Despite in-person restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, two National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored research programs for undergraduates went forward at WSU this summer and welcomed 16 students from 15 universities—online.
Both are in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. They are: “Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Training in Wearable Computing,” led by Hassan Ghasemzadeh, associate professor; and, “Undergraduate Research in Smart Environments,” led by Larry Holder, professor. In addition to these principal investigators, several faculty serve as mentors, supported by graduate assistants.
“For the past decade or so, WSU has hosted a number of NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs, and hundreds of successful applicants have come to our university in Pullman to participate in faculty-mentored science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations in our labs,” said Shelley Pressley. She is director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement (DAESA) in the provost’s office.
“Because of COVID-19, in-person teaching and learning was curtailed this summer. We wondered if, for the first time, we would not welcome REU students. But then, two out of a dozen summer programs stepped forward, adjusted protocols, and went forward with their projects, moving everything to a virtual format. We’ve been excited to see how they would go.”
REU’s draw high NSF praise
“It took a lot of courage and commitment for PI’s and mentors and their teams to make things happen virtually,” said Wendy Nilsen, program director for health and computing space in the NSF Computing, Information Science, and Engineering Directorate.
Of the 95 REU sites in her directorate, just 17—including WSU’s two—said they wanted to move ahead and conduct the 10-week REU’s virtually.
“They knew that many students applying to participate may never have gotten another chance to do research, work in teams with peers from many colleges, or add a prestigious NSF-sponsored experience to their resume.
“The REU’s that proceeded virtually are made up of exceptional people in this extraordinary year. They did it, and the NSF and I are grateful.”
Not a typical year
In a more normal year, around 100 REU students come to Pullman to be in around 12 REU’s, live together in housing near campus, work daily in labs, attend brownbag lunches featuring guest speakers, partner with their mentors and teams, have BBQs and bike on country trails, and present research posters publicly. Each would receive roughly $5,000 for their efforts and to cover costs.
In summer 2020, students in the two REU’s are working on projects assigned to them by their mentors and getting to know their teammates and attending presentations via video conferencing tools such as Zoom. Their funding may have helped cover special expenses, such as home technology setups.
Holder’s REU is in its fifth year, with students performing tasks related to smart environments including artificial intelligence, machine learning, data mining, high-performance computing, pervasive computing, networking, distributed systems, health, medicine, psychology, gerontechnology, and energy sustainability. After the experience, many students have been listed as co-authors in published articles, thanks to their research.
This year, from more than 100 applicants, Holder and mentors made offers to 10, and eight accepted.
“We could have said ‘sorry’ and wasted all those evaluations and given them bad news,” said Holder, “but then the programs may not have moved forward as well, and it would have been a bad deal for the students. We’re glad we contacted the NSF to say we’d decided to proceed remotely.”
One of Holder’s mentees is Filipp Shelobolin, a statistics and machine learning major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He’s analyzed data involving COVID-19, airlines, and virus transmission rates to understand and predict how the virus might move from place to place.
“I know I’m making a difference,” he said, “and this REU experience has also led me to consider going to graduate school, which I hadn’t thought much about before.”
Another Holder mentee, Luisiana Dominguez, is a computer science junior at Lehman College in Manhattan, N.Y. Her summer task is to work with an AI system to perform tasks and play games and benchmark it against other systems to see how smart it actually is.
She has found that establishing routines and time management have made the online research environment easy and enjoyable overall.
“I’ll likely have to work from home sometime in my career, so this REU has helped me see how that would go plus it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I think I would definitely consider WSU for graduate studies.”
Ghasemzadeh’s REU is in the second of its three years, focusing mainly on project topics including wearable computing and healthcare. With much data already gathered, it was possible to design analysis projects so students could work virtually.
“We had to make some adjustments but it’s really been pretty easy and certainly interesting from the start,” Ghasemzadeh said.
Computer science Ph.D. student and teaching assistant Samir Sbai assisted 2019 REU’s and this spring helped faculty “spitball how to re-create what would normally be an in-person situation into a virtual one while maintaining value for every student. Even the process to do that was new, because the mentors themselves had to collaborate online since we weren’t physically at work at the university.”
Good experiences abound
Wearable computing mentor and architecture assistant professor Mona Ghandi’s project involves biological data processing collected from smart wearables to detect user’s emitions and influence home environemtns to improve the user’s mental health.
“My REU students and my research team use Slack channels to stay in touch, email often, and meet online weekly. It was a great productive experience and They are motivated to learn and participate. I’d definitely do virtual research with students again.”
One of her three students, Joshua Okamoto, future software engineer and current Univ. of California-Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science student, had no research experience before the REU. Over summer, he’s used new technologies, designed web pages, and learned about machine learning.
“The whole experience has been pretty cool.”
Charmaine “Cid” Canja, a first-generation student pursuing electrical engineering and computer engineering at Seattle’s Bellevue College, worked with Robert Catena, REU mentor and assistant professor of kinesiology. She’s learning new software to develop an app to help pregnant women maintain good physical balance.
Canja said the REU experience is boosting her self-confidence and has strengthened her resolve to change career fields—she has a nursing degree from the Philippines.
“WSU’s provided me with a big-time good experience. It wasn’t anything like I’d imagined, scary or high-stress. The people are so friendly and encouraging.”
Sbai looks to the future. “If this is a new normal for students seeking STEM research in REU’s, I’m encouraged. I’ve seen it work–it can be done. It just requires a little more planning and resilience on everyone’s part. Overall, I’ve been impressed with every team. It’s been inspiring.”
Virtual presentations Friday
On Friday, July 31, both sets of REU students will make final presentations from 10 a.m. til noon, with short descriptions of their work and results. Contact Holder at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sbai at email@example.com for information.