Inside a dark theater on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus, 360-degree floor-to-ceiling projection screens transport you to a garden in China. Animated willow trees and flowers sway in the breeze while computer-animated characters enhanced with artificial intelligence interact with users in Mandarin.
For Linnea Cajuste, it’s an experience that evokes memories of the four years she and her family lived in China. They moved there when she was 8 years old, and she learned the language largely from her interactions with neighbors and other children.
She understands the power of immersion when it comes to learning a new language. That knowledge helped her—even as an undergraduate—play an integral role in the research and development of a unique platform for Mandarin education at Rensselaer.
“I could draw on the experiences that I had and different situations that helped me use the language in a new way,” she said, “or situations that were tricky for me that I know other students would need more practice with.”
Attending college in Troy, New York, also offered Cajuste the opportunity to experience a new culture. While she holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Sweden, where she lived most of her life, Cajuste had never lived in America before coming to college.
It was also Cajuste’s love of computers and technology that led her to the Rensselaer School of Engineering, where she majored in computer and systems engineering. That passion, coupled with her knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, made her a perfect fit for the Mandarin Project, an immersive language learning experience built upon artificial intelligence assisted technologies. It is part of the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Lab, which is a unique partnership between Rensselaer and IBM using the supercomputer named Watson.
Over the summer, Cajuste and her team helped to design the garden environment for the project, and she spent her senior year helping to create the Watson-assisted Mandarin dialogue.
“To just be able to look back and see we’ve accomplished the goals that we set out to do, that’s a great feeling,” Cajuste said. “Also to be able to contribute so much as an undergrad, and to have seen how the other Ph.D. and graduate students are working as well, that’s a really cool experience.”
Cajuste is considering pursuing a graduate degree as a result of her experience. The project taught her the importance of effective communication and creativity in solving engineering challenges. It has opened her eyes to other aspects of the technology sector, including the project management that goes into making an undertaking like the Mandarin Project possible.
Whatever the future brings, Cajuste said that travel and experiencing new cultures will be a constant thread throughout her life. It’s an important aspect of the engineer she’s become.
”Engineering is so much more creative than people think it to be,” she said. “In order for you to come up with a solution, you need to have so many different perspectives and ways of approaching the problem.”