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CD-ROM helps the disabled

Company taking part in the PIPE develops evaluating and teaching software

The doctor Armando Freitas da Rocha, professor of neurophysiology at the Campinas State University  (Unicamp), decided to put his business side into practice on the eve of his retirement from academic life in 1997. So, he submitted to FAPESP a project to develop educational games software designed to encourage and appraise the school performance and neurological activity of mentally handicapped children. He was one of the pioneers of the Technological Innovation in Small Companies Program (PIPE). He  registered in response to the first tender of the program in July of that year. Now, after little more than three years, the project is concluded with the software launched commercially on CD-ROM at the end of this month.

The software proved to be better than expected. It is a useful tool for speeding up the learning process not just of children with neurological problems, but also any pupil between pre-school and fourth grade. “This became clear to us in the middle of the project, when we saw that the program could also help in teaching pupils in general”, says Rocha, who, after retiring from Unicamp 1998, began working as a visiting professor at the Pathology Department of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of São Paulo (USP).

The work goes on
To put the projects into effect, Rocha created the company Eina-Studies in Natural and Artificial Intelligence, got his proposal approved under the PIPE and began the work in January 1998. After 27 years dedicated to basic research, he found a new way of continuing his work. “It was as if the program (PIPE) had been tailor-made  exactly for me”, recalls the neurophysiologist. He gave the name of the project to the product that is going to the market: ENSCER – Computerized and Integrated System for Teaching and Assessing the Educational and Neural Progress of Mentally Handicapped Children.

The software teaches  basic notions in Portuguese, Mathematics, History, Geography, Social Studies, Art and the Sciences. It does it by using educational games that usually hold children’s attention with a series of audiovisual resources, including charades, puzzles and stories with children’s comics’ characters. In addition to these disciplines’ modules, the program has a specific section devoted to sensorial and motor development and supplies a printed assessment of the children’s performance in the exercises.

Tests by specialists
Over the last three years, the ENSCER has been tested and developed with a group almost 200 special pupils of the school of the Parents and Friends of the Handicapped Association  (Apae) in Jundiaí, a town in the interior of São Paulo State where Eina’s headquarters is located. The organization’s teachers were trained in the use of the software and the school was computerized so the pupils would be able to use the ENSCER routinely. In most cases, the introduction of the software into the Apae’s classes speeded up the children’s learning of how to read and write. The age of the children ranged from 6 to 18 years. “With the software, we saw that certain pupils began to read and write a few words at level 3. In the past, they only reached this stage during what we call literacy 1 (two stages higher)”, says Patrícia Bellode Ramazzini, Apae’s school principal. “In the beginning, some teachers resisted using the computer as a teaching tool. But, the good results were undeniable and their resistance abated ”.

As it deals with special pupils, the structure of the curriculum of the Apae courses differs from that used in normal schools. The learning is designed for a slower pace than in classes for children without learning restrictions. During their school life at the Jundiaí Apae, pupils go through eight grades. Each one lasts a year, and it is has a quite different set of a nomenclature from that of conventional establishments. The first four grades (levels 1, 2, 3 and 4) correspond more or less to the kindergarten and preschool. The last four (literacy 1, 2, 3 and 4) are equivalent to the first and second grades of basic education.

Rocha considered the ENSCER results in the Apae very good, so much more so when allowing for the neurological profile of the children. After submitting them to magnetic resonance examinations at USP’s School Medicine, Rocha realized that half of them had structural damage to different areas of the brain. In other words, some areas of their brains had dead neurons with no sign of electrical life. The damage represented a still greater challenge for the pupil’s educational development, since it affected the performance of functions (motor or cognitive) normally coordinated by the damaged areas of the brain. The other half of the children had another type of limitation: they had no brain damage but their brains had functional problems, affecting the exchange of electrical signals between various nerve centers. Doing electroencephalograms on the children while using the software unveiled this type of problem.

It is precisely the way this examination was done that brought up an interesting aspect of the ENSCER: the system allows refined diagnosis of neural activity at the precise time the children are carrying out a given task on the computer screen, while they are learning and having fun. With the traditional electroencephalograph, the record is made with the child at rest, when its brain is not carrying out any specific task, and inside a hospital, in an environment that is strange (sometimes hostile) to pupils with neurological problems. The ENSCER gets round these two disadvantages. “The children barely notice that they are being examined ”, says Rocha. Eina has a mobile electroencephalographic unit that can be used in the schools and the organizations that have bought the software.

The mobile unit is set up alongside the pupil seated in front of the computer. While the child tries to perform the activities suggested by the educational software, electrodes attached to his or her head and connected to another computer transmit the nerve pulses required to generate a CCM, the acronym for Cognitive Cerebral Mapping. The CCM is nothing more than a series of electroencephalograms that record the working of the brain in various stages of executing one or more tasks. On average, 40 minutes are required to produce a CCM. Depending on the pupil’s age, and degree of social and cultural development, even before the exam itself begins, Rocha has a fairly clear idea of which portions of the brain should be examined at each stage of the attempt to carry out a task. With the results of each child to hand, the doctor compares them with the performance of groups of children with no neurological disabilities. In this way, he checks what is wrong with the damaged brain.

Family environment
With 22 employees, among those hired and holders of grants from the Nation Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq), which also sponsors the development of an educational page on the Internet designed for ENSCER users, Eina’s headquarters are in a rural bucolic setting. The company’s premises are two small buildings near to Rocha’s house, inside the country property where Rocha lives, seven kilometers from Jundiaí downtown. Eina’s environment is domestic and plain. While the employees work, cattle graze and in a corner of the property, the Rocha family dogs sleep or play in the yard and a squirrel or some other animal cannily climbs and plays in a tree. At lunch time, everybody sits at a communal table and eats meals prepared by a restaurant in the region, almost always incremented by items produced on the farm, such as peach or papaya.

There are designers, computer programmers, sound and recording technicians, a psychologist and teachers on the company’s staff. Rocha’s family is also heavily represented Eina: his wife Marly Theoto Rocha, a retired nursing teacher at USP, records the voice messages in the ENSCER software, and their two children, the veterinarian André Theoto Rocha and the agronomist Marcelo Theoto Rocha do research in their respective fields using natural and artificial intelligence concepts.

Broad market
Eina has ambitious plans for its educational software. The company expects to sell between 50 and 100 CD-ROM units a month. Rocha believes that the product may be of interest to three types of market: schools in general (for pupils with no neurological problems or those with some degree of disablement); teachers or speech therapists; parents of pupils (who would also use ENSCER’s web page to get guidance on the use of the CD). The price of the program ranges from R$ 140 to R$ 700, depending on the buyer’s profile (individual or company) and the number of copies or licenses for the use of the software are purchased. As well as the computer program, the company also sells two books the doctors has written especially for the ENSCER project, The Brain – a Brief Report on its Workings and the Brain in School.

The neurophysiologist is wagering on the CD-ROM and the books being successful, but he is not neglecting Eian’s other fields. The sale of consultancy services to institutions of various sorts is one of the company’s priorities. There is one state company on his client list – Petrobras, for which Eina develops software and applications using the concept of Artificial Intelligence – and some teaching institutions, among which is the University of the City of São Paulo (Unicid). At this private university, Rocha coordinates the Learning and Cognition Study Nucleus, in which the ENSCER system’s educational games are used to encourage learning by children with impaired sight and hearing and that are mentally handicapped, as well as in academic research. Unicid’s Teaching and Physiotherapy students also use the software as a support tool in their work with the handicapped.

Competitive world
In the commercial sphere, the environment that Rocha will become involved with is somewhat competitive. Tiny Eina’s products, for example, will have to compete for customers with software sold by the information technology division of the Grupo Positivo, of Curitiba, a giant in the educational field with agreements with more than 1,800 schools in this country. Rocha, however, doesn’t look back to the time when he was just a professor and researcher. “I have set up a commercial structure that, as well as providing services and developing products, does research. What I have done in three years (in Eina) I did not do in 27 years at the university”, says the neurophysiologist. Last year, his company’s income was around R$ 170,000, coming mostly from the sale of services to third parties, as the education software had not yet been launched. “For now, Eina is breaking even. It makes neither a profit nor a loss. We hope to sell between R$ 250,000 and R$ 300,000 in 2001”.

Although he could be enjoying peaceful retirement on his farm, Rocha is going through a period of intense activity, discovering the pleasures and the pains of the business world. But, even so, he has not stopped collaborating with science and thus provide a better life for the mentally handicapped and school age children.

New paths for the brain

The electroencephalograms done in real time with the Apae pupils in Jundiaí produced some surprising results. They showed that certain children with brain damage had managed to relocate the functions originally controlled by damaged nerve areas to healthy regions of the brain. This versatility of the cerebral electrical system provoked great interest on the part of the neurophysiology researchers. The examinations showed, for example, that a child’s brain had transferred the control of the production and understanding of language from regions in the left hemisphere (which were dead) to normal areas in the right hemisphere. In other words, spontaneously, and in a way little understood by science, this brain had redistributed its functions among the active areas of its system. The practical result of this rearrangement was to enable, for example, a pupil, in spite of the damage, to learn how to talk (although tardily at 5 years of age), read and write.

In other situations, the diagnosis provided by the electroencephalogram served as the basis for a total overhaul of the teaching methods being employed with an Apae child. The doctor Armando Freitas da Rocha recalls the story of a boy with the area of his  brain responsible for his motor coordination damaged . The teachers thought he would never learn to read because of this neuronal limitation. But, after the boy played and did the ENSCER tests, the neurophysiologist saw that he had sufficient thinking capacity to be taught to read and write and produce phrases. His problem was strictly one of motor coordination; he did not have the skills to hold a pen or pencil. How was this limitation got round? “We began teaching the pupil on a computer. After all, he couldn’t write letters, but he had enough confidence to use a PC keyboard”, tells Rocha. “The handicapped boy had the ability to learn. He just needed more attention, time, and resources than a normal child”.

The Project
ENSCER – Computerized  and Integrated System  for Teaching and Assessing Teaching Progress –  Assessment of the Teaching  and Neural Progress in  Mentally Handicapped Children (nº 97/06020-9); Type Small Companies Technological Innovation Program (PIPE); Coordinator Armando Freitas da Rocha – ENSCER; Investment R$ 176,992