• 6/26/2020

TUM student Michaela Wilfling

A summer semester with obstacles

Michaela Wilfling is in her fifth Master's semester of "Ergonomics – Human Factors Engineering". The fact that she is bilaterally deaf from birth does not limit her. We asked her what is special about her course of studies, how her semester abroad in Tokyo went, and how the digital summer semester is going for her.

Michaela Wilfling in front of a field with poppies
According to TUM student Michaela Wilfling, the digital semester has advantages and disadvantages for people with hearing impairments. (Photo: Uli Benz)

Michaela, what exactly is your course of studies about?

Michaela Wilfling: Roughly speaking, it's about improving the interaction between humans and technology in various fields of application. For example, I worked – together with other students – on the Germany-wide project UNICARagil, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The project focuses on the development of autonomous electric vehicles that are monitored and controlled by means of a control room. Our task here was to design and evaluate an interaction concept for this control room.

What would you say is particularly important in this respect?

We developed a software prototype that also takes ergonomic requirements into account – in addition to other aspects. One very important aspect of the interaction concept is usability, to ensure that people can intervene quickly and safely if problems arise.

What is studying like for you as a deaf person?

I am bilaterally deaf since birth. In my early childhood, I thus got cochlear implants on both sides of my head. These are electronic medical devices that transmit audio signals to the brain and enable hearing – although with limitations.   

What's it like in lectures?

My hearing can be  limited by high noise levels, such as conversations, or loud background noises – such as construction sites, if the windows are left open. Therefore, I use an FM system during the lectures. This wireless signal transmission helps me to better understand the lecturers.

And does that always work without any problems?

The system is based on an external microphone, which means I have to be there a little earlier before each lecture and hand over the transmitter to the lecturer. The lecturers are usually very helpful and interested. I completed my Bachelor's studies at the LMU. In the larger lecture halls, there are infrared stereo hearing systems that do not require an external transmitter, so I could simply sit down in the lecture with my receiver device. That's what I would like to have at TUM as well.

You went to Japan over the winter semester. What was it like there?

I really enjoyed my semester abroad in Tokyo. I gained a lot of new experiences and made new friends. I was especially fond of the program of the Japanese Language Center. For example, I attended a kimono event and an ikebana workshop. During my spare time, I would often go out for a meal with my Japanese lab colleagues. It was a great chance to explore the Japanese style cuisine. I can really recommend that to anyone who might visit Japan some time.

How was studying in Japan compared to studying at TUM?

Studying at the University of Tokyo is very different from TUM. Each student belongs to a research laboratory. You start working on your Master's thesis with the start of the Master's program, and you present your work and discuss your progress in weekly lab meetings in the research laboratory.

And the teaching?

The teaching is quite different as well: For example, it is rather unusual for people to ask questions of their own accord during lectures. Also, I soon realized that you don't get very far with English in Tokyo. My university events were all in English, however, some Japanese people don't speak English – even in an academic environment.

What impressed you most there?

One of the highlights was the "International Robot Exhibition", which showed many innovative robots from the industrial sector, but also some service robots. I was thrilled to see how advanced Japan already is in this field. I was fascinated by the latest developments, for example robots that can play football or perform dances with each other. Other robots can help people fold laundry or act as a pet.

How is the digital semester going for you?

Very different: There are advantages but also disadvantages for people with hearing impairment. In online courses, I have the possibility to connect induction headphones to the laptop, which improves my hearing – but the acoustic quality of lectures and seminars stands and falls with the microphone and the room acoustics on the part of the lecturer. In smaller seminars, you have the possibility to ask questions in the chat, and you get some of the answers in written form – which is very helpful. Next, I will be working on my Master’s thesis – there’s always something going on.

(Interview: Sabrina Czechofsky)

Michaela Wilfling [26] is from Freising and has been living in Munich for a few years. Until her semester abroad, she was a semester representative of her course of study, and she was granted support in the scope of the Deutschlandstipendium in 2018. In her free time, she likes to go running and maintains pen friendships worldwide. Her interest in other cultures and languages encouraged her to learn to speak fluent Spanish in addition to English. Student applications for the Deutschlandstipendium are still possible until July 5, 2020. High school graduates can apply from July 13 to August 9, 2020. More information: www.tum.de/deutschlandstipendium


Technical University of Munich

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