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Better Communication and Collaboration in Computer Science

Communication and teamwork are essential skills for computer science and software engineering graduates—but the traditional approach to introductory undergraduate computer science courses, focusing on individual programming assignments and discouraging collaboration, doesn’t prepare students for reality. Charles Wallace breaks the mold and promotes interaction as a primary activity in software development. Inspired by real software teams using so-called agile methods, he and his team are building an introductory curriculum that gives students exposure to interpersonal activities like inquiry, critique, and reflection.

Better Computer Science Education through Chemistry

One tool in this effort—POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning)—is borrowed from undergraduate chemistry education, where it has been used successfully for 20 years. At the heart of POGIL is a guided inquiry learning cycle of exploration, concept invention, and application. Students work in small groups with well-defined roles—similarly to teams in agile software development—to encourage accountability and engagement. In essence, it is an application of the scientific method in a carefully crafted classroom setting. In addition to learning core concepts at the heart of the assignment, students get practice in team problem solving and communication.

WebTA is a software tool being developed by Wallace and his colleagues to provide automated critique of student programs. The tool is integrated with the Canvas Learning Management System to provide immediate feedback to students as they write code. Students using this tool are engaged in communication-by-proxy with the instructor. This communication is not meant to replace instructor feedback, but to codify common feedback scenarios to assist the instructor in reaching students in tight feedback loops just when the student is engaged in problem solving and learning (for instance, at 3 a.m. when the instructor is fast asleep). The instructor configures WebTA with interactive critiques triggered by errors, warnings, or textual analysis of the student’s code.

A third tool draws from research Wallace and a group of interdisciplinary colleagues conducted on team communication in software settings. Drawing from real-world examples including student projects and industrial case studies, students reflect on the characteristics and effectiveness of the written and oral communication they observe. The goal is to create a mindset that good communication requires design—choosing the right characteristics for the given setting. Later, when they are working with their own projects, students reflect on their own communication practices and those of other teams.


Learning from Professionals

Trends come and go in the field of software development, but communication between humans remains at its heart. Wallace is interested in deriving principles of effective software communication by turning to industry experts. Software developers communicate with clients, end users, and team members with very different perspectives and goals. Communication can cause problems because of the complexity (and invisibility) of software, competing goals of different stakeholders, a lack of universal vocabulary, and incomplete and changing requirements. Even professional software engineers who are effective communicators do not have practice in articulating what makes communication effective (or ineffective). A major obstacle is a lack of a common language for discussing the specialized forms of communication taking place in software teams and between developers and other stakeholders.

Through ethnographic studies of student teams and professional developers, Wallace is building a body of knowledge on communication practices. Ethnography looks at cultures from an insider perspective. Wallace’s colleagues in computer science and humanities, working as ethnographers, provided insider studies that reveal how communication practices are established and evolve over time. They are deriving patterns of effective practices—patterns that can be replicated time and again, in a variety of settings. In addition to contributing to the software development community’s library of patterns, Wallace and his colleagues are bringing the notion of communication pattern back to computer science students, helping them understand and analyze team software development.

Breaking Digital Barriers

Associate Professor of Computer Science Charles Wallace is rethinking cyberlearning top to bottom. He’s working with K–12 and undergraduate students, software development professionals, and senior citizens to improve how humans communicate and learn in computer-intensive environments.

Digital literacy is a basic human need.

There is a revolution sweeping the nation, but millions of senior citizens are left out. Wallace believes digital literacy is a basic human need in today’s world. In 2011, together with Michigan Tech faculty and students, he began BASIC (Building Adult Skills in Computing), a grassroots effort to educate older Americans. Every Saturday morning at Portage Lake District Library in Houghton, Michigan Tech students help local seniors citizens with their computers, tablets, or smartphones, answering open-ended digital questions like, “how do I find an old friend on Facebook?” Or, “how do I stay safe online?”

There’s much more going on during these tutoring sessions than meets the eye. “The visual, motor, and cognitive challenges of standard digital interfaces are daunting for older users with limited digital experience,” explains Wallace. But there are deeper challenges as well: “digital literacy is not simply about doing a task better; it’s about building a cognitive toolset that allows flexibility and adaptability.” The Michigan Tech students who work as tutors also learn in the process. “Students are forced to reflect on the many things they take for granted—they are learning by teaching.”

A key factor behind the success of BASIC, according to Wallace, is its highly social nature. Seniors work side by side with each other and with Michigan Tech students. Being around others with the same challenges reduces anxiety. “Many seniors have a fear of exploring for fear of breaking an expensive investment. Because we work in a group, they can share ideas and choices they made, so they have more confidence.”


Now in its fifth year, the outreach program has spawned research projects. In conjunction with interdisciplinary colleagues in Cognitive and Learning Sciences, Wallace uses data from tutor experiences to create a digital learning curriculum sensitive to the needs of older students. He is also reaching out to other communities to replicate the successful Houghton-based program.

In addition to the curriculum, Wallace is overseeing the creation of a computer software tool that allows users to remember online choices they made and recall web browser behavior. As the user develops competence, the tool fades into the background. This tool can transfer to other populations—not just elderly—who face similar digital obstacles.

The initiative is supported through Michigan Tech’s crowdfunding site Superior Ideas. Learn more about Breaking Digital Barriers.

Ending of Moore’s Law is the Beginning

Every field of science and commerce now relies on computers and their capability to process data and information—fast.

Moore’s law enabled doubling the number of transistors that can be put on a chip every 18 months.

The ever-growing performance of computers is due to two main factors: our ability to shrink electronic circuits to smaller and smaller dimensions, and architectural innovation that improves how circuit elements interact with each other to perform computations. The former is commonly known as Moore’s law. Moore’s law enabled doubling the number of transistors that can be put on a chip every 18 months. This success continued for several decades.

When it became clear this path can’t be sustained, processor manufacturers shifted their focus to putting more processors on a single chip. Unfortunately, these processors cannot be programmed using the traditional software technique of writing sequential programs. Instead, programmers have to develop parallel programs. Parallel programs are difficult to write, debug, and maintain.
Since his CAREER award in 2003, Soner Onder has worked on alternative methods of building and programming processors. Contrary to existing execution paradigms, called Von Neumann architectures, Onder developed an alternative execution paradigm called Demand-Driven Execution. In this form of processor architecture and programming model, the execution of programs proceeds from the outputs of a program toward its inputs, and in the process, the machine automatically extracts all the available parallelism in the program and maps the extracted parallel operations to multiple processing elements. Unlike so-called multi-core computers, his approach does not require parallel programming. Instead, the execution paradigm itself automatically executes a given sequential program in parallel.


Onder’s most recent NSF grant is through the Exploiting Parallelism and Scalability program, which, according to NSF, “supports groundbreaking research leading to a new era of
parallel computing.”

Michigan Tech is the lead institution in this four-year project totaling $875,000. The project will study demand-driven computing to meet existing and emerging workload demands. Onder is working with four PhD students and colleagues from Florida State University to establish demand-driven computing as a viable approach to build faster and more power efficient computers.

Closer Than You Think

The Wild World of Virtual Reality

As consumer costs for virtual-based products slide, Scott Kuhl’s interest in VR ramps up. “The technology used to be so expensive, only large companies could afford to use it. Now it’s on the brink of becoming more affordable and accessible, and we’re looking at how to make the systems useful for more and more users,” Kuhl explains.

It’s on the brink of becoming more affordable and accessible, and we’re looking at how to make the systems useful for more and more users.

If you think virtual reality can’t impact your everyday life, Kuhl says: think again. “Let’s say you’re in the market for a new home. You’re in Manhattan, but your home prospect is in Brazil. Virtual reality can be used to tour houses from anywhere in the world.”

Of course you’ll need to be able to judge size correctly. A typical problem with VR—much like with car mirrors—is that objects appear closer than they actually are. Kuhl, who’s worked in virtual-reality spheres since his PhD, goes on to explain how his research team intentionally distorts graphics to counter the issue. Newer, cheaper displays—like the Oculus Rift—appear to have reduced or eliminated the nagging distortion problem altogether. Are the newer head-mounted displays (HMD)better? Kuhl and his team will take a closer look.

Today’s gamers aren’t content sitting with a handheld control.  They want to slap on an HMD and explore worlds under sea and in outer space. Until they crash. Into their living room wall. Solving this challenge not only has gaming implications, but safety, too. Together with PhD student Ruimin Zhang, Kuhl is studying how to walk freely around a big, virtual space in a tiny, confined room—like a dorm room. “It’s a given you’ll run into walls. We’re looking at tricks we can integrate without disrupting the user experience. For example, perhaps one real step equals two virtual steps . . . we can amplify user movement.”


After the gamer graduates, they may want to wear their HMD into the workplace. Kuhl says it can happen. The advantage of wearing one at work? Virtual screens and lots of them. “Just as iPads haven’t replaced desktops, I don’t think everyone will jump on board wearing a head-mounted display. But when they do, they’ll need to type, read, and talk.” Kuhl’s collaborating with colleague and text-entry expert Keith Vertanen and PhD student James Walker to address future VR needs.

“I never thought I’d be working with a text-entry researcher on projects. But that’s the nature of this work. Immersive virtual environments will impact the training, prototyping, education, and entertainment of the future and it requires a team of experts to navigate it.”

Power Grids and People

Today’s infrastructure is connected in ways not always known until problems like extreme weather, diseases, major accidents, terror, or cyber threats arise.

Say fuel delivery will be delayed. What can be done?

Sixteen critical infrastructure sectors—including water, gas, energy, communications, and transportation—are linked and interdependent. The National Science Foundation is supporting new fundamental research to transform infrastructure from physical structures to responsive systems. The Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP) program supports a collaborative project for Laura Brown, along with Wayne Weaver, and Chee-Wooi Ten, associate professors of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, and colleagues from the University of New Mexico, Texas Tech University, University of Tennessee–Knoxville, and Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems.


Motivated by distributed renewable resources like solar panels and wind turbines, Brown and her research partners seek to ensure the resiliency of three interdependent networks: the electrical grid, telecommunications, and related socio-economic behavior. The team will look at how people react to power management in extreme conditions. Understanding and modeling human responses is necessary in the design of intelligent systems and programs embedded in devices that control and consume power.

Tiny Microgrids, Fiercely Important

A microgrid is a standalone power grid requiring generation capabilities (often generators, batteries, or renewable resources) plus control methods to maintain power flow. Electronics, appliances, and heating or cooling are all responsible for consuming that power. In this project, Laura Brown and other Michigan Tech researchers are investigating a control system for such microgrids that are autonomous—able to work in isolation—and agile, flexible to rapid changes in the configuration of the electric grid to incoming sources and consumers of power.


The world of microgrids is layered, each layer with a different purpose and speed. For stable power, the controls for the microgrid are considered hierarchically: low-level control responds to fastest events, and maintains regulation of stable voltages and currents in the system; the upper layer of control is responsible for power distribution, optimization, and long-term planning and prediction of resource availability and use. Brown’s work focuses on this high-level analysis in resource prediction at several timescales—in the next few minutes, next hours, next days. What if a generator is out of service for maintenance—what can be done? Brown uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and experts in other domains to turn off non-critical resources or add new power sources.

The United States Department of Defense and the Army Research Lab seek the expertise of interdisciplinary Michigan Tech researchers to solve, prevent, and adapt to these potential real-world scenarios.

Transfer Learning in Data Centers

Faster apps. More memory. Laura Brown and Zhenlin Wang bring efficiency to Big Data.

What memory resources will be available if applications A, B, and C all run together?

Big companies like Amazon and Google have even bigger data centers. Think 30 data centers each with 50,000 to 80,000 servers. And the underlying computer processors are not all identical; each year new improvements are integrated and added. Brown, Wang, and computer science colleagues from Western Michigan University are digging deep into the management of memory resources in these larger-than-life data centers.

The researchers use machine-learning techniques to create models that predict the cache and memory requirements of an application.


The challenge is how to make accurate predictions with such a massive variety of applications using the data center, and the different computers the application runs on. Applications might include Netflix streaming a movie, Airbnb running database queries, or NASA processing satellite images. Each app is not run in isolation with a dedicated machine. To maximize resources, data centers may have two or more applications all running on a single machine.

“If we learn the memory requirements of application A on computer X, what if the same app runs on machine Y or machine Z? Or, what memory resources will be available if A, B, and C all run together?” Brown asks.

Computational Intelligence Aids in Explosive Hazard Detection

To detect buried explosive hazards in places like Afghanistan, and to save the lives of civilians and US soldiers, Michigan Tech researcher Tim Havens realizes it requires a team—a team
of sensors.

This technology has the potential to not only save lives, but also to advance the basic science of how to combine sensors and information together to get a whole better than the sum of its parts.

A new $983,000 research project, “Heterogeneous Multisensor Buried Target Detection Using Spatiotemporal Feature Learning,” will look at how forward-looking ground-penetrating radar, LiDAR, and video sensors can be combined synergistically to see into the ground, capture high-quality images, and then automatically notify the operator of threats. With funding from the US Army Research Office, Havens and Tim Schulz, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, will work with three PhD students to create a high probability-of-detection/low false-alarm rate solution.

“It’s a very difficult problem to solve because most of the radar energy bounces right off the surface of the earth,” says Havens, the William and Gloria Jackson Assistant Professor of Computer Systems at Michigan Tech. “This technology has the potential to not only save lives, but also to advance the basic science of how to combine sensors and information together to get a whole better than the sum of its parts.”


This new project will advance additional sensor-related work Havens and collaborators completed between 2013–2015. The US Army-funded project studied signal processing and computer-aided detection and classification using forward-looking, ground-penetrating, vehicle-mounted radar.
The Army currently fields ground-penetrating radars in its fleet. The problem is they cannot detect hazards until they’re right above them, putting a multi-million dollar radar—and soldiers—directly in the path of danger.

“The big ideas here were to process data to obtain better images, see into the ground in a high-fidelity manner, and develop algorithms to automatically find buried threats—notifying operators of what the possible threats actually are,” Havens adds.

Havens has partnered with the Army since 2008 when he was a PhD student.

New faculty joins CS this semester

image143023-persToday, we take a look at and welcome faculty who have started with the Fall Semester.

Stephane Zuckerman has joined Michigan Tech’s Computer Science Department as a visiting assistant professor. He received his PhD in Computer Sciences at the University of Versailles Saint-Wuentin_en_Yvelines (UVSQ).

Prior to coming to Tech, Zuckerman worked as a research associate and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware. He has contributed to and authored numerous journal articles and presented at conferences and workshops.

Computer Science Faculty, Students Teach Kids to Code

1481146201Charles Wallace and Leo Ureel, along with two of their graduate students and six undergraduates in Computer Science, are spending time in Houghton and Hancock schools this week, giving elementary, middle and high school students hands-on experience with computer coding.

The programs are in observance of Computer Science Education Week. They include two Hour of Code events at Houghton Elementary School, one multi-day event at Houghton High School and one at Hancock Middle School. At each Hour of Code, students learn to write code, primarily using the Scratch programming language.

“We are using a tutorial developed by Michigan Tech alumna Nichole Yarroch,” Wallace said. “We are also letting students know about Computer Science and Software Engineering degrees at Tech, as well as our Copper Country Coders group that meets on the weekends.”

This is the third year that CS faculty and students have conducted Hour of Code programs at local schools.