Speech analysis technology gives URI students an edge

Undergraduates are first in nation to use software in the classroom

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Michelle Flippin helps a student use LENA
Michelle Flippin, assistant professor of communicative disorders in the College of Health Sciences, part of URI’s Academic Health Collaborative, helps a student use LENA speech analysis technology. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

KINGSTON, R.I., January 5, 2018 — As part of their education, speech pathology students everywhere are required to analyze recorded conversations by listening to the recording and transcribing — by hand — every word, phrase and back and forth among speakers. That process can devour the bulk of a semester.

But students at the University of Rhode Island now have a technological advantage.

Michelle Flippin, assistant professor of communicative disorders in the College of Health Sciences, is pioneering classroom use of LENA System technology in her language development course, a requirement for speech pathology majors. To gain perspective, her students apply the traditional method as well as the LENA tool to analyze recorded conversations.

“A generous grant has allowed us to equip our lab with 80 DLPs and 10 LENA Pro software licenses, and we are the first speech and hearing program in the country to offer this hands-on experience to all of our undergraduate students,” Flippin notes.

The LENA System is cutting-edge technology and software for measuring and analyzing children’s speech and conversation that, to date, has been almost exclusively used in research, she says.

The technology employs a digital language recorder that slips into the pocket of a child’s T-shirt, recording all conversation and environmental sound within several meters of the child for up to 16 hours. LENA software analyzes the recording to determine who is speaking — child or adult —how often the conversation turns from one to the other, word counts and whether a TV or electronics are in use.

Nicol Hernandez, a senior communicative disorders major from East Greenwich, helps Flippin run the weekly LENA lab, where students upload their recordings, analyze the data and report observations and insights on worksheets.

“LENA divides up the conversation into meaningful utterances and shows the back and forth,” Hernandez says, pointing to time stamps, graphs and vocabulary measures on a computer screen. “It is not just a bar graph. You can also listen to the recording.”

This allows students to understand what is happening in the environment when there is a lull or an uptick in conversation.

“They’re finding patterns in their own data and discovering why they’re occurring,” Flippin says. “What’s happening in down time? Are they eating, watching TV?”

The unobtrusiveness of the recording device is also important. “This is a good tool to see how the children are going about their day, rather than one-on-one with a speech pathologist where they might be shy,” Hernandez says.

Flippin plans to employ LENA in URI’s Speech and Hearing Clinic and is working with students to prepare a presentation on its classroom use for the 2018 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s national conference.

“Having been able to work with LENA at URI, I was able to mimic real-life career situations,” sophomore Sarah Carney of Middletown says of her experience. “It gives us the opportunity to analyze language samples in a complex manner even before field practice.”

That might just give URI students a competitive edge. “I’m hoping they will have an advantage when applying for and succeeding in graduate school. It’s a unique skill set,” Flippin says.