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Providing Technology that Students Actually Use

While eating lunch at my desk I opened up the webcam view of our new Nonavitra 6K Visualization Wall we built for use in the library. Three students jumped on the system and proceeded to spend 15 minutes exploring chemical bonding options starting from some periodic table application. I wouldn’t say that it was utilizing hi-res graphics but what was important is that the students were having such a great time exploring. This brings me to what I feel is one of the most important reasons for giving our students access to this visualization resource. The opportunity to explore and gain experience in working with resolution that is typically reserved for corporate showcases or expensive research facilities.

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Nonavitra Visualization Wall

The library had an open house a few weeks ago where they introduced Nonavitra and ever since we have seen the reservation schedule for the resource fill up with student groups especially in the evening. In fact one of the first uses for the wall was the rugby club using it to scout a future opponent. But what I love is that student study groups are reserving it.

In the beginning my Research Support team started bugging me to allow them to build some sort of a visualization facility. They wanted to build an immersion visualization experience reminiscent of CAVE2 at the UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL). And yes that would be fabulous but we need to walk before we run, which is why user adoption is the overriding requirement. Last year’s V4DiR focused on 3D data review and the Nonavitra Visualization Wall now allows us to put a powerful visualization resource in the hands of our faculty and students. The one condition that I set was that I would not build a visualization resource that would become relegated to providing campus visitor demos. We seem to be having success with these technology rollouts. The 3D Printer program in the library has been extremely successful. The secret to success is to put your effort into engineering the business process for making the resource available.

Research Support and Student Experiential Learning

The pursuit of a STEM degree has gained significant attention in recent years as we evaluate the ROI for a college degree. A recent article in NerdScholar by Yesenia Rascon, “Top 5 Reasons to Apply to a Research University” highlights the importance of experiential learning, access to research facilities and hands on career development quantifies many of the reasons we allow our IT student workers the opportunity to participate in exploratory projects. This all relates back to a culture that we promote for our very successful IT Research Support Services, RSS, group here at Missouri S&T. I have been fortunate to be in a position to carve out some IT budget to dedicate to research support. However, because some of my funding comes from student tech fees I make sure that the students benefit from our efforts. This translates via the hiring of student workers, but extends beyond tradition tech support jobs. We hire students in RSS who seek out that opportunity and we benefit from important support services that they are able to provide to our university. However, we also reward them with the opportunity to own their own research projects. Our staff does offer advice and support but we also let the students fail.

Our students also earn the right to attend national research conferences such as the annual SuperComputing and Great Plains Network. These opportunities provide them excellent presentation experience which we utilized this summer by having our students conduct a workshop for the CyberMiner camp for high school students. We asked them to present their current projects to about 50 high school juniors and seniors. We designed the workshop to encourage the campers to engage with our students and it was truly an inspiration Geekfest showcasing our future technology leaders.

Here is a quick glimpse of the projects they presented and a sense of the workshop.

MinerBytes or Digital Signage Project

MinerBytes or Digital Signage Project

MinerBytes which is a digital signage project based on using the Raspberry PI computer connected to any monitor with access control given to designated administrators. This was a project conceived by a biology student last summer and this summer we are preparing it for version 1 production deployment on campus and in our community. Somewhat of a surprise to us was that this project generated the most interest by the high school students as they were intrigued by the coding behind MinerBytes.

Drone Project in Initial Phase

Drone Project in Initial Phase

The Helicopter Drone Project is in its infancy which was good to be able to show the campers how a project gets birthed. We don’t know where this project will go but we believe we should be on top of the explosion in use of drones. We have ideas for using it in creating virtual tours.

First Segway Prototype

First Segway Prototype

The Segway project started out last summer and has proven to be the perfect multi-discipline opportunity for our students. With a heavy electrical, mechanical and software development component we have had many students involved with this one. Our students presenting the Segway gave the campers some excellent advice based on their experience in designing the controller boards which they fried more then once. They told the campers what they appreciate most about their opportunity to work on these projects is that they are allowed to fail, and that has been their greatest learning experience.

Video Wall built by Students

Video Wall built by Students

The Segway prototype moved to a production design this summer which offered an excellent opportunity to display how they used SolidWorks design software on the new Video Wall that RSS built this summer. The Video Wall currently named MinerView is built on solid computer video display principles but was built from scratch with special attention given to the structure to mount the 9 55 inch high resolution monitors. The students had just a few hours to assemble the video wall in the classroom used for the workshop.

Using Video Wall for Engineering Design

Using Video Wall for Engineering Design

The Video Wall will be used in the upcoming Research and Technology Development Conference, #RTDatSandT on September 15-16 where representatives from Indiana University and the University of Texas will show off the latest in visualization techniques. RTD2014 is another great opportunity for students at S&T.

Video Wall to look at Mt Everest

Video Wall to look at Mt Everest

Of course the Video Wall has many uses and will be an important addition to our Library where it will be made available to the entire campus for visualization. We already know that it will be instrumental as a foundation for our Business and Information Technology department’s ERP Center.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of what is possible if your Information Technology department combines the needs of the university with an opportunity for experiential learning.

This New RSS website presents the students projects very well.

Producing “Big Data” Scientists

I wish that I would have attended the Big Data in Higher Education Conference at SUNY last week. Harper Reed @harper, former Obama campaign CTO, was the keynote speaker and according to the Chronicle review, he told it the way it is. ‘Big Data’ is Bunk. His message highlighted how the Obama campaign utilized analytics from “Big Data” to help win the election. And it sounds like he presented how higher education could take advantage of this technology but that the vendors for “Big Data” solutions were using the term “Big” to mostly sell big computers. I agree that we don’t need huge computer resources to utilize “Big Data” analysis concepts. However, we are going to build a Big Data system that probably leans toward an In Memory model. I also realize that higher education rarely utilizes “Big Data” effectively for business or academic advantages but that is a discussion of its own.

Harper also offered some advice in another session, “Data Scientist: the Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” which hit home for me here at Missouri S&T. We are currently building a new cross discipline program around the buzz term “Big Data”. We have our Business and Information Technology, department contributing to the client end including the tie in to ERP. We have Computer Science and Computer Engineering focusing on the infrastructure, data models, analytic algorithms, programming and visualization needed to produce the kind of data scientists that Harper said he wants to hire. This is why I came to S&T, to help a world class STEM institution create products that can help change the world.

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