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SPIN students with their 2023 First place Engineering Open House award

SPIN students with their 2023 first place Engineering Open House award

NCSA has proudly been a part of Engineering Open House (EOH), an event organized by the Grainger College of Engineering, for many years, hosting exhibits in the NCSA building each spring. This year, NCSA got right back into the swing of things and hosted a number of exhibits from a variety of projects supported by the Center. NCSA deftly showcased the breadth and depth of our work and support with researchers in everything from artificial intelligence to genomics. One of NCSA’s own even took home first prize for their outstanding research.

An Award Winning Showcase

NCSA exhibits have had a strong impact on judges each year at EOH. In  2021, NCSA swept the EOH awards. NCSA’s Students Pushing Innovation Internship Program (SPIN) won third place that year. This year, SPIN improved on its past success and took home the top prize wowing judges with their exhibit highlighting the various projects students worked on over the last year. 

SPIN students are paid interns paired with experts at NCSA doing high-level research. It’s a wonderful opportunity for undergraduates to get hands-on experience doing research in their fields. Projects vary widely and include topics like Natural Language Processing (NLP), black hole research and Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Members of the SPIN program including students, mentors and SPIN coordinator, Olena Kindratenko
Members of the SPIN program including students, mentors and SPIN coordinator, Olena Kindratenko

This year’s SPIN mentors spoke about some of the positive impacts of the program. Roland Hass, a senior research programmer at NCSA, mentors on an OpenPMD reader project. He’s had a great experience so far with the SPIN program. “There’s a huge variety of students who come through the program. They have a broad range of interests and expertise and they get the chance to interact with NCSA and the real word problems we’re solving.” Anastasia Stoops, an NCSA affiliate from the Department of Psychology, is a mentor on a neural net project. She talked about her project studying skilled readers and how they process visual information using deep learning. Her project will help provide better models for teaching people to read.  “SPIN has been an amazing experience for us. It’s been great to work with students on this kind of work.”

The award-winning SPIN exhibit was made up of a number of topics based on the variety of research projects students were working on. Zella Zhao presented her project, Quantifying the Effectiveness of Scientific Documentaries Using Natural Language Processing. In this, her first year attending EOH, Zhao  wasn’t sure what to expect. “I thought the audience would mostly be students from other majors who might be interested in what research we were doing,” she said. “But there were so many grade school and high school students, too, all stopped by to learn about what we were doing.”

Kiara Balleza worked on a project titled, The Reading Time Machine: Transforming Astrophysical Literature into Actionable Data. When visitors came to the booth, she described her work as, “Organizing astronomy pictures using machine learning to make it easier to find certain images.” Her project was designed to help astronomers search texts for types of images much like we’d search a text for a particular word or phrase.

Rushdan Jimoh works in the SPIN lab
Rushdan Jimoh works in the SPIN lab

Rushdan Jimoh worked on an OCR project. OCR, as Jimoh explains it, is “ a computer reading what’s on a physical page of text.” His work focused on taking digitized texts from 1890 forward, and examining how these scanned pages lose photos because the computer can’t “read” them. His group is working on ways to make sure these photos aren’t lost from the texts.

Our students did a great job explaining their research projects and pointing out practical applications of their work while also sparking interest in STEM among middle and high school students. It was a fun day!

Olena Kindratenko, senior research coordinator, NCSA

The SPIN presenters were thrilled with their EOH experience. Taking home a first-place award was terrific, but all the SPIN students talked about less tangible takeaways and the unexpected value they got attending as a presenter. Andrew Lee, one of the SPIN interns, said, “I was able to immerse myself in an environment around many skilled interns and present a project that I am passionate about to a wide range of audiences. The showcase allowed me to grow both academically and professionally as I was able to network and educate many individuals regarding my project on the Multiscale Modeling of Cell Membranes. EOH is a great opportunity for innovative interns to share their projects and I would definitely recommend it in the future for all students!”

SPIN students presenting their work at their booth
SPIN students presenting their work at their booth

Zhao said she liked teaching the kids what she was doing, but she also learned a lot while there. “I had to figure out a way to talk to people who were unfamiliar with our topic. I realized they might understand better if I described NLP in terms they would know. So I used a storytelling method. For example, I told the children, ‘This is how your teachers teach you. I teach computers the same way your teachers teach you.’ I learned so much about how to talk about my expertise with people who might not know much about my research.”

Jimoh enjoyed seeing so many different types of projects at EOH and talking to the students who were working on them. “Usually we’re so focused on school and our own work, we don’t get a chance to spend time learning what other students are doing. It was a nice change from just doing academic classwork and gave us a chance to socialize with other students doing interesting research.”

Being at an event like EOH is an exciting opportunity both from a science communication perspective and also from a public outreach perspective. It was super fun explaining neutron stars and black hole disk supercomputer simulations to kids and their parents. Apart from the infinite curiosity that I saw in these kids, one thing that really stood out to me was the depth of their technical knowledge. One middle schooler that I talked to already knew about neutron stars and supercomputers!

Mit Kotak, engineering physics senior, SPIN program

Visualizations and More

 A young visitor trying out the VR experience at the NCSA booth
A young visitor trying out the VR experience at the NCSA booth

SPIN was just one of several booths hosted at NCSA. The visualization team had a number of showcases running during this year’s EOH. Playing in the main auditorium were a number of shows, including the award-winning Atlas of a Changing Earth documentary. The visualization team even opened up their studio to show some impressive 3D films from their catalog, and some of the visualizations were featured on the VR goggles at the main NCSA booth. These proved to be a popular interactive element to NCSA’s booths, with visitors lined up to take a look at data in a brand new way.

Over at the Center for AI Innovation booth, the team was showing attendees how AI can answer homework questions in the blink of an eye, utilizing AI to create custom, highly technical and detailed answers to any question asked. The NCSA Gravity Group showcased their work on gravitational waves produced by the collision of black holes. A game of black hole ping pong was set up and the booth also allowed visitors to take a selfie from “inside” a black hole. Both exhibits proved popular with visitors.

The genomics exhibit showed visitors how to separate out strawberry DNA using household goods
The genomics exhibit showed visitors how to separate out strawberry DNA using household goods

The data analytics team highlighted a number of projects they’re working on, including some of their groundbreaking work on bioimage analytics to help better diagnose breast cancer. NCSA’s Genomics group showed how you could easily separate out strawberry DNA with simple household goods; helping visitors run this experiment in a hands-on exhibit showed you don’t need fancy equipment to learn about science.

The event was well attended at NCSA, with several hundred stopping by to learn more about the Center and its work. A scavenger hunt guided visitors through the booths so they could learn more about each exhibit, and more than 200 students completed the hunt, taking home an NCSA pin as a badge of their experience. It was a tremendous year for science at NCSA and across campus.

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