arc.

Though every team member has an understanding of programing, Goping and Strauss took the lead while Maloney and Gao led the building of the robot. Maloney and Goping then run the robot during competition.

The two have to work together to make any adjustments on the fly under the tight time constraints of the competition.

“The biggest thing is having the confidence in your robot, so you don’t have to worry about it (during competition),” said Maloney, “so we can focus on what we have to do.”

As with their project work, the team must make presentations to judges about their work with the robot. That’s where the team sometimes has trouble. Not because they don’t know their work, but because they take some of it for granted.

“Often they’ll skip over some of their most innovative things,” Catricala said. “Every (competition) table isn’t exactly the same. They vary one table to the next. They created a program to account for those variances. That’s unbelievably bright to foolproof your robot. That’s why we now have cars that can park themselves.”

Catricala said the unique aspect of this team has been each member’s involvement in every aspect of the competition.

“Normally, kids just want to do the robot,” she said. “These kids, they eat and sleep this project. It doesn’t matter what was thrown at them, they worked on a solution.”

That should bode well with one-third of the team’s mark coming from teamwork.

The FLL World Festival will be held April 22-25.

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