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Area STEM Teachers Go Back to School for REThink CS at Drexel

Damian Baraty, a returning REThink participant and Instructor of Computer Science at The Hill School, presents during the 2018 research showcase on August 2.
Damian Baraty, a returning REThink participant and Instructor of Computer Science at The Hill School, presents during the 2018 research showcase on August 2.

August 15, 2018

In June, Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) welcomed a cohort of 10 high school teachers and 2-year college faculty members to take part in REThink CS at Drexel. Drexel’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) site in Engineering and Computer Science for Big Data, Machine Learning and CS Principles is an annual six-week summer research camp for STEM teachers in the City of Philadelphia and Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area. The program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is co-directed by Professor Jeffrey Popyack, PhD, and Assistant Professor Erin Solovey, PhD.The summer research institute culminated in a showcase held in Behrakis Grand Hall on August 2.

The objectives of the program are to build partnerships between high schools, community colleges, industry and the university, and to introduce teachers to cutting edge computer science research with social impact, informing and exciting them about computer science principles and computational thinking. The program also aims to help teachers produce learning materials for use in high school and community college STEM curricula which emphasize social relevance, and to expand the pipeline of students studying STEM and computing curricula in college.

The teachers participating in this year’s research institute explored a wide range of topics including exploring how social media can be manipulated using curation algorithms, using Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) devices to determine when the subject’s mind is wandering, using wireless wearable bands with integrated radio-frequency identification (RFID) antennas to monitor the breathing patterns of sleeping babies, image processing algorithms to aid in cancer diagnosis, and researching how visual, auditory, and cognitive distractions impair people when trying to do a task that requires concentration, which has important implications for distracted drivers. 

Michael Darfler, MakerSpace Director and Computer Science teacher at Friends’ Central School (FCS) City Ave, worked with fellow teacher Anna Schall, who teaches physics at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, PA, and CCI faculty mentor Teaching Professor Bill Mongan. Over the summer, they analyzed RFID signals produced by knitted antennas in a wearable termed the “Bellyband,” which can be used to monitor the respiratory patterns of the wearer. One application for this wearable is the detection of sleep apnea in infants (particularly premature infants). 

Darfler explained, “The benefit of using our approach is that these wearables are completely passive and require no batteries or wires. Additionally, the bands are comfortable to wear and don't cause irritation. The hope is that these Bellybands could provide better monitoring of premature babies, perinatal contractions, and protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” 

“For me, the most exciting part of this experience has been the joy of research. The problems that we are facing often do not have clear, easy answers and many of our approaches turn out to be dead ends, but as we expand our approach our understanding grows and a clearer picture of the problem definition emerges. This mode of learning feels entirely authentic and meaningful and the knowledge gained is personal and grounded,” Darfler said. 

Returning REThink participant Damian Baraty (Instructor of Computer Science at the Hill School) worked with faculty mentor Erin Solovey, PhD, and another second-time participant, Kyle Ellis (math teacher for the School District of Philadelphia) using fNIRS to noninvasively study the attention of subjects engaged in computer based tests. Using machine learning, the team analyzed brain uptake of hemoglobin using noninvasive light waves to determine whether a brain is focused or distracted. Besides providing a better understanding of human cognition and brain physiology, this research could also result in the development of a learning tool or environment that could adopt to the current brain state of a learner. 

Baraty explained how he intends to take what he learned from REThink back to his classroom. “I would love to give my students a similar type of experience where they can participate in a real-world experiment rather than idealized and sanitized textbook examples. The world is not always neat with tidy conclusions. And sometimes the most rewarding experiences require a slog through the wilderness to find meaning and satisfaction,” he said.  

The participating teachers will remain engaged year-round by taking part in monthly electronic meetings with their faculty mentors, attending a winter campus meeting and other regional events, culminating in a 1-day showcase event in the spring to present results, materials and posters. 
For more information about the program and each research project, please visit the REThink CS @ Drexel website