Chris ScaffidiGuest post by:
Prof. Chris Scaffidi, computer science, Oregon State University

Many people ask me whether they should pursue graduate school in computer science. Answering this question requires explaining what graduate school is good for.

For the Ph.D., the answer is relatively simple. A Ph.D. primarily focuses on training students to do research. It also provides other skills, but that is the main focus. As such, it is appropriate and necessary training for anyone who wants to become a tenured professor.

For the master’s degree, the answer deserves more discussion. It is also an important discussion because almost 85% of all graduate degrees granted in computer science were master’s degrees (according to the 2015 Taulbee Survey). To avoid relying on just my own opinions, I asked six students who have graduated from the master’s program at Oregon State University about what their training had accomplished, what aspects of the program were most valuable, and whether the value justified the cost overall.

Improved capabilities

My former students explained that earning a master’s degree in computer science expanded four areas of capabilities.

  1. Graduate school developed these former students’ ability to master material efficiently. One student explained that his employer valued his “ability to quickly grasp existing knowledge on some relatively advanced topics.” Others also commented on their enhanced ability to learn new frameworks, languages, concepts, and tools.
  2. They also commented on how the program increased their problem-solving skills. This manifested differently for each person. One noted that he had “a more rounded way of approaching problems,” while another commented that supervisors “appreciate my critical thinking ability, [and] a systematic approach to problem solving.”
  3. Several former students commented on how the program had strengthened communication skills. One indicated, “In my experience, my employer values my presentation and writing skills just as much as my technical knowledge.”
  4. Finally, they commented on the value of specific technical knowledge obtained from graduate school. This included AI, machine learning, Big Data, Java, JavaScript, and other specific technologies that my former students now use in their work.

Valuable aspects of graduate school

Three aspects of graduate school came up as being of most value.

  1. All but one former student commented on how their project experiences contributed to knowledge. All of these developed computer software during their studies, as part of their research projects. Actually doing advanced software development with a mentor, rather than just learning about it, provided a context for skill development. For example, one wrote, “Graduate school was a lot different [from undergraduate studies] because I had to go further out of my comfort zone to succeed, learning new languages and systems as needed” while another summarized “It’s all about the people and the projects.”
  2. Several noted the importance of finding faculty willing to connect their expertise to students’ needs. This is a team effort — the advisor (me) has a only a certain range of expertise, which meant that students also valued getting help from other helpful faculty who taught courses outside my own range. For instance, one former student wrote, “All faculty members and existing grad students are doing interesting work, and everyone is approachable.”
  3. Finally, all noted the importance of industry-relevant experiences, in addition to research. These included doing internships, using technologies relevant to industry needs, and interacting with people from industry. In fact, several pointed out the need to strengthen these aspects of our program at Oregon State University. (All six of these former students were doing research, as they started the program prior to our new master’s track tailored to the needs of students who want to pursue a career in industry, rather than in research.) For example, one commented on the importance of “classes that are geared towards master’s students who want to go on and become software developers and want to gain knowledge about practical applications of theoretical concepts.”

Does the value exceed the cost?

The five students reported to me that they incurred between $0 and $20,000 in total out-of-pocket costs, due to the fact that they received assistantships for some or all of their terms at Oregon State University.

So, in the end, was obtaining a master’s degree worth it? All confirmed that the value exceeded the cost. One pointed out that people with master’s degrees often have higher salaries than those with bachelor’s. The difference appears to be approximately $7,000 per year right now, varying somewhat based on job title and location (according to payscale.com data for bachelor’s and master’s degrees). The payoff might not be immediate, however. For example, one student noted that he had to switch jobs at least once after graduating in order to obtain a position that made use of his increased skills and paid a higher salary.

Bottom line: What is a master’s degree in computer science good for?

My former students identified four areas of enhanced capability that included soft and technical skills. They obtained these largely through industry-relevant experiences, projects, and mentorship from committed faculty. They believed their employers noticed and valued their improved capabilities, which translated into a higher-paying career.

I hope that this information will be useful to you or to colleagues that might be considering whether to get a graduate degree. We will use this and other feedback to continue enhancing our own program in order to better meet the needs of our students. If you would like to contact me and ask questions, please feel free to send me a LinkedIn invitation.

HWeekend F16

Students spent 30 consecutive hours of engineering design, teamwork, and development at HWeekend on October 8-9, sponsored by the College of Engineering. The theme was “Show’em What You Got!”, and participants did just that, creating some of the most complete projects of any HWeekend. The purpose of the theme was to encourage projects that could be submitted to national competitions.

HWeekend Teensy Soldering
Audrina Hahn solders components to a Teensy board.

It was the sixth iteration of the highly successful event that gives engineering and business students an entire weekend to develop an idea and prototype it. Forty-two students participated with majors in electrical and computer engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, and finance.

After some breakout brainstorming sessions and presentations of their ideas, participants split into 10 teams to work on their projects. The diverse ideas included a modified game of laser tag, a guitar that could tune itself, and a smart shin guard paired with a virtual reality environment.

One of the groups returned from the previous HWeekend held during Spring term. That group continued with their effort to build a ferrofluid display using individually wound electromagnets. The other groups were much newer to their projects, such as the mobile coffee heater group, which worked on finding components they could use to heat liquids in a drinking cup.

“The beautiful thing about this is that it’s fast paced and you really see results, even if they’re not exactly the results you hope for,” says Audrina Hahn, a mechanical engineering student, who worked on the Open Laser Tag project.

This event made use of the all-new Buxton Hall Makerspace, the Mastery Challenge lounge, and the Virtual Makerspace, which gave students access to 3D printing, soldering irons, a drill press, and laser cutting.

“It’s really amazing all the resources that we have available to us that are really simple to use and are things that are up-and-coming that we will probably continue to use into our careers,” Hahn says.

Intel mentor helps a group with their project idea
A mentor from Intel assists the VR shin guard group.

Mentors for this HWeekend included eight industry representatives. Martin Held from Microsemi returned to guide teams and answer hardware questions. Multiple mentors arrived from Intel in Hillsboro, including several recent graduates of Oregon State. These mentors split up to help on projects where their experience helped groups work with unfamiliar technologies. One group that benefitted was the motion tracking robot team, which received help with OpenCV from a mentor who revealed a personal interest in assembly programming.

Ben Buford was one of the recent graduates who came back from Intel to provide mentorship. He spent most of his time contributing to the ferrofluid display.

“I love seeing people come up with quick solutions that let them accomplish something and overcome obstacles that they didn’t know existed three hours prior,” Buford says.

Beyond the satisfaction of completing prototypes of their ideas, students at HWeekend compete for two group awards. The Executors award goes to the team that produces the best execution of their original idea to create the most polished final product and the Helping Hand is for the team that contributes the most to other teams. At this HWeekend, the Arbitrarily Tuned Stringed Instrument team was selected for both awards. The team included members Keaton Scheible, Youthamin “Bear” Philavastvanid, Elliot Highfill, and Savannah Loberger.

Story by Kyler Stole

View the Flickr album.

 

Photo at the 30th Annual Small Satellite Conference in Utah.
Helena Bales poses with her lab group at in front of the NASA booth at the 30th Annual Small Satellite Conference. From left to right, Hollis Neel, Graham Grable, Megan Le Corre, Roger Hunter, David Cotten, Khoa Ngo, Paige Copenhaver, Nirav Ilango, Helena Bales, Caleb Adams. Paige and Caleb hold an engineering model of a cubesat launched by NASA.

Guest post by Helena Bales

I had an amazing experience this summer at the University of Georgia working in the Small Satellite Research Lab. The lab was founded by undergraduate students, myself included, partnering with professors, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Space seems impossibly far away and hard to get to, but with the increased popularity and strength of the small satellite community, it is now easier than ever to reach, even for self-funded, undergraduate engineering students.

We started as a small group of students and created a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of launching a small satellite into orbit. Most of the students on the project were at the University of Georgia (UGA). We had reached out to faculty members in the UGA geography department to see if they wanted a science payload to fly on our CubeSat. CubeSats are small satellites of a specific size. For example, a “1U” CubeSat is 10 cm wide, 10 cm deep, and 11 cm tall. The standard size has aided the commercialization of space.

SPOC mission patch
The mission patch for the Small Satellite that will perform multi-spectral analyses of the Georgia coast.

Currently, we have two CubeSat projects and about 20 members. The CubeSats launch off the International Space Station. One will look at Earth in order to track sediment plumes, algal blooms, and chemical runoff around Georgia. The other will create 3D maps of large geographic features such as mountains. We couldn’t have dreamed that this project would end up where it is now — a lab run by undergraduate students with two fully funded satellite projects.

My role in the lab is to develop the algorithms that we need to accomplish our mission objectives. That mostly involves adapting existing algorithms for use on orbit. Running software on orbit has different limitations than on the ground, so the software needs to be adjusted accordingly. For example, when dealing with space, engineers must take account of power shortages, overheating, and time limitations that might compromise transmission of data. Fortunately, we know these constraints ahead of time. With careful planning and testing, we can insure that our code will run on orbit.

The process of developing cube satellites posed both unique opportunities and struggles. As undergrads, trying to figure out how to build two satellites, we are all learning together. And the experience of working at the Small Satellite Research Lab is incomparable to most undergraduate experiences, because of the nature of the project and the close relationships developed through solving problems in space. Balancing the demands of the project takes a close-knit group of scientists and engineers and communication between group members. Through the experience we have built a productive lab and became close friends.

MOCI patch
The mission patch for the Small Satellite that will create 3D point clouds of large geographic features.

Eight of our members (myself included) received scholarships to attend the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. At that conference we had the opportunity to attend six days of talks about every aspect of small satellite missions. We all learned more than we could have imagined. We were also able to network with industry professionals from organizations like NASA and SpaceX. That week opened our eyes to issues that we hadn’t thought about yet, and introduced us to new satellite hardware vendors. When we returned from the conference, we were equipped to onboard new lab members, finalize our payloads, design our ground station, and plan outreach events.

Despite ongoing encouragement and success, we continue to struggle with getting the funding that we need to make a lab that can support multiple space missions. For example, using space-grade hardware requires a cleanroom in order to assemble our satellite to meet the standards set by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, who have each funded our missions. The funding we’ve received for the projects assumes that there is already a lab that is outfitted with all the supplies necessary to build and test a CubeSat, so we face the additional hurdle of establishing our lab.

I’m proud to be part of a group that welcomes challenges instead taking the easy route — an important characteristic for the next generation of scientists and engineers solving problem in the limitless reaches of space. With creativity and persistence, the University of Georgia Small Satellite Research Lab is pushing itself and reaching new heights.

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Author biography:

Helena Bales grew up in Portland and is a senior in computer science. In addition to her ongoing work at the UGA Small Satellite Research Lab, she works on campus as a software developer at the Valley Library. She spent last summer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center developing applications for the daily operation of the International Space Station. Her internships have fueled her interest in space and she plans to pursue a career in the aerospace industry after graduation.

photo of Vedanth Narayanan
Vedanth Narayanan, a graduate student in computer science, did a summer internship with Tripwire.

Guest post by Vedanth Narayanan

This summer I had a great experience as in intern at Tripwire, a software company based in Portland that develops security solutions. What impressed me the most about Tripwire was how everyone there made me feel comfortable and part of the company. I remember getting coffee in the break room the first week, and multiple people stopped by to introduce themselves and ask about me. I got the sense of belonging fairly quickly. It empowered me. Although we only made small talk, I knew I could ask them for help without hesitation.

The fact that people are social at Tripwire really goes hand-in-hand with the work environment. There are multiple teams that develop and test the products. Cross-team collaboration at Tripwire is highly valued, because it’s crucial that different pieces of the puzzle are properly linked. For that reason, having the right social dynamics is really helpful.

My team gave me a small list of potential projects that I could choose to work on. I got a week to look over the projects I was interested in and choose something I found to be valuable. I really appreciated this because it didn’t box me in.

The first month was the hardest because I was trying to understand the work, the company and the culture. My team gave me the freedom to spend time on intricate problems, and when I ran into anything unusual they were always there to help me through it. They would also point me to who would be able to help me from another team.

One other thing I noticed about Tripwire (that I had not come across working at other companies) was how flat the organizational structure was. Not only was I in touch with my manager on a daily basis, but also my product owner, and even other engineering managers. I was absolutely delighted and surprised to see our CEO socializing and having a beer at a company event.

Portland’s tech culture is said to be unique, and I got a firsthand experience in it. Like you’d expect, going out to lunch was always a thrill. There were many food carts nearby, and the choices seemed unlimited. There was also a nearby Farmer’s market that set up shop every Thursday. These turned out to be a good place to socialize and it gave me a chance to meet people from other tech companies.

I loved my experience at Tripwire. Like I’d expect from any internship, not only did I learn about the company, but I also learned about myself. I was naïve when I thought the most important thing when accepting a job was the work and the people. I’ve come to learn that the work environment is just as important. I want find a job where the environment is conducive to learning, and positively supports new ideas. I am grateful to have had the chance to work there and get to know the people at Tripwire. When it’s time for me to find a job, I can confidently say Tripwire is on my list.

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Author bio: Vedanth Narayanan (who goes by Vee) graduated from Oregon State in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He is currently working to get his master’s in computer science with an option in security. He previously worked for McAfee (now Intel Security), Intel, and OSU’s Center for Applied Systems and Software (CASS). He is very intrigued by the security landscape and software engineering. While he loves being in front of his computer, he is also grateful for the time away from it. During these times you will find him running, hiking, playing ultimate Frisbee or volleyball, at the Oregon coast, or cooking dinner with jazz playing in the background. An avid photographer, his camera is almost always less than ten feet from him. Although his comfort lies in landscape photography, he has recently taken an interest in portraits and lifestyle.

Lizbeth Marquez and Nick Malos
Lizbeth Marquez and Nick Malos, advisors for the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science pose with Benny the Beaver.

In their role as advisors, Lizbeth Marquez and Nick Malos help hundreds of students in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science navigate their way through college. Their goal is to help students succeed and ultimately earn their Oregon State degrees. According to a recent report from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, only 60 percent of college freshmen get a bachelor’s degree within six years. While there are many reasons students don’t complete their degrees, Lizbeth and Nick have some advice to offer to help you succeed.

Lizbeth’s Advice

  1. Get Organized
    College can be different from high school in that high school teachers tend to lead you through all the homework and due dates. In college, the professors post the assignments — often for the entire semester — and expect you to be prepared. Get a planner, use a smart phone app, or get a wall calendar — whatever it takes for you to know when assignments are due.
  2. Find the right place to study
    It may be your dorm room or a cozy corner of the library, but find a place that works best for you to get your work done — while avoiding as many distractions as possible. There are many places to go such as the MU, the Valley Library, your residence hall, or most buildings on campus!
  3. Seek a balance
    College life can be chaotic with various academic and social events. Make sure you stay balanced and don’t overload yourself. One way you can do this is by visiting OSU’s Mind Spa.
  4. Get involved
    You may feel overwhelmed with being homesick or feeling like you don’t belong. We encourage you to consider joining a student group (and be careful not to go overboard), whether it’s academic, religious, athletic, cultural, or social. You’ll make new friends, learn new skills, and feel more connected to OSU.
  5. Take advantage of the academic resources
    Most schools and colleges offer study tables or have tutors available. If you’re having difficulty, these resources are another tool available to you. Another idea: Talk to your classmates about getting a group together to study.

 

Nick’s Advice

  1. Explore your major and career options
    It is important to remember there is no one “right” or “best” major. You should select a major that aligns with your skills, interests, and goals. Talking with a career counselor in the Career Development Center can help you explore the options. Don’t be afraid to change your major. It is estimated that about 80% of undergraduate students across the United States change their major at least once (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.).
  2. Get to know your fellow students
    It can feel intimidating at first, but it is important to get to know your fellow students because they can be a great resource. What better way to find others who share your same interests?
  3. Get to know your professors
    Talk to your professors and attend their office hours. I promise they are not as scary as you might think. Professors are here to help you learn the material, challenge you to think outside the box, and further your understanding of the subject. They are also a great resource when you need letters of recommendation for scholarships, internships, or graduate school. Just remember, the better they know you, the easier it is for them to write a quality letter.
  4. Put in the time & effort
    Some of the easiest ways to succeed include:

  5. Meet with your advisor
    It is important to speak with your advisor early and often. They are the ones who will provide you with your registration pin number. But more than that, they can assist with course selection and planning; registration; understanding major and degree requirements; and navigating the processes to find extracurricular opportunities, internships, jobs, and more.
Photo of Bret Lorimore, Chris Vlessis and George Harder.
Bret Lorimore, Chris Vlessis and George Harder won the Best Use of Outside Data at DataFest, a nationwide event.

Computer science students Bret Lorimore, Chris Vlessis and George Harder took a big plunge into big data when they participated in DataFest, a nationwide hackathon-style event, in April.

The group won the Best Use of Outside Data award in the American Statistical Association competition hosted at over 20 universities, including Oregon State University. DataFest is a competition that challenges students to analyze a complex data set over a single weekend.

“We had nine teams with a total of 38 students from Oregon State, University of Oregon and Reed College, representing statistics, computer science, neuroscience, biophysics and biochemistry, business, math, and economics,” said Charlotte Wickham, an assistant professor of statistics at Oregon State and organizer of the event.

Competitors didn’t have any access to the data ahead of time, nor did they know where the data would come from. This year, Ticketmaster provided data that included information about the company’s Google analytics, ad words, website user “click” data and ticket sales.

Though participants were given millions of data points, the tasks they were given to accomplish were not highly defined. Students needed to decide for themselves what research question they wanted to answer and then worked to extract valuable information out of the data.

“They wanted people to come up with information that Ticketmaster could use as an actionable item to improve their business,” said team member, Lorimore.

Ultimately, the team chose to tackle the effectiveness of Ticketmaster’s advertisements.

“We found Ticketmaster was wasting a lot of money on Google keywords,” Vlessis said.

The trio discovered that people were clicking on the ads but not following through to purchase tickets and as a result, the company lost more than $1.4 million over the course of a year on ineffective advertising.

Vlessis’s startup company, SteadyBudget, happens to solve the same types of problems presented at this year’s DataFest, so the team had access to additional data from advertising analysts.

They looked at general trends of how SteadyBudget analysts interact with their advertisements and the decisions they make about placing or pulling ads. The group then used that information to help make advertising decisions for Ticketmaster.

“It was a way to automate the task of identifying poor-performing keywords and good-performing keywords and make the decision to stop paying for the ones that aren’t working and continue paying for the ones that are,” Harder said. “So we would save them money and automate the process at the same time.”

Although DataFest was about solving a data problem, it was not all about the numbers. “We spent a lot more time brainstorming and talking about what we wanted to do than sitting down and writing code,” Harder said.

“When you get that much data, it’s hard to make any sense of it,” Lorimore said. “Identifying the questions to ask is a challenge in and of itself.”

The group also gained an appreciation for the different ways people approached the data. “Seeing some of the techniques others used, and the way they went about approaching the problems and finding solutions, was stuff I never would have thought of,” Vlessis said.

Story by Gale Sumida

Jen-Hsun Huang photoJen-Hsun Huang, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of NVIDIA, is honored this week by the Oregon State University Alumni Association at the 35th Annual Spring Awards. Huang is receiving the E.B. Lemon Distinguished Alumni Award for his significant contributions and accomplishments within the society and the university.

Since graduating in 1984, Huang has kept close ties with Oregon State as he has progressed through his career. He came to Oregon State when he was 16 to start his degree in electrical engineering. One of the best things that came out of his experience here, he said, was meeting his wife, Lori Mills. The two were assigned to be lab partners in an electrical engineering fundamentals class, and they married five years later. Together they are benefactors of the Kelley Engineering Center, contributing $2.5 million.

Huang, who was also a nationally ranked junior table tennis champion in high school in Beaverton, spoke to Oregon State students about how to succeed on a visit to campus in 2013.

“The most important thing is to do important work — to do relevant work. Then you have to do it with the best of your might,” he said.  “If you do that…you’ll be surrounded by the world’s best at what they do, and then almost anything is possible.”

The success of NVIDIA was built on innovations for graphics processing units for computer gaming. The reach of NVIDIA is beyond video games, however, now entering the realm of artificial-intelligence projects such as self-driving cars. This month NVIDIA announced a new chip that is specifically designed for a technique called deep learning.

The Spring Awards Celebration will be held Friday, April 22, 2016 in the CH2M HILL Alumni Center, on the OSU campus in Corvallis. Registration is requested by April 20.

Carl Beery photo
Carl Beery shows the project that earned him four achievements in the Mastery Challenge.

Carl Beery, a junior in electrical and computer engineering, took first place and a cash prize of $150 in the Mastery Challenge for winter term.

The Mastery Challenge is a new extracurricular program hosted by the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University to provide more hands-on learning opportunities for all students, regardless of major. The program is based on a concept called gamification which uses elements of game playing, such as leader boards and badges, to motivate participants to gain new abilities such as 3D modeling and Python programming.

Beery had already been working on projects on his own, but he realized the Mastery Challenge would give him a better framework for learning new abilities and more motivation for completing tasks.

“The Mastery Challenge is a good starting point to learn about topics you wouldn’t have thought about trying on your own,” Beery says. “Without it, I wouldn’t have learned how to laser cut, and laser cutting is pretty cool.”

To participate, students login to the Mastery Challenge website with their university account to see the list of challenges for which they can earn achievements. In winter term two cash prizes were awarded — one for the highest number of achievements, and a second was awarded randomly to anyone earning at least one achievement.

Beery had completed eight achievements and was tied for first place when he realized a project he had been working on for class — an audio amplifier — would qualify him for four more achievements. He simply videotaped his class presentation and uploaded it to the Mastery Challenge website as proof of completion.

“The experience Carl had was what I was hoping for — a fun way to gain new skills that will benefit him in the future as he enters the job market,” says Don Heer, creator of the Mastery Challenge program and instructor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering.

Mike Rosulek

Mike Rosulek, assistant professor of computer science, was selected for a Google Research Award for a grant to advance methods of customer privacy. The award will allow Rosulek to hire a graduate student to work on the project, and give them the opportunity to collaborate with Google researchers and engineers.

“I have lots of ideas in this space, and it will allow me and a student to dive in head first exploring them,” Rosulek says.

Companies are looking for inexpensive ways to share information with each other without violating the privacy of their customers. For example, two companies may want to find out which customers they have in common. A tool from cryptology called private set intersection allows two parties to find items in common on two separate lists without revealing anything else from those lists.

One part of Rosulek’s research seeks to strengthen the security of private set intersection tools while keeping the costs reasonable so that companies are more likely to adopt good practices for keeping their customer’s information secure.

Another part of the project will work on flexible (or “fuzzy”) matching of items on lists such as addresses. Names and street addresses may have differences in spelling, so looking for exact matches between two sets can be too restrictive. Rosulek’s research will seek to modify current techniques to allow for “close enough” matches.

“I’m excited to see that Google is interested in these advanced cryptographic tools. I’m excited that the techniques can be used to protect sensitive user information. And I’m excited about the new technical and mathematical challenges on the roadmap,” Rosulek says.

Margaret BurnettMargaret Burnett, a professor of computer science at Oregon State University, is one of eight researchers worldwide to be inducted into the CHI Academy in 2016 for pioneering contributions to the field of human-computer interaction. It is one of the highest awards given by the Association for Computing Machinery, SIGCHI.

When Burnett began her career in 1971, there were few female computer scientists, indeed, she was the first woman software developer hired at Procter & Gamble Ivorydale. A few degrees and start-ups later, she joined academia with a research focus on people who are engaged in some form of software development. She was the principal architect of the Forms/3 visual programming language, and pioneered the use of information foraging theory in the domain of software debugging.

Burnett co-founded the area of end-user software engineering, which aims to improve software for computer users that are not trained in programming. She established the EUSES Consortium, a multi-university collaboration which through her leadership has garnered international recognition.

Her current research investigates “gender-neutral” software, uncovering gender inclusiveness issues in software from spreadsheets to programming environments. She has published more than 200 papers, with several receiving best paper awards and honorable mentions, and has presented invited talks and keynotes on her research in 14 countries.

Burnett is also an award winning mentor, and recently received the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.