Echo Hawks

The Echo Hawks project uses Amazon's Echo Dot to help students navigate campus. They can ask questions such as how to find a professor’s office, get directions to buildings and access a menu for Rathbone Dining Hall. Provost Nathan Urban hopes the technology will eventually be deployed across campus.

Alexa, Can You Lead the Way at Lehigh?

A Creative Inquiry team of students is bringing Amazon’s Alexa to Lehigh, where the voice-activated assistant can help students navigate campus.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Amazon’s Alexa can read the latest headlines, play a favorite song and even dim the lights in your living room. Now the digital voice assistant is also helping students navigate Lehigh’s campus.

The “Echo Hawks” project tested an Echo Dot smart speaker in the Health Science and Technology Building earlier this year with hopes of eventually bringing the technology to other buildings on campus. Students prompt the device by saying, “Alexa, open Mountain Hawk.” They can then ask questions such as how to find a particular professor’s office, get directions to buildings and access a menu for Rathbone Dining Hall.

The device is currently in the STEPS building. The latest version can answer questions available on Lehigh’s website, such as when to register for classes, as well as what are upcoming events. The students provide a phone number and the information is texted to them.

Echo Hawks started as a Creative Inquiry project spearheaded by Provost Nathan Urban. The project is part of the Campus Sustainable Impact Fellowship.

Because of its accessibility, Urban believes universities can use Alexa to provide students with better ways of navigating their four years in higher education. That could include concrete directions, such as a map to a building, or something more metaphorical, like creating a personalized list of classes and activities students might enjoy based on their interests.

“To me, getting technology to be part of the university experience is very natural,” Urban said. “It’s especially natural for the current generation of students who have had these kinds of technologies around for quite some time. In some ways, they probably expect it and wonder why finding their way through a university is so hard."

Thaksheel Alleck ’25

Thaksheel Alleck ’25 demonstrates how to use Echo Hawks when the Echo Dot was located in the HST building.

Students on the Echo Hawks team include Thaksheel Alleck ’25, Nix Huang ’25, Ryan Javier ’26, Elias Juvan ’26 and Renzo Medina ’25.

The project has been in the works for about 18 months and included a pilot program over the summer where nearly 40 students were asked to test the system and provide feedback. Alleck, who has been involved in Echo Hawks from the beginning, said he was drawn to it because he wanted to work on something that would help as many students as possible.

“The problem is, there’s nothing that’s very efficient and accessible where you can get this information right now,” he said. “Most of the time you need a laptop, a phone or email [address]…The solution here is creating a system that can give you instant access.

The group is also working with the Office of First Year Experience and Office of International Students and Scholars since first-year and international students are new to campus and may have questions, Medina said.

The technology works by using information entered into spreadsheets and a computer programming language called Python, Alleck explained. The spreadsheets make it easy to update information and can be customized if someone is holding an event on campus.

The Echo itself is mounted onto a heavy kiosk with the words, “Ask Me” illuminated on the front. It’s expected the device will soon be moved from HST to the STEPS building.

Voice-activated assistants have already found their way into other universities.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and Arizona State University were early adopters of the Alexa on campus, employing it in residence halls, using it to track the number of swipes on a meal card and provide a personalized daily debriefing for students, among other tasks.

If Echo Hawks works well, Urban envisions an Echo Dot in the entrance to every building on campus as well as other applications of similar technology to aid students’ learning and success at Lehigh.

“If Netflix can use my viewing history to recommend a movie that I might want to watch, we should be able to use technology to recommend courses that students may want to take,” Urban said. “If Google Maps can tell me how to navigate from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington while avoiding closed roads, we should give students a map that tells them how they can navigate their way through the university, avoiding dead-ends, to get a degree in four years.

“I think this kind of work is very important for us in higher education, because universities are incredibly complicated places to navigate, and we are expecting a lot of students, especially for first generation students, international students and others who are less familiar with how universities work, if we are not providing them with all the options to get guidance and advice."

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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