Variety found in SPIRE-EIT summer REU program

Most students who were accepted to the Summer Program for Interdisciplinary Research and Education-Emerging Interface Technologies (SPIRE-EIT) didn’t know what to expect when they arrived in Ames on May 31. The description of the program on the National Science Foundation’s website used phrases like information visualization, mobile/ubiquitous interfaces, intelligent agents, and enabling infrastructure, but it didn’t mention developmental robotics, the veterinary college, virtual volcanoes and tornadic storms, or teamwork.

Despite not fully knowing what to expect, Kerstyn Clover, digital forensic science and art major at Defiance College in Ohio, decided to give SPIRE-EIT a try. When she arrived, she “jumped in with full feet” but took comfort in knowing she could always go back home. But as she got more involved, she knew she would stay until the end of the ten-week program. Clover and two other students developed and tested a software board that uses graduation rates, test scores, and other data to make predictions about what types of students are most successful at the Veterinary Medicine College.

VetMed Curricular Dashboard is one of five unique research projects taking place through the human computer interaction (HCI) graduate program. HCI is an interdisciplinary program that focuses on the impact increasingly portable computers have on humans. This is the sixth summer HCI has held a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) and interest has steadily increased over the years. A new record was set this year when over 170 students from 109 universities nationwide vied for 15 available spots.

It is hard to say what exactly has made SPIRE-EIT so popular, but it could be its two most unique aspects: the unique atmosphere differs from a traditional research setting in that all work is done in groups, and the academic backgrounds of the students are diverse, with majors ranging from electrical engineering to art and everything in between.

“Because students have different academic backgrounds, we spend the opening weeks making sure everyone has the same basic computer skills as well as lessons on communication to make sure they get the most they can from the program,” says Pam Shill, program coordinator.

It’s an aspect of the program Veselin Georgiev, a computer science and software engineering student from Missouri State University, appreciates. Georgiev found the classes in OpenGL, Maya, and human computer interaction concepts very useful and valuable because they would likely not be covered in traditional computer science courses. He believes the knowledge he gained from that type of material will be quite beneficial to him in the future.

Georgiev was excited to gain a better understanding of graduate school, and he enjoyed his time with Alex Stoytchev, professor in electrical and computer engineering, and two group members working on developmental robotics. “The people at this REU care so much, and we got plenty of attention from grad students,” says Georgiev. He still isn’t sure if he wants to pursue a master’s degree, but thinks this summer has given him “a better appreciation for grad school.”

CJ Barberan, an electrical engineering and applied mathematics student at New Mexico State University, worked with the Interactive Virtual Earth Science Teaching (InVest) program, to see how both the virtual tornadic storm and virtual volcano InVest developed impacted student thinking. He enjoyed the group work and the dynamic it created because it allowed students to decide their own strengths and assign tasks between themselves.

“I always thought I was weird for having a variety of interests,” says Clover. “The teamwork here has shown me that people here also have many interests and find weird, new problems appealing.”

Even though students came for the research experience, they agreed it was the rewarding interactions that surprised and pleased them most. “The most amazing thing that made me happy to be in the program was the good mix of people,” says Clover. “We put in long hours and worked hard so we could have been crabby, but because of the people we’re with we weren’t.”

Research progress and participants’ blogs can be found here.