Engineering undergrads encounter
“real life” problem solving

By David Salisbury
September 10, 2003

Melanie Bernard
Photo by Neil Brake
Bina Shah and Edwin Vargas testing toy flying saucer

Look! It has green lights that we can use to track it,” says Bina Shah excitedly, pointing at the toy flying saucer that Edwin Vargas is attempting to pilot with a controller attached by a long black cord.

Shah is a senior from the University of Alabama at Birmingham majoring in computer science. Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Vargas is a senior at Middle Tennessee University, where he is a double major in computer science and mathematics. They are among 11 undergraduate engineering and computer science majors from schools in the Southeastern United States who spent 10 weeks this summer at Vanderbilt as interns in the Summer Internship Program in Hybrid and Embedded Software Research, or SIPHER.

“This was my first research experience, and I didn’t know what to expect,” says Shah. “It’s turned out to be a lot more fun and a lot more useful than I expected. You can see possible uses for what we have done.”

Gary Gilliland
Photo by Neil Brake
Gabor Karsai
This was the inaugural year of SIPHER. The internship was organized by the Institute for Software-Integrated Systems as part of a major five-year research grant from the National Science Foundation that ISIS received along with partners at UC Berkeley and the University of Memphis.

The grant involves the development of “hybrid and embedded systems.” These are the kinds of systems proliferating madly through modern society that integrate computers with other devices, such as cell phones, computers that control automobile engines, “smart” appliances and a variety of new medical instruments. The purpose of the internship is to expose members of under-represented minorities like Shah and Vargas to this important new technology.

“Despite the fact that we had a late start in sending out the announcements for the internship, we received 22 applications in only two weeks,” says program coordinator Robert P. Boxie, III, himself a recent Vanderbilt graduate with a double major in chemical engineering and music. The NSF grant supported seven of the interns who were selected. The other four were funded through a variety of other programs.

Melanie Bernard
Photo by Neil Brake
Video tracking system team

When the interns arrived early in June, they were divided into five teams and each was given a different project. Shah and Vargas teamed up with Trione Vincent, right, a double major in computer science and computer engineering at Fisk University whose home is New Orleans. The three got the assignment of developing a video system that can track moving objects: first a slow-moving toy blimp made of aluminized mylar and second a fast-moving flying saucer. Graduate student Tivadar Szemethy is on the left.

The other four teams were assigned similar projects:

Daniel Balasubramanian, Rachel Dennison and David Garcia, sitting left to right, were tasked with programming Lego Mindstorm robots to travel from a known position to a known destination while avoiding objects placed in its path. Once they mastered this, they were given the additional task of programming the robot to find a second “lost” robot.Graduate student advisor Jyoti Gandhe is at the far left.
Photo by Neil Brake
John Kilby took on the challenge of automating the old saying, “Teaching is the best way to learn:” His challenge was to develop “teachable agents:” computer routines designed to act like students which actual students then must instruct on a given subject so that the agents can pass a test.
Photo by Neil Brake
Shantel Higgins, lower left, and Efosa Ojomo, upper right, worked together eamed up to develop a “smart structure” – a beam equipped with sensors and actuators designed to keep it from vibrating. Graduate student Tao Tao is advising them.
Photo by Neil Brake
Nickolia Coombs, left and Michael Rivera-Jackson were given a small parallax robot. First they programmed it to detect upcoming collisions and avoid them. Second, they built a complicated maze out of cardboard and programmed the robot to find its way through the maze and memorize. Finally, they reprogrammed the robot to find a nearby light source.
Photo by Neil Brake

Each of the teams was assigned a graduate student advisor. Tivadar Szemethy worked with Shah, Vargas and Vincent. “It’s very interesting to see how quickly the students began applying theory to real life problems,” says the Hungarian grad student. “The classroom problems that they are used to always have one right solution. But that isn’t the case in real life. So they had to come to terms with the fact that there isn’t one right solution, but a number of solutions, each with different pros and cons.”

Szemethy’s observation is echoed by Gabor Karsai, the associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who directs the internship, with the aid of Janos Sztipanovits, E. Bronson Ingram Distinguished Professor of Engineering and director ISIS, Ken Frampton, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Gautam Biswas, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“I have been impressed by the quality of the students that we got and it’s a very nice feeling to see them progress as far as they have,” Karsai says.

In addition to all the engineering the students have done, the program also was filled with social activities for the group. Dinners, field trips, concerts, canoeing and white-water rafting outings were also part of the program. These activities allowed the students to get acquainted.

“We’re a really diverse group. We have people from Nigeria, India, Colombia, Hungary and Puerto Rico,” Vincent says proudly. “We’ve learned a whole lot about each other’s cultures.”

The ISIS research grant runs for five years, so the SIPHER program will have funding for the next four summers.

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Institute for Software Integrated Systems

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