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Research could make math more accessible to the blind

New Mexico State University computer scientist Enrico Pontelli is working on an international project that, if successful, will make mathematics materials more accessible to blind students around the world.



Enrico Pontelli, a New Mexico State University assistant professor of computer science, is helping to create a computer program that will translate written mathematics literature in Braille. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Pontelli has received one fourth of a $420,000 U.S. Department of Education grant to design a computer program that can translate mathematics literature into any of the codes used to write higher mathematics for the blind and into the codes used to convey mathematics on the World Wide Web, he said.

The grant is divided among Pontelli, at New Mexico State; Arthur Karshmer, former head of New Mexico State's computer science department who is now at the University of South Florida at Tampa; Gopal Gupta, formerly a computer science professor at New Mexico State now at the University of Texas at Dallas; and Klaus Miesenberger, a computer science professor at the University of Linz, in Austria. Karshmer is the project's principal investigator.

Braille, the dot writing system used by the blind, cannot by itself represent the complex equations used in higher mathematics. Over the years a number of systems have been developed to represent these equations and make higher math accessible to blind mathematicians. But there is no single standard system used throughout the world and it is difficult to communicate mathematics materials to blind users in different countries, or between those using different computer formats, Pontelli said.

"In the United States, the Nemeth code is the most commonly used dot code for writing complex mathematics, but in Europe the standard code is called Marburg," he said.

"In addition, there are a number of different codes designed to represent mathematics for use on computers. There are LateX, MathML and Open Math, a new code designed by the European Mathematics Society in an attempt to create a single standard code. As a result, depending on the user, there are a number of different formats for communicating the same thing -- mathematics," he said.

What Pontelli and his colleagues hope to do is create a software tool for translating the different codes, making them interchangeable between users, he said.

"The key idea is to pick one format, say Open Math, as the common format, then develop a tool to translate the other codes into Open Math and back. Open Math then becomes a bridge between the other codes," Pontelli said.

To do this the group hopes to use logical denotation, a formal mathematical language that has been used for 20 years to describe computer programming languages in terms of their syntax and meaning, and logic programming technology, a programming language invented in the 1970s to allow computers to process written texts. Unlike most computer languages, which provide series of commands, logic programming provides a description of the relationships between objects. Then other, fairly common, software carries out actions based on those relationships, Pontelli said.

But logical denotation and logic programming technology had not been used together until Pontelli and Gupta combined them to make the descriptions provided by logical denotation executable by a computer, he said. The combination can be used for other applications and already has been used successfully at New Mexico State to translate biological data recorded in one format into another format, Pontelli said.

Creating the software for interchanging the dot writing mathematical codes and the various computerized mathematical codes will take quite a bit of effort, he added. As part of the job, the group must translate each of the different codes into logical denotation.

"The grant is for three years and I think we will require every one of those three years," Pontelli said.

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/pontelli_enrico_office.jpg.
CUTLINE: Enrico Pontelli, a New Mexico State University assistant professor of computer science, is helping to create a computer program that will translate written mathematics literature in Braille. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Jack King
March 7, 2002