Students work on NASA project

December 20, 2016
Students visit CRSS
Chelzy Belitz and Joseph Adrian

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – While completing a summer internship with the Center for Robust Speech Systems, two University of Wisconsin-Platteville engineering students were given the unique experience of working with a part of history. Chelzy Belitz, an electrical engineering major from Cleveland, Wisconsin, and Joseph Adrian, a senior electrical engineering major from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, had the opportunity to work on a National Science Foundation project to automatically transcribe NASA's recordings of transmissions from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

CRSS is a graduate laboratory based at the University of Texas in Dallas, Texas. It is recognized as one of the premier academic research laboratories in the United States. The laboratory conducts research in the fields of voice recognition, speaker identification and automatic processing of speech signals. Members of the laboratory are mainly graduate students conducting research for their master’s and doctoral theses. The lab was founded by Dr. John Hansen in 2005. 

Dr. Hynek Boril, an assistant professor in UW-Platteville's Department of Electrical Engineering and alumnus of CRSS, led an independent study for electrical engineering students during the spring semester. As the instructor of Belitz and Adrian's independent study group, Boril was able to give the students the opportunity to conduct research while working with CRSS. One of Boril’s goals in creating the independent study class was to expose students to the environment of a graduate research laboratory.

The focus of this independent study class was gaining experience with digital signal processing, a field in which researchers assign numerical values to signals, such as the sound of someone speaking on a recording. These values can then be compared to the distributions of other sound waves, allowing researchers to find ways to identify certain types of speech patterns. By identifying features of speech, researchers can create programs that are able to do such things as determine the identity of speakers or what has been said.

As a recent addition to UW-Platteville’s faculty, Boril has looked for opportunities to expand his students’ understanding of their field and give them an opportunity to explore different options available to them.

As a part of this independent study project, Adrian, Belitz and Jessop Lueschow, an electrical engineering major from Elmwood, Illinois, were able to travel to UT-Dallas and present their research at CRSS. “We were able to send three students to CRSS and they presented the outcome so far of our studies in the spring. The director at CRSS, John Hansen, was really impressed and invited the students to come and work on projects at the center,” said Boril.

Adrian and Belitz experienced working at the laboratory firsthand when they accepted Hansen's invitation to intern with CRSS. Lueschow was unable to accept because he had already accepted a different internship position for the summer. During this internship, the students helped with a National Science Foundation project with a goal of transcribing NASA’s recordings of the Apollo 11 transmission recordings. “NASA recorded all of the communications between the flight control center and astronauts, as well as between the flight control, back rooms and researchers spread through universities that could be contacted if necessary or in case of some emergency. The purpose of this project is to digitize all of the recordings and also to automatically transcribe them so that the public can access the recordings and browse through the archive,” said Boril.

As interns, Adrian and Belitz provided data that is being used by members of CRSS who are continuing to work on this project. They also created speech activated detectors specifically for the transmission recordings.

The NASA recordings presented some unique challenges for signal processing and voice recognition. “The audio is very different from normal speech because when EECOM [an acronym used to refer to the Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Systems Engineer] and flight director are talking, they are talking in the foreground. In the background, there might be two more channels overlapping. So you might have two people talking in the foreground and more people talking in the background. The reason for this is, if, for example, EECOM wants to hear what people are saying, he can hear, but it’s in the background so he can talk over them if necessary,” said Adrian. The complexity of the transmission recordings required the students and researchers to be creative in their techniques.

The independent study group received funding from the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement during the spring semester. This funding allowed Boril and his students to acquire the necessary equipment to work with CRSS. PACCE also provided funding for Belitz, Adrian, and Lueschow’s trip to CRSS to present the research of the independent study group.

PACCE works to encourage partnerships between students, faculty and community members, allowing students to deepen their understanding of concepts through experiential learning in the industries that the students hope to work in later on.

PACCE Director Kevin Bernhardt said, “In experiential learning projects, we attempt to go beyond the rote lecture in the classroom in which students spit back out facts and figures on a test and get to deep cognitive learning.” During the school year, this goal is achieved through PACCE’s grant program, which allows faculty and students to apply for funding for class projects that involve working with community partners to fulfill student learning outcomes. Over the summer, PACCE also offers an internship program, which provides funding for non-profit organizations to reimburse students for internships that would otherwise be unpaid. Adrian and Belitz applied for and received this funding for their internships. 

PACCE’s support was one of the deciding factors that allowed Adrian and Belitz to accept the summer internship with CRSS. “If I went to CRSS and did not get paid, I don’t think that I could have gone. I make almost all of my money in the summer and I would have had to go to a corporation or get a factory job for the summer because working in the summer is what gets me through the school year financially,” said Adrian.

The students’ experience at CRSS has led them to broaden their plans for pursuing education in the future. “Working with the students at CRSS opened my eyes that I do want to get my master’s degree and eventually – if I decide that I want to keep going – I want to get my doctorate,” said Adrian. Adrian wants to get experience in the electrical engineering industry before continuing his education in graduate school.   
                                                                                                                                                
The students’ involvement with the Apollo 11 transmission project and CRSS has continued into this semester. Boril is leading another independent study group this semester, and has established the Pioneer Speech Signal Processing Laboratory, an undergraduate research laboratory at UW-Platteville. 


Written by: Emily Drews, Student Writer, Communications, 608-342-1194, drewse@uwplatt.edu.

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