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Have curiosities, will travel: Fulbright Scholars expand research, learning overseas

Recent NC State graduate and 2015 Fulbright Scholar Maurita Harris is helping develop a video game in Berlin that will teach German Sign Language.

When Maurita Harris set out to learn American Sign Language, she started with an ASL dictionary.

It was a perfectly reasonable place to start, and as she quickly learned, one of the only places, too. As Harris looked through the dictionary with a friend at a library, she pondered a question:

“Why are there so few technological resources for learning and using sign language?”

That question served as the impetus for a video game that Harris, a recent NC State graduate, is creating overseas. As a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar, Harris is in Berlin working to develop the game, tentatively called “Chatty Hands,” that will help teach German Sign Language.

Harris, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in May 2015, is one of three recent College of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates who received a Fulbright grant this year.

To create the game, Harris is taking courses in sign language in Berlin with her faculty adviser, Dr. Matthias Rötting of the Technische Universität. She’ll also be working with the Sign Language Lab at Georg-August Universität in Göttingen, Germany.

“If you want to learn sign language, you either have to find ways to teach yourself or find a course,” Harris said. “Hopefully this game offers another option for those who want to learn German Sign Language.”

Thanks to books like “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and meeting two influential German women when she was a child, Harris said she became interested in German culture at a young age. She took those curiosities with her to college, where she decided to learn German through NC State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

German is one of 15 languages the department teaches, and German Studies is one of its four major concentrations.

“Many of my friends thought I was crazy, since I was taking Spanish at the time and had to go to German class right after Spanish,” Harris said. “At moments I thought I was crazy, too, but I wanted to pick it up and did.”

In addition to a background in German language and culture, Harris also has some experience with the gaming portion of her current project.

While at NC State, she served as an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Psychology’s Gains through Gaming Lab, which examines the relationship between video games and important psychological constructs. Serving under the lab’s co-director Jason Allaire, she worked on a variety of projects, including one in which she observed how a commercial video game, “StarCraft 2,” helped the cognitive abilities of older adults.

Harris also served as a research assistant in the Learning, Aging and Cognitive Ergonomics (LACE) Lab. There, among several other projects, she studied whether static images or videos were better for teaching someone American Sign Language.

The Fulbright provided an opportunity for Harris to continue her studies in Germany. She applied for the program, which awards grants for international research and teaching assistantships, while looking into graduate school and worked with NC State’s Coordinator of Distinguished Scholarships and Fellowships,Tiffany Kershner, to fulfill all the scholarship requirements.

“Applying for a Fulbright is an arduous process, but well worth the effort,” Kershner said. “By its very nature, a Fulbright requires awareness of and involvement in other languages and cultures. So whether an NC State recipient is majoring in Humanities and Social Sciences or not, the college is integral to the success of any application.”

When her Fulbright ends, Harris will begin graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she plans to earn a doctoral degree in engineering psychology. Her long-term goal is to become a professor, teaching human factors psychology with a research lab focusing on older adults, robotics, health devices and futuristic technology.

“Not only would teaching allow me to have a direct impact on students,” she said, “but I would also have the ability to make an impact on a field I love.”

Other Fulbrights abroad

Two other recent Humanities and Social Sciences graduates, Megan Hornbeck and Erin Adamson, are also abroad through Fulbright English teaching assistantships.

Recent NC State graduate and 2015 Fulbright Scholar Megan Hornbeck is teaching English and American culture at a university in Ecuador.
Recent NC State graduate and 2015 Fulbright Scholar Megan Hornbeck is teaching English and American culture at a university in Ecuador.

Hornbeck, who graduated in May 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in communication and foreign languages and literatures-Spanish, is teaching English and American culture in the language department La Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo in Riobamba, Ecuador. During her 10-month assistantship, Hornbeck also hopes to create an after-school program at an elementary school and build a butterfly garden that can be included in the science curriculum.

Hornbeck said she fell in love with the Spanish language while studying abroad in Santander, Spain, during her sophomore year. That led her to get involved in more clubs and organizations at NC State and to add the Spanish concentration as a second major to the communication degree she was already pursuing.

One of the organizations she joined was NC State’s Intensive English Program, a full-time, non-credit academic program for international students. There, Hornbeck got to teach and mentor ESL students, which provided useful experience for her current project.

Hornbeck said her communication and foreign languages and literatures courses also helped her prepare for her current role.

“For example, in my Spanish classes we used newspaper articles, songs, TV shows, history and debates to cover topics in a different language, and in my communication courses we used web design, interviews and video production to explore our education,” Hornbeck said. “I will be using that multimedia style of education while I am teaching abroad.”

As for the future, Hornbeck is considering going back to school, possibly for Spanish education and international relations. However, she’s looking at sports communication jobs as well.

student Erin Adamson
Recent NC State graduate and 2015 Fulbright Scholar Erin Adamson sits down for a radio interview at a university in Colombia, where she’s teaching two English phonetics and phonology courses for students who are studying to be English teachers.

Adamson, who received her master’s degree in English-sociolinguistics in 2014, is working at Technological University of Choco in Colombia until the spring. In addition to hosting conversation clubs for teachers and students, interning in an international affairs office and offering an American film series, Adamson has also worked with an Afro-Latino and Amerindian linguistic research group.

Currently, she is teaching two English phonetics and phonology courses for students who are studying to be English teachers.

After graduating in 2014, Adamson spent a year working for a nonprofit in Charlotte and teaching English at Central Piedmont Community College. A former Fulbright alternate, Adamson reapplied to the program after Kershner reached out to her.

After her trip, Adamson is considering several career paths. She is currently working on doctoral applications and networking with Fulbright and U.S. Department of State personnel.

“My short- and long-term goal is always to inspire others to raise themselves to a high place of consciousness,” Adamson said. “I feel that work can be done in the classroom, in industry, in government and a multitude of places.”