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Bringing more women to computer science

WSU Students Rae Marks and Joanne Magtiby with Professor Shira Broschat.It’s no secret that while computer science offers great job prospects and interesting careers, attracting women to the field has been problematic. In fact, fewer women are entering computer science than a generation ago. Many women who initially have an interest in the field often become discouraged and quit.

With continuing industry demand, especially in the state of Washington, WSU’s School of EECS is focusing efforts on bringing and keeping more women in computer science. Last year the school, for the first time, became active in the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a nonprofit group that is leading efforts to increase women’s participation in computing and technical fields.
Students Rae Marks and Joanne Magtiby with Professor Shira Broschat.

Working with NCWIT and its affiliated Aspirations in Computing program, the school will provide awards and scholarship opportunities for high school girls in computer science. The awards program has been shown to be successful in recruiting girls into the field. In part, it simply provides needed encouragement for young women to overcome prejudice and stereotypes that can keep them from pursuing the field. WSU will focus its recruiting efforts for the awards program with Spokane County high schools this year and expand to the Tri-Cities next year. The school also hopes to continue its Programming for Girls workshop.

“We’re just beginning this discussion,” said Shira Broschat, diversity and curriculum coordinator for the School of EECS and the coordinator for Eastern Washington’s affiliation of the Aspirations in Computing program. “I want to keep adding cities each year until I’ve reached the smaller towns in Eastern Washington. Ideally, I’ll end up making it everywhere east of the Cascade Mountains!” Once they get to WSU, the school is also making a concerted effort to keep women in computer science. The school, for instance, is working to provide a gathering room for women computer science students. Having a place set aside for women has been shown to help them stay in male-dominated programs. At the same time, students in the women’s WSU chapter of Association of Computing Machinery have begun mentoring all female students in the program. The club is one of two new groups in the school that are tailored specifically for women.

Sakire Arslan Ay
Sakire Arslan Ay

“The goal is to have junior and senior students help the incoming female students adjust to the program and help them to overcome the obstacles that they might experience during their first year,” said Sakire Arslan Ay, assistant director of the School of EECS, who is leading retention efforts. “We hope that catching problems early on and providing help to solve them will help retain more females in the program.”

The school has also begun working with introductory programming course instructors to make classroom and lab environments more supportive for women by, for instance, bringing female students together in lab sessions. Usually, women drop out from computer science and engineering programs because of the lack of support around them, but not because they can’t succeed in classes, said Arslan Ay.

“They often don’t feel like they will ever be able to fit in in a male-dominant field,” she said. “We are trying to establish this support circle for them, provide opportunities for them to get help, and encourage them to seek for help when they need to.”

And, the school is making progress in having its introductory computer science course satisfy university wide requirements by next fall, meaning that a larger and wider variety of students could get exposure to the field.

“We want all of our WSU students to have the opportunity to learn computational thinking and the fundamentals of programming,” said Broschat. “It will serve them well in the 21st century, regardless of gender.”

The school will be carefully tracking its efforts.

“As a female computer scientist, I have experienced the same problems that today’s computer scientists have,” said Arslan Ay. “But, we need women in computer science and engineering; I would like to help the new generation of women become aware of their qualities and not let anything stop them.

WSU researchers plan for real-world test of microgrid systems

Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani is studying microgrids to help keep the power on during catastrophic events.

Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani is studying microgrids to help keep the power on during catastrophic events.

When a natural disaster strikes, the failure of the electric power grid often makes the catastrophe even worse.

WSU researchers were part of a team who received a $1.2 million Department of Energy grant to design a sophisticated circuit breaker for “microgrids,” or power grids that are on small, more localized scales. The researchers hope that the work will someday help allow critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and police stations, to keep running on their own tiny electric power grid during a massive power failure.

“The microgrid exists to provide power separate from the main grid. In the event that the main grid goes down, the microgrid will detect something is wrong and disconnect,” said Ali Mehrizi-Sani, the lead researcher on the project and assistant professor in the School of EECS in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.

In a power failure situation, a microgrid sensor will detect a problem with voltage on the power grid, which might be anything from a tree bringing down a single power line to a major city-wide outage.

Within milliseconds, the sensor will send a command to the circuit breaker switches to disconnect the microgrid from the main system. While such switches already exist, they are currently too slow to operate at the high voltage levels experienced in this type of situation—which is more than 20 kilovolts, Mehrizi-Sani said. The researchers are working to use an amplifier to increase the impedance, a measure of resistance to current flow, to bring down the current to a level that existing switches can handle quickly.

They hope to test a prototype system at a naval shipyard in Pennsylvania in the next two years.

Putting the technology to use in such a setting presents huge challenges, Mehrizi-Sani said. “It’s not a research lab,” he said. “We will test everything extremely rigorously.”

Eventually, the researchers hope to create multi-microgrid systems that would be much harder to damage in a disaster than the traditional power grid. Because they would be decentralized, the systems could work independently of each other in a disaster.

Grant funds “smart city” power grid lab at WSU

Addressing the critical national need for a reliable and secure electric power grid, WSU researchers are building the most comprehensive “smart city” laboratory in the United States to test smart grid technologies.

Scientists have received a $500,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to build a city of the future in WSU’s engineering buildings, complete with simulated windmills, solar panels, fuel cells, power substations, and smart meters.

“Smart grid technology is at a critical stage with a need for successful demonstration,” said Chen-Ching Liu, director of WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center and leader of the project. “Large scale deployment will provide great opportunities to improve energy efficiency and grid reliability. A realistic test bed will enable us to make sure our research will be practical in the real world.”

Chen-Ching Liu, director of WSU’s Energy System Innovation Center, in the smart city lab.
Chen-Ching Liu, director of WSU’s Energy System Innovation Center, in the smart city lab.

Simulates real-life, complex testing

Starting with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began a $4.5 billion investment in smart grid technologies that included demonstration grants and workforce training at institutions and utilities around the country.

With a long history and top-ranked program in power engineering research, WSU received support for a number of projects. Those include workforce development and participation in a DOE- funded smart grid demonstration project. Pullman is one of just a few smart-grid cities in the United States.

Utilities are making and testing equipment upgrades for a smarter power grid, but the grid’s complexity doesn’t easily allow these technologies to be tested system-wide.

“The already complex power grid becomes an order of magnitude more complex when combined with information age technologies,” Liu said. “With this comprehensive test bed, we will be among the best in the country. This will speed up adoption of smart grid technologies, which are difficult to test in real life.”

Renewable sources, technology require flexibility

Cities of the future will use more renewable energy to meet power needs. Solar and wind power are ramping up quickly in the United States, which creates technical issues and requires more flexibility from the power grid, Liu said.

The smart grid will have to be more efficient and secure and will increasingly use computerized communications and automation. Features such as smart meters will provide feedback to utilities about customer choices and desires.

The WSU researchers hope the test lab will help utilities answer questions such as how to better prevent and stop blackouts, save energy, and incorporate smart meters. The test bed will have comprehensive, advanced facilities for studying the power grid at the systems level and including complex interactions between subsystems and components.

Smart meters improve energy efficiency

The scientists last year received a donation from Alstom Grid that provided software to do simulations of electricity transmission and distribution. In addition to the Murdock Trust, Avista Corp. and Itron provide support for the lab.

The researchers will have the facilities to simulate automation, power substations, renewable energy devices, communication technology, and smart meters. The lab will include wireless links to smart meters at WSU Pullman. Research on smart meter data will enable development of demand-response programs that improve energy efficiency.

Smart-Sock: Monitoring ankle edema at home

By Michelle Fredrickson for WSU News

Washington State University researchers have developed a “smart” sock to track ankle edema, a symptom of many serious medical conditions, at home. The researchers hope the innovation will lead to a more cost effective, accurate, and easier way to track edema, an accumulation of fluids in the lower parts of the body that is often a symptom of heart or kidney failure.

Washington State University researchers have developed a “smart” sock to track ankle edema, a symptom of many serious medical conditions, at home.Although edema is an excellent health indicator, measuring it currently requires a doctor’s visit and is often done with a tape measure. Measuring edema continuously could also provide more useful information for doctors than sporadic measurements.

Led by Hassan Ghasemzadeh, assistant professor in the School of EECS, the researchers have designed a “Smart-Sock” that uses multiple wearable sensors to accurately monitor ankle circumference to keep track of edema. The researchers have a provisional patent on the technology, and hope to begin deploying the device in clinical trials this fall.

The device contains two types of sensors—a motion sensor and a circumference measurement sensor. The circumference sensor measures changes in the physical girth of the ankle, while the motion sensor differentiates the posture of the wearer. Taken together, the device can interpret the data. When a person is standing or sitting, fluid tends to move down to the ankles, whereas when a person is lying down or reclining, fluid tends to move to a more equalized distribution.

“When it comes to monitoring ankle edema, it really matters what the current body posture is when you’re measuring circumference,” said Ramin Fallahzadeh, a doctorate student working on the project.

The researchers are developing an app that would take the sensor data from the device, determine its relevance, and then send the relevant information to either a desktop or phone. They are also working to include sensors to detect abnormal gaits of the patient. And, they aim to make the sensors embedded in the sock disposable, so users don’t have to wash it.

Student club night deemed a success

By Victoria Sandmeyer, School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

bright_facesNearly 200 students packed into a lecture hall in Sloan Hall on September 3rd for “Student Club Night” where faculty, staff and student club leaders provided both pizza and food for thought to new EECS students. The atmosphere was lively and all faces were engaged as the new students were called to get involved in a hands-on way with their future.

Clinical associate professor Andy O’Fallon laid out how vital it is for the success of engineering and computer science students to be involved in studies outside of the classroom. “You have to do the academics; you have to go to class; but you also have to do more. Joining a student club is a perfect example of that.” Assistant professor Matt Taylor also stressed the importance of extra-curricular learning, saying: “Figure out what you’re passionate about and do it. If there’s not a club that does what you want to do, get a group of friends together and build something.” Sounding more like a football coach than a “tech guy,” systems administrator and 30 year staff member of EECS, John Yates had the students on the edge of their seats. He related how awesome it was to see so many undergraduate students taking personal responsibility of their education and future by participating in student club night. EECS director, Behrooz Shirazi summed up the evening, charging the students to “Be curious.”
student_club_night2014 041

The purpose of the evening was to highlight the EECS student clubs and make new students aware of the resources available to them outside the classroom. Following the fast paced presentations, students were given a map of all the student club locations and turned loose for the open house where club leaders waited to answer questions.

Assistant director Sakire Arslan AY and undergraduate advisor Alli Guyer, who headed up the event, were pleased with the attendance and the positive tone of the evening. Sakire explained, “This was an event that was encouraging to both students and faculty. All the people here are interested in doing cool stuff and this was an opportunity to bring them all together in a different format.” She commented on the inspiring effect of taking faculty and students out of the classroom in order to understand each other in a new way. Alli commented from an advisor’s perspective, “We find that students who are involved with clubs do better in school; these students are the cream of the crop. Joining a club reinforces the concepts students are learning in class, and makes them more immersed in the information.” She went on to say,“Especially when it comes to computer science if you want to be successful you need to create a posse. It is so collaborative.”


Andy O’Fallon, Alli Guyer & Sakire Arslan AY drawing the names of the door prize winners from the evening

Team Gleason takes 1st place in the EECS Senior Design Poster Contest

By Victoria Sandmeyer, School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

winning_gleason-1Fifteen competing senior design teams from EECS displayed their posters in the halls of the department on April 24th. The judging was administered by five industry representatives specializing in areas such as: microelectronics, power systems, electrical engineering and software development. The winning team, Team Gleason, was chosen based on their poster, their project as a whole, and their presentation.

Team Gleason was inspired by former WSU football star, Steve Gleason who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a terminal disease that attacks motor neurons, causing the loss of muscle function. This makes communication very difficult, especially in the late stages of the disease. Because patients are able to control their eyes and eyelids up until the end, this becomes their only potential means of communication. Eye-tracking software has been develpoed to help patients communicate; unfortunately, it is very expensive. The goal of Team Gleason, a non-profit organization, is to raise awareness about ALS, while at the same time providing a more affordable means of communication for those suffering from it.

cropped_gleason-1Team Gleason has been developing a reliable predictive-typing software program which runs on a generic Android or Windows-8 tablet; and uses two hardware platforms for eye tracking: The Eye Tribe and The Pupil. Steve Gleason’s mother, Gail Gleason(pictured below at the Open House) is very supportive of  the Team Gleason project and has attended most of their weekly meetings. “He (Steve Gleason) liked our software way better than his expensive system in some key ways, including predictive typing,” says team mentor, David Bakken.