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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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Also In This Issue

Lab Work: Research Developments

Perfect Pronunciation

Ricardo Gutierrez-Osuna, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is working with linguists at Iowa State University to develop computer tools that help adult learners of a second language improve their pronunciation.

Because pronunciation training must be tailored to each learner’s specific needs, second-language learners often do not receive proper pronunciation training and continue to speak in the accent of their first language.

Using algorithms, Gutierrez is working to create personalized “golden speakers” for learners. These algorithms record the teacher’s and learner’s voices while speaking a sentence and then remove the accent of the learner, making it comparable to the teacher’s accent. The idea is that learners can more easily perceive differences between their actual and ideal pronunciations when hearing their own voices.

“The goal is to create engaging pronunciation exercises in a computer format so that students can practice on their own time, at their own pace, and in the comfort of their own home with their alter ego: their own voices but with native accents,” Gutierrez said.

The National Science Foundation awarded Gutierrez and his collaborators a grant to develop the golden speaker algorithms, and a second grant to develop and evaluate a web-based educational tool for pronunciation training.

Touch Points

In a true example of merging classroom learning with real-world innovation, mechanical engineering major Tyler Wooten ’19 developed a 3-D, tactile map of Texas A&M University to help visually impaired students navigate campus.

While taking a 3-D printing class at the Engineering Innovation Center—a lab that gives students access to prototyping tools and equipment—Wooten began to explore ways he could use his newly acquired skills.

“I had never met a visually impaired or blind person before,” he said, “but I recognized the problems they faced, and I wanted to make a difference.”

Wooten reached out to Kaitlyn Kellermeyer ’17, an economics major who became blind in March 2014 after a risky surgery intended to save her vision failed. She provided insight into how tactile graphics aid those who are visually impaired by replicating the size, scale and proximity of objects.

When Kellermeyer first held Wooten’s campus map—complete with raised buildings and braille—she shrieked. “That was the first time I’d been able to use a map since I lost my sight,” she said. “It was incredible.”

Wooten’s maps are available for visually impaired students through Texas A&M’s Disability Services. Learn more at mappingprojet.org.

Moving Freight Across the State

A new energy-efficient, freight-only transportation system developed by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) could redefine the movement of Texas goods.

For more than 10 years, TTI worked to develop a low-emissions alternative to moving freight and relieving congestion created by trucks in heavy freight corridors. The resulting concept is the Freight Shuttle System (FSS), a driverless, remotely controlled transporter that carries truck trailers or shipping containers over distances of up to 500 miles. Freight Shuttle International LLC (FSI) was formed to license the FSS technology.

Powered completely by linear-induction electric motors, the system transports containers on elevated guideways in the medians of highways or other rights-of-way. The FSS comes at a time when the freight industry faces mounting challenges—strained rail and roadway system capacity, environmental concerns and a chronic shortage of truck drivers.

Using only about one-third of the energy required by diesel trucks, the system can move truck trailers and domestic intermodal containers measuring up to 53 feet as well as all sizes of ocean shipping containers.

“Texas has been the No. 1 exporting state in America for more than a decade,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at the FSS demonstration and media briefing last fall. “This system will help us meet our growing demand for efficient freight movement and ensure our long-term prosperity.”

The Port of Houston Authority and FSI are evaluating FSS deployment options.

Supercharged Solutions

After 26 years of researching ferrate, a type of supercharged iron, Virender Sharma is certain of its twofold cleaning powers. Recent research by the environmental chemist shows that ferrate can both purify contaminated water and disinfect surfaces.

“The spread of infections is often linked to improper cleaning of surfaces or in much of the world, to drinking contaminated water,” said Sharma, a professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. “By unlocking the potential of this remarkable element, we can drastically reduce both problems.”

Sharma’s studies find that ferrate, a chemical compound that works by inactivating viruses, bacteria and toxins without leaving behind harmful by-products, shows great promise as an environmentally friendly disinfectant. Ferrate molecules can also remove antibiotics, estrogens, pesticides and toxic metals from water in minutes.

Focused on practical applications of his research, Sharma is developing a prototype of a portable water purification device that can be used by the U.S. military and will soon begin testing the commercial viability of a ferrate-based cleaning solution.

  • Solar Energy Partners

    Despite their long-standing rivalry, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas are powerhouses when they join forces. During the next four years, the institutions will team up on solar energy research in hopes of moving the technology from an alternative to mainstream energy source. The focus will include everything from solar materials to the societal impact of solar energy use.
  • Horticultural Healing

    Architecture doctoral candidate Naomi Sachs ’17 is measuring the effectiveness of an unusual type of horticultural healing: healthcare gardens. She developed the first set of standardized tools to evaluate physical and programmatic features—such as visual and physical access, water fountains, paths and resting places—that affect use and satisfaction among patients, visitors and staff.
  • Tackling Tire Waste

    A new type of biodegradable rubber developed by a team of researchers at Texas A&M University at Qatar has the potential to reinvent the wheel (literally) and reduce landfill waste associated with worn tires.
  • Big Data

    With the help of “Terra,” a newly installed $2.1 million supercomputer, Texas A&M researchers can take on new scientific problems. The system, designed for large-scale modeling and simulations, will produce faster results with greater accuracy and enhance the university’s reputation as a top-tier public research institution.