3/26/2021 Peter Durantine

Symposium Brings Professors, Students Together for Research

Franklin & Marshall College junior Nhi Phan and sophomore Isabelle Boucher soon will begin working with Willie Wilson, assistant professor of computer science, on research in Wilson’s field of human-robot interaction.

“We’re collecting data for a program that would allow a robot to detect when a human needs help with a task, say building Legos,” Wilson said.

A fascinating field that reflects technology’s future, Wilson’s research is one of four summer projects that were featured in January in the Department of Computer Science’s initial symposium, which introduced students to the professors and their research.

“I really wanted to find a way that can represent everyone, be more inclusive to our entire student body, and particularly try to reach students who tend to be underrepresented in computer science.”
Prof. Jason "Willie" Wilson has developed the F&M Computational, Affective, Robotic, and Ethical Sciences (F&M CARES) lab, devoted to interdisciplinary research that uses computational approaches to better understand human reasoning and communication. This research is applied in developing models to enable computational agents (robots, virtual agents, etc.) to be socially aware as they provide assistance to a human user.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science Willie Wilson

About 25 students attended the event, which is where Phan and Boucher learned about Wilson’s research project. The department has decided to make the symposium, proposed by Wilson, an annual event for students.

“One of my goals in having the symposium was to broaden participation in computer science research and one example of that broadened participation is we have four faculty having six students working with us this summer,” Wilson said.

The department’s professors not only sought to increase the number of students participating; they also sought to broaden the gender and racial diversity in a field that is predominantly male.

“Computer science is not a diverse field,” Wilson said. “It’s a field that is very biased toward white and Asian males, but I think it’s interesting to see that some of the demographics we were able to get for the summer are different demographics,” Wilson said. “The two students I have working with me are both female, which for the computer science field is a little unusual.” 

Three other assistant professors of computer science will work with students on their research in coming months. Ed Novak’s research on dynamic information flow tracking via small byte-code instrumentation will include junior Saad Mahboob; Justin Brody will continue his artificial intelligence research with sophomore Omar Khater; and Brad McDanel’s research in deep-learning, “tiled stochastic pruning for DNN training,” will involve junior John Magallanes and sophomore Helia Dinh.  

In addition to reaching a diverse pool of students interested in doing research, the symposium also gives faculty an opportunity to get to know these students. 

“I recognized that a lot of students just don’t know about research,” Wilson said. “I really wanted to find a way that can represent everyone, be more inclusive to our entire student body, and particularly try to reach students who tend to be underrepresented in computer science.” 

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