Pointing the way: Sign2MINT

Pointing the way: Sign2MINT

For the hearing impaired Ingo Barth, terms such as chirality (graphic above) are essential in everyday scientific life and in the communicative exchange of research content. However, the appropriate specialist signs are often missing. The Max Planck Foundation therefore supports the “Sign2MINT” project, which entails developing the first ever German sign dictionary for the natural sciences. This makes our research environment more equitable and diverse.

In Germany, the number of hearing impaired scientists and students in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is steadily increasing. However, they rarely have qualified sign language interpreters riding shotgun at their side because further training for the translators is lacking, as no specialist sign dictionary and no media material exist on these topics.

The project “Sign2MINT” supported by the Max Planck Foundation involves developing the first ever German STEM sign dictionary (editorial note: the abbreviation STEM corresponds to MINT in German). This freely available online tool dismantles communicative hurdles and makes it easier for the hearing impaired to access scientific subjects. With this sign dictionary, they have better chances of implementing their scientific ideas as researchers. It facilitates the daily conundrums at the lab bench, and those affected can better pursue own scientific careers because research results can be communicated more easily.

Ingo Barth had the idea for the project: He is a Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics and is hearing impaired himself. In addition to his research work, he is active in the hearing impaired community, both nationwide and across Europe. This entails exchanging ideas, collecting, and categorizing specialist signs with the help of visual media.

In order to develop a new sign for a term such as chirality, sign language experts must first discuss which new sign is appropriate for a technical term. Linguistic factors such as meaning, iconicity (i.e. the relationship between the linguistic expression and the reference object), and parameters (hand shape, hand position and place of execution) are just as important as the practicability of a specialist sign.

The German hearing impaired community has already developed a number of signs in workshops. However, these have not yet been documented. Together with the expressions developed by Ingo Barth and the sign language experts, approx. 5,000 new signs should be available at the end of the project.

The new signs will be recorded and edited in the video lab of the Institute in accordance with the criteria for sign language videos. A linguistic expert will then check the list of words, explanations and signs and release them for documentation and publication in the data base. This is where another building block from the committed hearing impaired community comes in place: a collaboration between Sign2MINT and the company Workplace Solutions (WPS). The company is already involved in another project for the hearing impaired funded by the federal government and is developing open source software for this purpose. Sign2MINT therefore does not have to invent a whole new database solution, and Ingo Barth can make optimal use of the project resources to develop new specialist signs.

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