COE-led cross-campus team wins inaugural award and prize for publication on artificial intelligence

Linda Akagi, research assistant, and Professor Samuel Sennott, pause in their work to capture the moment. Photo courtesy of Sennott

By Jillian Daley

The College of Education’s (COE) Sam Sennott, a professor, and Linda Akagi, a research assistant, were among a four-person, cross-campus collaborative team who landed the inaugural Katharine G. Butler Trailblazer Award earlier this month.

The Topics in Language Disorders co-editors, editorial board and publisher informed Sennott on August 4 of the award and $1,000 prize for AAC and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the team’s article about artificial intelligence and alternative communication. Sennott and Akagi share the award with colleagues Mary Lee and Anthony Rhodes. Lee died earlier this year, but her team is celebrating the fact that before she passed away, she contributed significantly to a ground-breaking publication and won an award named after a giant in the speech-language field. 

“When we take each person-centered step in our work serving children with speech disabilities using artificial intelligence tools, we will do it in honor of Mary and Dr. Butler,” Sennott says.

Artificial intelligence’s potential for teachers

The peer-reviewed journal publishes culturally sensitive and theoretically sound information on written and spoken language disorders and development. This article stood out from among this elite collection, selected for being innovative in a growing field.

“Machine learning and artificial intelligence is a very important topic and toolset that is poised to be an increasingly influential factor in education,” Sennott says.

Professor Samuel Sennott says combining artificial intelligence and augmentative and alternative communication will become more common in the future. PSU file photo

AI involves machines built to solve problems as humans do. AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication, which involves ways to communicate that can complement or support learning for people with language impairment or difficulties.

An example might be an electronic communication board that has buttons with pictures and/or words on them. When a user pushes a button, an electronic voice says aloud the word that’s represented on the button. The article states that AI tools in the field have the potential to synchronize with an individual’s body and mind to facilitate communication. The final two lines of the piece offer a message weighing the promise that combining AAC and AI holds.

“Augmentative and alternative communication systems and devices powered by various AI tools hold potential to help give people with complex communication needs enhanced pathways to solve the participation challenges they face when their speech and/or language capabilities do not allow them to fulfil their communication needs,” the article notes. “It is hoped that readers will join us at the metaphorical table, as we get set to create the future with tools and examples of AAC powered by AI.”

Sennott and Rhodes, the latter of whom is a university lecturer in the Maseeh Department of Mathematics and Statistics, have both been published before. But it was the first publication for both Akagi and Lee, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree when she died in February. Akagi says that she is sad to lose Lee and honored to have had this opportunity to work with this team of authors, including Sennott, director of the Universal Design Lab (uLab). PSU’s uLab serves the community through research and development. Akagi is delighted to have earned an award for her first paper.

“I was very surprised, and it was a great honor to me and my team,” Akagi says. “It made me so proud of myself to do it.”

Sennott says that Akagi’s support was critical and that the team “literally might have 

scrapped” the paper without her diligence. He says that Rhodes is on fire in his field, and it was generous of him to give of his time. Computer Science Department Professor Melanie Mitchell “helped foster the collaboration,” inviting Sennott “to speak to students in her lab, which was how Rhodes joined the paper,” Sennott explains.

Professor Samuel Sennot (left) enjoys a retreat to Cannon Beach in 2018 with his Universal Design Lab team (from left to right): Izela Michel, Jessi Gallagher, Mary Lee, Evan Hackett and Russell Javan. Instagram image courtesy of Sennott

Lee’s legacy

Sennott says Lee’s support could lead to more progress in the area of AI and AAC research, and something that will take years to unfold is especially important for Lee’s 14-year-old son.

“This is something for her son,” Sennott says. “He’ll hear that she won the award. He might be able to follow what happens over time.”

Lee, a first-generation college student, died unexpectedly at the age of 35. She was majoring in psychology and minoring in computer science, and she planned to work in the field of neuroscience and human-computer interaction. 

A promising student, Lee was chosen as a scholar in BUILD EXITO, an undergraduate research training program that prepares future scientific researchers. Being named a BUILD EXITO scholar was one of the proudest moments of her life, according to the eulogy that Lee’s husband provided. The eulogy also says that Lee had a passion for learning and stood up for others against harassment and injustice, even if it cost her personally.

“She wanted to make a difference in the world using her individual skills and abilities,” the eulogy says. “Her mentors and fellow students and researchers can speak to it better than I, but I know that she sought in her studies and research work to promote accessibility in technology and work to remove bias.”

Judith Zatkin, PSU doctoral candidate and instructor, says Mary Lee was a gifted student. PSU file photo

Judith Zatkin, a PSU doctoral candidate and instructor, said that Lee was her student in Psy 321: Research Methods in Psychology.

“She was an exceptional student — she was engaged with her work, and passionate about research,” Zatkin said. “She wanted to go to graduate school, and I was sure that she would achieve that goal.”

Zatkin went on to say that she still uses one of Lee’s papers as an example to other students, posting it on her class page on D2L (an online learning platform PSU uses). But Lee wasn’t just an impressive scholar, she says.

“Beyond this, Mary was kind, compassionate, and thoughtful,” Zatkin recalls. “Her engagement and presence in my class last winter made my first term teaching a lot easier, and definitely

more enjoyable.”

A senior at PSU, Lee was posthumously awarded a bachelor’s degree. As her eulogy says, quoting Margaret Mead, “I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.” She can be heard, still, in her field through all of her accomplishments, including this latest award.

Butler’s contributions to science

Katharine G. Butler founded the Topics in Language Disorders journal. Photo courtesy of Andrew C. Butler

Another posthumous hero in the field is Butler, for whom the award was named. She died last year at the age of 94. She was the founder of Topics in Language Disorders and a pioneer in the field of language-learning disabilities, serving as president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). 

Butler’s son, Andrew C. Butler, Ph.D., was elated to hear the news about his mother’s latest accomplishment.

“I’ve been so proud of her for decades, and this adds one more notch in her belt,” Butler says. “We should all be so lucky to have a legacy like hers.”

The articles chosen in Butler’s name honor her commitment to the field. The selection process involves the journal’s co-editors nominating two or three articles from the previous year from which a four-person panel from the editorial board chooses a winner. 

Articles are selected based on possessing a trailblazing quality, representing interdisciplinary or international collaboration, possessing the proper technical aspects and raising awareness about lingual communication extending across age and through various populations, explained Randi Davis, Topics in Language Disorders’s publisher. 

The journal posted on August 7 via Facebook and Twitter that the PSU authors had won the new Katharine G. Butler Trailblazer Award. An announcement will be placed on the Topics in Language Disorders website’s home page and in the next issue in the fourth quarter of the year (Oct/Dec 2020), and it will also be highlighted at the 2020 TLD Editorial Board virtual meeting. 

Department of Special Education Professor and Chair Randall De Pry says that the Katharine G. Butler Trailblazer Award beautifully recognizes the commitment of Sennott, Akagi, Lee and Rhodes.

“What a wonderful recognition of their innovative (‘trailblazing’) work,” De Pry says.

To contribute to the COE and uLab’s collaborative initiatives to serve children with disabilities, you can set up a consultation with Catherine Ingvaldsen, the Foundation’s senior director of development for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Education: Learn more about giving to the COE Foundation here:

To share stories with the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at

1 thought on “COE-led cross-campus team wins inaugural award and prize for publication on artificial intelligence

  1. Pingback: COE-led cross-campus team wins inaugural award and prize for publication on artificial intelligence | Universal Design Lab

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