Monthly Archives: February 2018

How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb?

As technology continues to improve over the coming years, we are beginning to see increased integration of robotics into our daily lives. Imagine if these robots were capable of receiving general instructions regarding a task, and they were able to learn, work, and communicate as a team to complete that task with no additional guidance. Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Connor Yates a Robotics PhD student in the College of Engineering, studies artificial intelligence and machine learning and wants to make the above hypothetical scenario a reality. Connor and other members of the Autonomous Agents and Distributed Intelligence Laboratory are keenly interested in distributed reinforcement learning, optimization, and control in large complex robotics systems. Applications of this include multi-robot coordination, mobile robot navigation, transportation systems, and intelligent energy management.

Connor Yates.

A long time Beaver and native Oregonian, Connor grew up on the eastern side of the state. His father was a botanist, which naturally translated to a lot of time spent in the woods during his childhood. This, however, did not deter his aspirations of becoming a mechanical engineer building rockets for NASA. Fast forward to his first term of undergraduate here at Oregon State University—while taking his first mechanical engineering course, he realized rocket science wasn’t the academic field he wanted to pursue. After taking numerous different courses, one piqued his interest, computer science. He then went on to flourish in the computer science program eventually meeting his current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kagan Tumer. Connor worked with Dr. Tumer for two of his undergraduate years, and completed his undergraduate honors thesis investigating the improvement to gauge the intent of multiple robots working together in one system.

Connor taking in a view at Glacier National Park 2017.

Currently, Connor is working on improving the ability for machines to learn by implementing a reward system; think of a “good robot” and “bad robot” system. Using computer simulations, a robot can be assigned a general task. Robots usually begin learning a task with many failed attempts, but through the reward system, good behaviors can be enforced and behaviors that do not relate to the assigned task can be discouraged. Over thousands of trials, the robot eventually learns what to do and completes the task. Simple, right? However, this becomes incredibly more complex when a team of robots are assigned to learn a task. Connor focuses on rewarding not just successful completion an assigned task, but also progress toward completing the task. For example, say you have a table that requires six robots to move. When two robots attempt the task and fail, rather than just view it as a failed task, robots are capable of learning that two robots are not enough and recruit more robots until successful completion of the task. This is seen as a step wise progression toward success rather than an all or nothing type situation. It is Connor’s hope that one day in the future a robot team could not only complete a task but also report reasons why a decision was made to complete an assigned task.

In Connor’s free time he enjoys getting involved in the many PAC courses that are offered here at Oregon State University, getting outside, and trying to teach his household robot how to bring him a beer from the fridge.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 PM Sunday evening to hear more about Connor and his research on artificial intelligence, or stream the program live.

When Paths Cross: The Intersection of Art, Science and Humanities on the Discovery Trail

When you think about a high school field trip to the forest, what comes to mind? Hiking boots, binoculars, magnifying glasses, plant and fungi identification, data collection – the science stuff, right? Well, some high school students are getting much more than a science lesson on the Discovery Trail  at the HJ Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Forest in the western Cascades Mountains, where researchers are seeking to provide a more holistic experience by connecting students with the forest though art, imagination, critical thinking and reflection.

Sarah (red hard hat) observing two student groups on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Working with environmental scholar and philosopher Dr. Michael Nelson at Oregon State University (OSU), Sarah Kelly is pursuing a Master of Arts degree as a member of the first cohort of the Environmental Arts and Humanities program. Through this program, Sarah works with many collaborators at the HJ Andrews Forest to enrich the experiences of middle and high school students through environmental education.

Sarah giving presentation on the Discovery Trail for the Long-Term Ecological Research 7 midterm review (August 2017); Photo Credit: Lina DiGregorio

Built in 2011, the Discovery Trail at the HJ Andrews Forest not only provides researchers access to field sites, but also is a venue for educational programming. Since the trail’s inception, researchers have designed curriculum that integrated the arts, humanities and science – the foundation of Sarah’s research.  The objective for the trail curriculum is to invite students to explore their own curiosity and values for forests while learning about place through observation, mindfulness exercises, scientific inquiry, and storytelling. Sarah and other researchers are interested in how this integrated arts/science curriculum stimulates appreciation and empathy for non-humans and ecosystems. This curriculum was first used on the trail in 2016.

Two students examining the dry streambed at stop 3 on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

With the use of iPads to guide activities and collect research data, students engage with the forest at a series of stops. After a silent sensory walk to just be in the forest, students cluster in small groups to participate in the lessons at a designated location. At one stop, students are instructed to gain intimate knowledge of one plant by observing all of its features and completing a blind contour drawing. A clearing at another stop encourages students to find clues and identify reasons for disturbances in the forest and their impacts – positive and negative – on the forest ecosystem. Another stop invites students to consider how we can care for forests by reading Salmon Boy, a Native American legend about a boy that gains an appreciation for non-human life by becoming a salmon.

Two students reading Salmon Boy near Lookout Creek at stop 6 (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Using the iPads to log student experiences on the trail, pre- and post-stop reflections, surveys and interviews, Sarah and her collaborators are able to understand the students’ experiences on the trail and assess any cognitive or affective shifts. Several weeks after the trip, teachers are also interviewed to find if the trail experience has impacted student learning and behavior in the classroom. Many teachers are returning visitors, bringing different classes to the Discovery Trail each year.

Sarah’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest; Multnomah Falls in background (November 2014)

So far, the students have expressed positive feedback about their trip on the Discovery Trail with many citing their relaxed mood, new career interests and inspiration to better care for nature. Sarah is busily analyzing the data collected to support her findings and identify ways to continue to enhance the program.

Sarah cultivated a new interest in human impacts on the environment while working for a green events company – the kind that focuses on sustainability – after completing her BA in Communications at her hometown university, the University of Houston. A few years after graduating, she led campus sustainability initiatives for her alma mater – a job she enjoyed immensely, but she always knew that graduate school was her next big undertaking. A work trip to attend the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference brought Sarah to Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband, Dwan, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.

Sarah working on her research project during a Spring Creek Project retreat at Shotpouch Cabin (January 2017); Photo Credit: Jill Sisson

Eventually, Sarah was able to combine her graduate school dreams with her desire to live in Oregon when she became a student at OSU. Sarah is now nearing the end of her graduate studies and recently participated in a Spring Creek Project Retreat to work on a writing piece, as part of her final project – a creative non-fiction composition about her experience with students on the trail. After leaving Houston, Sarah has learned to embrace and enjoy uncertainty and is keeping all possibilities open for her next big step. There is no doubt she will be working to improve the world around us.

Join us on Sunday, February 11 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to journey with Sarah through her environmental education research and path to graduate school.

 

 

 

How can humans help oysters adapt to stresses from ocean acidification?

The Pacific Northwest supports a 270 million dollar per year shellfish industry. Human-induced climate change has increased global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide then enters ocean water, making it more corrosive. As a consequence, oysters and other shellfish that rely on alkaline seawater conditions to precipitate calcium carbonate and build their shells find it harder to grow. The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, which supplies Netarts Bay with oysters and also sells larvae to farmers across the Northwest, experienced larval die-offs of nearly 75% in 2007.

This catastrophe spawned increased research efforts to prevent future die-offs. Sophie Wensman, a second-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Alyssa Shiel in

OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, is working on an unusual new way of growing oysters in Netarts Bay. She is placing large bags of dead oyster shells in the bay and then growing oysters on top of them. Similar to antacids, dead oyster shells neutralize corrosivity in the water by dissolving into carbonate, which the live oysters can then incorporate into their shells. Think of it as a short-circuited version of the circle of life.

Sophie attaching predator bags to shell plantings in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Spat on shell, or baby oysters that have attached to old dead oyster shells. These are what the oysters looked like at the start of the project in August 2015. Now each of those little brown spots are around 9 cm (~3.5 in). Photo Credit Sophie Wensman.

Besides investigating how these oysters will grow, Sophie plans on using her background in chemistry to develop a technique to examine how ocean chemistry  is recorded in the oysters shells, layer by layer. Like all of us, oysters are not perfect. Besides calcium carbonate, they incorporate some impurities into their shells, like certain forms of uranium carbonates. Based on what we know about forams, sea-dwelling zooplankton that also mineralize calcium carbonate shells, Sophie expects the amount of uranium the oysters mineralize will increase under more corrosive conditions, where less carbonate is available. To accomplish this, she will use a technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry, where she will shoot lasers onto samples of oyster shells. The shell bits will vaporize, and the machine will record the amounts of uranium and calcium present. Looking at this uranium-to-calcium ratio and how it relates to the measured seawater chemistry in Netarts Bay could be helpful for other oyster growers to see whether their animals are also experiencing stress from ocean acidification.

Adult oyster shell that has been cut in half to expose the hinge of the shell (left). This hinge is what we are using to trace water chemistry in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Sophie’s mother, who home-schooled her until the age of twelve, instilled in her a curiosity about science and the natural world from a young age. At the age of eight, Sophie became the youngest Marine Docent through the University of New Hampshire’s Sea Grant program. She also worked as a rocky shore naturalist and camp counselor at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH, teaching people of all ages about the rocky shore ecosystem. Sophie attended the University of Michigan studying secondary science education, but interning with Dow Corning and stumbling across an interview with a chemical oceanographer on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program provided her another career idea. This led her to an NSF-sponsored Research Experience as an Undergrad (REU) program at the University of Washington, a 36-day research cruise between Hawaii and Alaska, and a job as a technician in Joel Blum’s lab at the University of Michigan studying mercury isotope geochemistry. Sophie intends to continue her passions of education and chemical oceanography by pursuing an academic position at a research university.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 pm Sunday evening to hear more about Sophie and her research on oyster health and chemistry, or stream the program live right here.

You can download her iTunes Podcast Episode!