Briana Bettin, Asst. Prof., Part I: Neopets, HTML, Early Success

Briana Bettin, Ph.D., Computer Science: New Degree, New Position

By Karen S. Johnson, Communications Director, College of Computing

Michigan Tech Ph.D. graduate Briana Bettin, Computer Science, is among six new faculty members the College of Computing welcomed this fall. Bettin is an assistant professor for the Department of Computer Science, and an affiliated assistant professor for the Cognitive and Learning Sciences department.

She is teaching courses including CS1121 Introduction to Programming in C/C++, and pursuing research and other projects with faculty and students.

In August 2020, Bettin successfully defended her dissertation, “The Stained Glass of Knowledge: On Understanding Novice Mental Models of Computing,” and was awarded her Ph.D. in Computer Science.

“I’m excited to begin my faculty journey at Michigan Tech and I look forward to helping our students continue to learn skills that will allow them to create the future,” Bettin says. “Michigan Tech has always been an amazing place for me—the opportunity to continue to give back to this place that has given me so much is something I’m very grateful for.”

Bettin says that she is excited about several interesting research projects already being planned, and she looks forward to helping the College advance its educational and research visibility and standing.

Bettin is a member researcher of the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems’ new Center for Computing Education, which promotes research and learning activities related to computing education.


Neopets, HTML, CSS. Here’s how Briana Bettin got everything started.

Video games caught Bettin’s interest at a young age and as she grew older, she became interested in online games like Neopets, which allows the user to develop a profile using HTML.

“So, I became excited to learn about HTML and CSS in order to express myself in those online spaces,” she says. “This also got me interested in graphic design, and both of these things combined got me hooked on the idea of creating expressive virtual spaces.”

Bettin earned her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, with an Application Area in User Experience and Marketing, from Michigan Tech in spring 2014. Following, while working full time as a front-end web developer at a consulting firm, in summer 2016 she completed her master’s degree online. In fall 2016, Bettin began her Ph.D. studies.

The right fit.

“I wasn’t always sure if Computer Science was ‘right’ for someone like me,” Bettin reflects. “But my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Linda Ott, would encourage me by reminding me of the vast opportunities in technology. And since I became aware of the interdisciplinary area of User Experience, my interest in programming has only grown!”

“Dr. Ott is absolutely amazing,” Bettin says of Professor Linda Ott, chair of the Department of Computer Science. “I am thankful for her, and I knew that having her as my adviser would be one of the best things I could hope for. Our working styles are very complementary, and she is a great motivator and supporter. Laura Brown and Nilufer Onder have also been great mentors, offering me wonderful advice and support whenever I talk to them.”

Bettin adds that Assistant Professor Leo Ureel, Computer Science, was “wonderful in helping me develop my research vision. We often bounce ideas, and he has supported my ideas and given me many opportunities to implement research ideas in the classroom. Our talks give me so much perspective and energy.”

Early teaching success, fellowships, and awards.

Bettin was a CS 1121 lab instructor from fall 2016 until fall 2019, when she became the instructor of record, teaching her first semesters as a lecturer in fall 2019 and spring 2020. That fall, she received outstanding “Average of 7 Dimensions” student evaluation scores, one of only 74 such accolades earned by faculty that semester.

But Bettin’s excellence was recognized long before, in fall 2017, when she received the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award from Michigan Tech’s Graduate Student Government.

Bettin was awarded the King-Chavez-Parks Future Faculty Fellowship from the State of Michigan in fall 2018. She received several doctoral consortium stipends from organizations including Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), the Frontiers in Education Doctoral Symposium (FIE), and the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W).

A Google Scholar award made it possible for her to attend the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration, which supports women in computing and organizations that view technology innovation as a strategic imperative. In fall 2019, Bettin was nominated for the prestigious MAGS Teaching Award.

Part II of this article will be published soon. In the second installment we’ll learn about Briana’s teaching and research, and the faculty and peer mentors who supported her as she completed her Ph.D.


Hongyu An: Curious About the World and Exploring the Unknown

by Karen S. Johnson, Communications Director, ICC

“A scientist should be a person who is always curious about nature and the world, and who tries to explore the unknown.” –Hongyu An, Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Hongyu An, Assistant Professor, ECE

Exploring science and technology is always exciting for new Assistant Professor Hongyu An, Electrical and Computer Engineering. He says he is “very pleased to have the chance to mentor the next generation and share my knowledge and experience with undergraduate and graduate students.”

Several things drew Hongyu An to Michigan Tech, including his observation that as an institution Michigan Tech cares about its employees. “The excellent professors, smart students, and the supportive environment are the main reasons I joined Michigan Tech,” he says. “As a new faculty member, I am facing a lot of new challenges. There is great support in my department (ECE) and through the ICC.”

Hongyu is a member of two Institute of Computing and Cybersystems (ICC) research centers: Human-Centered Computing and Scalable Architectures and Systems. He also sees synergies with the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems.

“It is my great pleasure and honor to be a member of the ICC,” Hongyu says. “ I can collaborate with the experts in HCC for exploring the brain and artificial intelligence, and the professors in SAS for hardware and architecture designs. Moreover, the neuromorphic chips I am working on can potentially be applied to Cyber-Physical Systems.”

Hongyu’s primary research area is hardware design for AI and neuromorphic systems. He believes that Artificial Intelligence is probably one of the most challenging research topics in science, noting that recent work in deep learning and artificial neural networks is demonstrating great progress in approaching artificial intelligence. 

“But the traditional computers under von Neumann architecture cannot keep up with the development of neural networks and deep learning,” he cautions. “My research is addressing this challenge by using a new hardware design, from device to architecture levels.”

Hongyu’s teaching interests include VLSI, Circuits, and Electromagnetics. Desribing his teaching philosophy, he notes that making complicated things simple is more challenging than making simple things complicated, and that he strives for the former. This academic year, An is teaching EE 4271 VLSI Design and mentoring ECE master’s student, Sarvani Marthi Sarvani, whose project aims to design a silicon retina through CMOS and Memristors.

Hongyu and his research team are also investigating associative memory learning, a new learning method that aims to create a neuromorphic system that can learn from its surroundings directly. 

“Associative memory is a widespread self-learning method in biological livings, which enables the nervoussystem to remember the relationship between two concurrent events,” Hongyu explains. “Through this learning method, dogs can learn the sound of bells as a sign of food; people can remember a word representing an object.”

“The significance of rebuilding associative memory at a behavioral level not only reveals a way of designing a brain-like, self-learning neuromorphic system, it is also to explore a method of comprehending the learning mechanism of a nervous system,” he adds.

And finally, beyond his work as a professor and scientist Hongyu hopes that he is “a good husband to my wife, a good father to my sons, and a good son to my parents.”

Hongyu completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, his M.S. in electrical engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his B.S. in electrical engineering at Shenyang University of Technology.

Recent Publications

An, Hongyu, Mohammad Shah Al-Mamun, Marius K. Orlowski, Lingjia Liu, and Yang Yi. “Robust Deep Reservoir Computing through Reliable Memristor with Improved Heat Dissipation Capability. IEEE Transactions on Computer-Aided Design of Integrated Circuits and Systems (2020).

An, Hongyu, Qiyuan An, and Yang Yi. “Realizing Behavior Level Associative Memory Learning Through Three-Dimensional Memristor-Based Neuromorphic Circuits. IEEE Transactions on Emerging Topics in Computational Intelligence (2019).

Founded in 2015, the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems (ICC) promotes collaborative, cross-disciplinary research and learning experiences in the areas of computing education, cyber-physical systems, cybersecurity, data sciences, human-centered computing, and scalable architectures and systems, for the benefit of Michigan Technological University and society at large.

The ICC creates and supports an arena in which faculty and students work collaboratively across organizational boundaries in an environment that mirrors contemporary technological innovation. The ICC’s 55 members represent more than 20 academic disciplines at Michigan Tech.


Hatti and Team Win Startup Competition

by Electrical and Computer Engineering 

Nagesh Hatti (ECE) was the lead of a startup team that took first place in a virtual entrepreneurial startup event focusing on Education, held earlier this month. The Techstars StartUp weekend was hosted virtually from São Judas University in São Paulo, Brazil. 

Hatti and team pitched “Inter-Self” a mobile-based app that focuses on the emotional health of students, combined with their interaction with fellow students, during projects and assignments. 

Hatti said the objective of their idea is to provide a feedback mechanism so instructors are aware of the overall emotional health of students, and then use that as an input to their instruction. 

Techstars Startup Weekend, in partnership with Google for Startups, is a 54-hour event created for entrepreneurs of all kinds. “It was an intense but rewarding experience,” Hatti said. “There was a lot of support and encouragement to come up with new ideas and execute on them.” 

Hatti said that many of the mentors participating in Techstars startup weekend were successful entrepreneurs who started companies at similar events.


The Lode, Still Going Strong, After Nearly 100 Years

by Michigan Tech Lode

What is the Lode, anyway?

The Lode is Michigan Tech’s student newspaper, and we’ve been serving the MTU community since 1921, when we were founded as the Michigan College of Mines Lode.

We currently serve the campus digitally on our website and in print, though COVID-19 safety precautions have momentarily postponed our in-print issues.

Read the Lode!

We publish weekly on Thursday mornings. We feature local, state and national news, arts, cultural events and other happenings around campus, relevant opinion pieces, features on STEM and campus research, sports and more.

Check us out at http://www.mtulode.com.


Accessible Computing Expert Dr. Richard Ladner to Present Keynote Lecture November 13

The ICC’s Center for Human-Centered Computing will present a keynote lecture by Dr. Richard E. Ladner on Friday, November 13, 2020, at 1:00 p.m., via online meeting. The title of his talk is, “Accessible K-12 Computer Science Education.”

The keynote lecture is part of HCC Day, a series of virtual lab tours, mini talks, and lectures. Details will be announced shortly.

Ladner is a Professor Emeritus in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, where he has been on the faculty since 1971.

His current research is in the area of accessible computing, a subarea of human-computer interaction (HCI). Much of his current research focuses on accessible educational technology.

Ladner is principal investigator of the NSF-funded AccessComputing Alliance, which works to increase participation of students with disabilities in computing fields. He is also a PI of the NSF-funded AccessCSforAll, which is focused on preparing teachers of blind, deaf, and learning disabled children to teach their students computer science.

Lecture Title: Accessible K-12 Computer Science Education

Lecture Abstract: For the past twelve years there has been rapid growth in the teaching of computer science in K-12 with a particular focus on broadening the participation of students from underrepresented groups in computing including students with disabilities. Popular tools such as Scratch, ScratchJr, and many other block-based programming environments have brought programming concepts to millions of children around the world. Code.org’s Hour of Code has hundreds of activities with almost half using block-based environments. New computer science curricula such as Exploring Computer Science and Computer Science Principles have been implemented using inaccessible tools. In the meantime the United States has about 8 million school children with recognized disabilities which is about 16% of the K-12 student population. It is generally not the case that these students are adequately served by the current K-12 computer science education or any of the block-based programming environments. In particular, the approximately 30,000 blind and visually impaired children are left out because only a few educational tools are screen reader accessible. In this talk we address this problem by describing two programming environments that are accessible: the Quorum Language and Blocks4All. The Quorum Language, created by Andreas Stefik, is a text-based programming language whose syntax and semantics have been created to be as usable as possible using randomized controlled trials. The language is not at all intimidating to children. For younger children, Lauren Milne created Blocks4All a block-based programming environment that can be used by anyone including children who are blind or visually impaired. Blocks4All uses a touchscreen platform similar to ScratchJr and takes advantage of the fact the blind children already know how to use touchscreen devices using their built-in screen readers. The challenge for the future of K-12 computer science is to be more inclusive to all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and disability status.

Founded in 2015, the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems (ICC) promotes collaborative, cross-disciplinary research and learning experiences in the areas of computing education, cyber-physical systems, cybersecurity, data sciences, human-centered computing, and scalable architectures and systems, for the benefit of Michigan Technological University and society at large.

The ICC creates and supports an arena in which faculty and students work collaboratively across organizational boundaries in an environment that mirrors contemporary technological innovation. The ICC’s 55 members represent more than 20 academic disciplines at Michigan Tech.

The Center for Human-Centered Computing (HCC) focuses on research and development in multimodal interactions, human-agent interactions, assistive technologies and intelligent health, software education, novel interfaces, computational modeling, explanation in systems, collaboration and trust, and decision making and adaptive learning.


Online Intercultural Exchange for Chinese and English Speakers

by Elizabeth A. Flynn, Co-director, The Elaine Bacon Literacy Program

New participants are welcome to join a newly-formed Chinese-English language and cultural exchange via Zoom at 4 p.m. every Friday.

To receive a Zoom invitation or for more details, contact organizer Denise Heikinen, or call (906) 482-4944. Along with Dr. Pichai Sripaipan, retired orthopedic surgeon from Houghton, Heikinen organized the exchange forum this fall as part of continuing free offerings, tutorials and classes with the Elaine Bacon Literacy Program, a 50-year-old non-profit community organization based in Houghton.

In the early days, the group catered to local resident adults who wished to improve their reading and writing skills. For the past several decades, however, volunteer tutors, teachers and conversation partners have offered free English As a Second Language lessons and practice opportunities for Copper Country international adults, including Tech students, exchange scholars, professors and spouses or family members of campus-affiliated residents.

For additional information, including an online schedule of classes, see the group’s website.


Master’s Defense: Prathyusha Sreedhara, Computer Science

Computer Science department graduate student Prathyusha Sreedhara will present a Master’s Defense today, Monday, October 26, from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m.

The tiitle of his paper is, “Hometracker: A Household Level Field Intervention and Metabolism Tracker.”

Sreedhara’s advisor is Associate Professor Charles Wallace, Computer Science.

Link to the meeting here.


Michigan Tech Ranked Among Best Colleges in the State and the Country

Michigan Tech is one of the top two universities in Michigan and among the best in the country, according to rankings by the website WalletHub, released Monday.

When compared to colleges and universities in Michigan, Tech was ranked No. 2. Among the 273 midwest colleges and universities listed, Michigan Tech was rated 30th, up one from a year ago.

WalletHub named 500 institutions on its “2021’s College and University Rankings.” Michigan Tech was ranked No. 138 on the overall list, up eight spots from last year’s ranking.

WalletHub looks to find the top-performing schools at the lowest possible costs to undergrads. The website compared more than a thousand U.S. institutions using 33 key measures. That data is grouped into seven categories such as Student Selectivity, Cost and Financing, and Career Outcomes.


Sajjad Bigham Named Quarterfinalist in DOE Solar Desalination Prize Contest

Assistant Professor Sajjad Bigham, Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, and his team have advanced to the second phase of the American-Made Challenges Solar Desalination Prize contest for his project, “Sorption-Based ZLD Technology.”

The contest is sponsored by the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Bigham is one of 19 quarterfinalists. Each receives a $50,000 cash prize.

Selected from among 162 applicants, the quarterfinalists now advance to the second, Teaming phase of the competition, for which each research team will develop and successfully validate an operational prototype of their solar-thermal desalination system.

Bigham is a heat transfer and energy systems specialist studying the scientific and engineering challenges at the intersection of thermal-fluid, material and energy sciences.

His Michigan Tech research lab, Energy-X, is focused on understanding the fundamental transport science of important energy carriers at micro, nano and molecular scales. He is a member of the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems’ Center for Cyber-Physical Systems.

Project Title: Sorption-Based ZLD Technology
Location: Houghton, MI
Project Summary: State-of-the-art zero liquid discharge (ZLD) technologies are currently bound with either intensive use of high-grade electrical energy such as mechanical vapor compressors or high capital cost with environmental concerns such as evaporation ponds. A team of researchers from Michigan Technological University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the company Artic Solar proposes to address these issues by an innovative desiccant-based ZLD desalination system in which a multiple-effect distillation (MED) unit is uniquely embedded at the heart of an absorption-desorption system. The technology employs an absorption-based thermally-driven vapor compressor concept to pressurize the vaporized brine of the ZLD crystallizer unit from a low-pressure absorber to a high-pressure desorber module. This eliminates the need for energy-intensive electrically-driven mechanical vapor compressors currently employed in advanced brine crystallizers.

Timely updates about the American-Made Challenges Solar Desalination Prize are posted here.

The American-Made Challenges are a series of prize competitions that incentivize the nation’s entrepreneurs to strengthen American leadership in energy innovation and domestic manufacturing.

The Solar Desalination Prize is a multi-stage prize competition intended to accelerate the development of low-cost desalination systems that use solar-thermal power to produce clean drinking water from saltwater. It is intended to help achieve the goals of the Water Security Grand Challenge.

Each stage of the competition has increasing prize amounts, totaling millions of dollars.