Learning platform for STEM vocab in American Sign Language takes $50K prize

  • April 25, 2024
  • By Kurt Greenbaum
  • 3 minute read

From 120 entries, to 14 to three to one. And the last team standing in WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce, powered by Poets & Quants?

ASL Aspire took the $50,000 prize for its educational platform designed to teach STEM vocabulary to deaf and hard-of-hearing learners.

The winning team, represented by Mona Jawad, CEO, and Ayesha Kazi, COO, was announced at the video premiere of the final round of the global pitch competition on April 24.

The pair opened their presentation with Kazi, who is seeking her master's in computer science and business management at the University of Illinois, delivering a quick opening to the three judges in American Sign Language.

“Did you catch that?” Jawad asked the judges. “She just signed, ‘We are ASL Aspire, and we increase access to STEM for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.'" She went on to explain that learning high-level principles of science, math, technology and engineering is nearly impossible until you have the vocabulary to learn—vocabulary that needs to be in American Sign Language for deaf learners.

“Without these crucial words, you don't have even close to the same opportunity to succeed,” said Jawad, who is pursuing her PhD in speech and hearing sciences at WashU.

Third year for global pitch competition

She and Kazi said they’d use their $50,000 prize to expand their pilot program beyond the existing five schools and 200 users to an additional five schools. They would also use it to get a project they’re working on with NASA to create ASL modules for their space exhibit over the finish line.

For the third consecutive year, WashU Olin has cosponsored the global BIG IdeaBounce with Poets & Quants. The program begins with a call for entries at the start of the new year. This year, teams from 65 universities in 14 countries submitted entries, which judges whittled down to the final three that debuted in a video presentation on April 24, 2024.

It's impressive to see that our next generation of entrepreneurs is so ambitious and innovative. We're in very good hands. 

John Byrne

The judges included John Byrne, founder and editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants; Maxine Clark, founder, former chief executive bear, Build-A-Bear Workshop; and Akeem Shannon, founder and CEO of Flipstik. Teams were judged in nine categories: solution, traction, team, market, competition, value creation, prize use, overall presentation and the problem they are solving for customers.

$7,000 in additional prize money

The other two presenters also received prize money for their pitches.

Meet Your Class, a project featuring students from the University of Michigan, took the $5,000 second-place prize. Their platform is aimed at universities, creating and managing student-to-student communities across the largest existing social networks.

The aim: Creating a Gen Z-friendly way for students and prospective students to meet and find resources as they apply to and matriculate into college. Michigan students Jonah Liss, Blake Mischley and Jon Millar represented the team.

The third-place $2,000 prize went to Sustain-a-Plate, featuring three WashU students, including two Olin students: Franklin Taylor, MBA 2024, and Kelsey Kloezeman, BSBA 2024. A third student, Jason Ti, MACS 2024, also presented. Tanvi Jammula, BA 2026 in computer science and finance, and Anna Larizza, AB 2024, round out the WashU team.

“I came up with the idea for Sustain-a-Plate last spring when I realized I was getting food and just leaving it in the fridge and it would go bad,” Taylor said. “I knew I had to do something about that. It first started as a composting idea, but it quickly morphed into a food traceability system for the entire food chain.”

Watch the 2024 BIG IdeaBounce finals

Three teams competed for a $50,000 grand prize

About the Author

Kurt Greenbaum

Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

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