Photo of Jeffrey Chu

Jeffrey Chu, a postbaccalaureate computer science student at Oregon State University, had a perfectly fine career as an attorney. After earning a law degree in 2016 from the University of Texas at Austin, Chu worked first as a felony prosecutor, then as a civil litigator.

He liked his job but came to realize that it wasn’t his passion.

Outside the courtroom, Chu’s time was occupied not only with preparing his cases, but also with a ton of monotonous data entry tasks.

“The worst was tracking billing hours,” he said. “I had to keep track of what I was doing every six minutes.”

Chu, who lives in Houston, was working every weekend and didn’t get many days off. In order to make better use of his time, he decided to teach himself to automate some of the mundane tasks. That’s when he fell in love with programming.

Around the same time, one of Chu’s friends completed a six-month coding boot camp and told him about job offers he had received, which motivated Chu even more to make a career switch. Though he could have chosen to attend a boot camp, Chu researched his options and decided he needed a computer science degree.

“I thought the best opportunity for me was to pursue a CS degree, to get a strong foundation and give myself more time to absorb the concepts,” he said.

The degree and the foundation, Chu believed, would help him develop a career as a software engineer, not just a coder. He also realized that a computer science program would give him the opportunity to pursue internships, which would in turn give him an advantage in obtaining a full-time job.

Making an informed decision

Chu dove in to researching online computer science programs.

“One thing you learn in law school is the ability to look for things and do it efficiently,” he said. “So I was pretty confident in my ability to make an informed decision after I did all my research.”

Chu liked Oregon State’s program because he wouldn’t have to take, or retake, core curriculum classes. He could dive in to computer science classes right away. He also perused LinkedIn and found that Oregon State alumni had jobs everywhere: big tech companies, small companies, and startups.

What really convinced him to choose Oregon State was the online community he found in the student-led Slack channel, where anyone can ask questions and many will share their perspectives. Students and alumni constantly interact over a wide range of topics — including classes, interviews, career choices, and professional development opportunities.

“There were great reviews about the program there,” Chu said. “And people were so helpful, building each other up and giving advice. Other programs I looked at didn’t have that sense of community.”

A funny thing happened on the way to a degree

Though Chu quit his job as an attorney to become a full-time student in 2020, he landed a full-time cybersecurity job in 2021, while still pursuing his computer science degree. Chu thought cybersecurity would be an interesting path, and a friend connected him with another friend who worked in the field, who ultimately offered him a job.

Chu has since decided that cybersecurity isn’t the field for him. He anticipates graduating in December 2022, two years after beginning the program. In the meantime, he recently finished an internship at Amazon in Washington, D.C., and is currently on a second internship at Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.

“I’m the type of person who just likes to try multiple things and see what sticks,” he said.

Jeffrey Chu’s interview tips for career-changers

Even before he started the online postbaccalaureate program in computer science, Jeffrey Chu was a fan of the student-led Slack community. During his time at Oregon State University, Chu has been an active participant in the channel, including the following, his contribution to a recent discussion about getting through a technical interview.

To give you some perspective and to contrast with some stories here, my very first tech interview went well and I got an offer for an internship after. My first year at OSU I had major imposter syndrome and didn’t apply to any internships so I was pretty stressed going into this year’s internship recruiting season as it will be my final one (hopefully). I think I owe my success to mostly luck, but there are some things I did to reduce uncertainties.

  1. Get familiar with the interview process.
    • Essentially, know how the interview will go. (Will it be purely behavioral? Two tech questions, one behavioral? Only tech questions?)
    • There are a lot of anecdotes from people who have interviewed with some companies in the past if you do some research online.
  2. Reach out to people you may know who work for the company.
    • Being older, leverage the professional network you have already built.
    • Even if that person doesn’t work in a tech role, they can probably put you in touch with someone who does to get some insight into how the interview may go or what it’s like working there.
  3. Do Pramp/mock behavioral AND technical interviews.
    • Practice doing LC-style questions while speaking out loud while someone watches over you and judges you. When I did my first mock tech interview I floundered on an easy merge intervals question just because I wasn’t used to the pressure.
    • Behavioral wise, practicing the STAR method out loud is much more difficult than in your head.
  4. It’s not always about getting the right/optimal answer on tech questions.
    • Interviewers want to see your thought process, how you bounce back from setbacks, and how you take direction.
    • Sometimes you have to get the right answer though.

Dmytro Shabanov and Harry Herzberg
Oregon State University students Dmytro Shabanov (left) and Harry Herzberg are working on a startup company to help students get better grades.

Two Oregon State University students are winning entrepreneurship awards as part of the team developing Alerty, a mobile app to help students — especially those with ADHD — perform better in class.

Most recently, the team won the Social Entrepreneurship Award at the TiE University Global Pitch Competition and was one of 30 teams to advance to the semifinal round, out of some 1,400 accepted into the competition.

Harry Herzberg, a senior in computer science, and Dmytro Shabanov, a senior in finance and marketing, are joined on the Alerty team by their business partners Jade Zavsklavsky, Artemis Kearny, Nicholas Craycraft, Alexander Victoria Trujillo, and Freya Crowe.

The Alerty app transcribes class lectures in real time to help students not only to review content, but also to see what they might have just missed.

Herzberg explained that students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may unintentionally lose focus in class and — because college courses are often fast-paced, with information that builds upon itself — quickly get left behind.

“I’ve had many classes where I’ve missed the teacher talking about the homework assignment, or a key point,” said Herzberg, who has ADHD. “Then I’m spending the entire day or even weeks trying to catch up, just because I missed that one important point.”

Herzberg got the idea for Alerty when he was in high school. His sister worked as a paraeducator who assisted students with learning disabilities by sitting with them in class, giving them one-on-one support.

“I wanted to make something that people would want to use as a tool, without drawing attention to themselves,” Herzberg said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes were being taught asynchronously online, Herzberg liked that he was able to go back and replay the lectures and absorb concepts he may have missed in real time.

“I was able to get better grades and even made the Dean’s List because I was able to go back and replay, slow down, and speed up the videos,” he said.

Alerty is a two-way street. The instructor must use the app in order for students to use it themselves. When the instructor makes an important point, they press a button on the app, which alerts students with a vibration on their phones or tablets. The app also highlights the corresponding part of the transcript in blue.

After class, students can review the lecture and, if necessary, select a portion of the transcript to ask the instructor for clarification. This feature also helps instructors to see where students are struggling over certain concepts.

The app can help many other students as well, including those who have different learning styles, English language learners, and those who have difficulty hearing.

In addition to the TiE award, Alerty earned second place in the College of Business’s Launch Academy competition, and a grant from the 1517 Fund.

Shabanov, who is responsible for the company’s business strategy, marketing, and financial planning, is working on obtaining additional funding.

Mike Bailey, professor of computer science, beta-tested Alerty in one of his classes during spring term. “For those who have difficulty focusing and taking notes in class, I think this could be a game-changer,” he said.

Watch a demonstration of the Alerty app.

Photo of Margaret BurnettMargaret Burnett, Distinguished Professor of computer science at Oregon State University, is the recipient of the 2022 IEEE Computer Society’s TCSE Distinguished Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Leadership Award. She is being honored for her decades of work breaking glass ceilings for women in computing and software engineering.

Burnett was nominated for the award by Amy J. Ko, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington and, as an undergraduate research assistant and computer science student at Oregon State University, was mentored by Burnett.

“She is the single and sole reason that I discovered research, and the fact that she was a woman in CS made me feel included in a department and field that was mostly men,” Ko wrote in her nomination letter.

Moreover, Ko noted that Burnett continued to mentor her throughout graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University and into her pre-tenure career.

“She is the single most important professional mentor in my life — and as someone who now mentors many, she makes it look incredibly easy,” Ko said.

In addition, Ko praised Burnett for her contributions to the field, including her work to incorporate diversity into many aspects computer science.

Burnett pioneered the field of end-user software engineering, which helps people who are not professional developers create better software. She is also the creator the GenderMag Method, which aims to make software that is usable for everyone, regardless of gender.

“I feel incredibly honored to be joining the ranks of the extraordinary software engineering researchers who have won this award in past years,” Burnett said. 


About Margaret Burnett

The year 2022 marks the 51st year that Burnett has been breaking glass ceilings for women in computing and software engineering. She began her career in 1971 as the first woman software engineer ever hired at Procter & Gamble’s 13,000-employee Ivorydale complex. After a few years in industry, she became the second woman to earn a computer science Ph.D. from University of Kansas, and then became one of two women who were the first to be hired as tenure-track computer science faculty members at Oregon State University. In recognition of the career, Burnett broke another glass ceiling in 2016 when she became the first woman in computer science and in the College of Engineering to be named an OSU Distinguished Professor.

At OSU, Burnett was the first faculty member to do computer science research mentoring for undergraduate students. In her 30-year stretch of mentoring undergraduate and high school students in software engineering and human-computer interaction, over half of whom have been members of underrepresented groups. At least half of her graduate students are also members of underrepresented groups. Her students have achieved extraordinary levels of success, receiving national awards and fellowships from NSF, CRA, NCWIT, NASA, Google, Adobe, and others. In recognition of these successes, Burnett has been recognized with mentoring awards from OSU, NCWIT, CRA, and Microsoft.

Burnett’s work pioneered investigating gender-inclusion bugs in “gender-neutral” software. When she initiated this research in the early 2000s, gender differences in computing workplace and education environments had become recognized, but investigations into software itself considered only gender-specific software, such as video games for girls. Burnett and her team systematically debunked misconceptions of gender neutrality in user-facing software applications from spreadsheets to programming environments. After building the research foundations, Burnett and her team then created the GenderMag software inspection method, which pinpoints subtle gender biases in user-facing software features. GenderMag is now in use by technologists in over 45 countries to improve their products’ equity and inclusion.

Burnett’s seminal research contributions include multiple additional outside-the-box contributions to software engineering that have started entirely new subareas. For example:

  • Visual programming: For her early contributions to scaling up and supporting abstraction in visual programming, she was a recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Young Investigator award in 1994.
  • End-user software engineering: She was the founding project director (2003-2009) for the EUSES (End Users Shaping Effective Software) Consortium, a multi-institution collaboration among OSU and Carnegie Mellon University, University of Washington, University of Nebraska, Drexel University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Cambridge, and IBM. Under her leadership, the EUSES Consortium won 10 best paper awards and honorable mentions, and spawned the subarea now known as end-user software engineering.
  • XAI: She produced seminal work on “end-user debugging” of AI agents (papers in 2007-2015). These early papers, especially the 2015 one, greatly influenced the DARPA Explainable AI (XAI) program, which in turn spawned the now-exploding explainable AI subarea.
  • Spreadsheets: Her seminal work on spreadsheets led to a collaboration with Microsoft that eventually produced new end-user programming features in Excel, impacting millions of users.

Jonah Siekmann and Yesh GodseA research paper on robotics authored by computer science researchers at Oregon State University was recently named one of the top four out of more than 2,000 accepted submissions at a prestigious conference.

Students Jonah Siekmann and Yesh Godse presented their research findings at the 2021 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. In their paper, “Sim-to-Real Learning of All Common Bipedal Gaits via Periodic Reward Composition,” they report on their work using simulations to teach two-legged robots how to run, skip, and hop.

The paper is co-authored with Alan Fern, professor and associate head of research in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Jonathan Hurst, professor of mechanical engineering and robotics.

Traditionally, researchers have tried to train bipedal robots to move by first creating a “reference trajectory,” which tells the robot at each moment where its joints and velocities should be. This approach, however, doesn’t work particularly well since it is difficult to figure out the reference trajectories, and it doesn’t take into account the uneven surfaces the robot needs to deal with.

Instead, the researchers’ new approach trains the robot in simulation, and rewards the robot when it is accomplishing the goal, and gives negative rewards when it is not.

“We use an approach that simply specifies constraints on the foot forces and velocities which allows us to specify the different types of gaits and smoothly move between them,” Fern said. “This worked much better than we ever expected.”

Siekmann, a master’s degree student in robotics who earned an honors bachelor’s degree in computer science from Oregon State in 2020, provided some additional insights.

“We were trying to train a neural network to learn various bipedal behaviors from scratch without any kind of motion capture or reference to what those behaviors looked like,” Siekmann explained. “To do this, we used deep reinforcement learning that allows a neural network to maximize a reward function.”

Added Godse, “It turned out that there was a simple mathematical framework for describing the full spectrum of all bipedal gaits and their corresponding reward/cost functions.”

Godse graduated in just three years with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Oregon State in spring 2021 and began working on robotics research as a freshman.

Both Siekmann and Godse are now working as controls engineers at Agility Robotics, the company co-founded by Hurst that develops the robots used in Oregon State’s Dynamic Robotics Lab.

In a momentous win, 15 Oregon State University undergraduate students took the top spots in Oregon in the prestigious International Collegiate Programming Contest’s Pacific Northwest regional competition.

Shaurya Gaur, a computer science student and president of the OSU student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, helped organize the group’s participation in the contest.

“I competed last year and I loved working with others to solve these fun problems. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed competitive programming, and I wanted to keep doing it with my friends,” he said.

Computer science major Teresita Guzman Nader joined the competition hoping to build skills that might be valuable in a future career, and was pleased with the outcome.

“I improved my skills to work in a team of engineers, and I think this experience will help me to be a better team player in my future work environment,” she said.

While students enjoyed having the opportunity to compete, they wanted to hone their programming skills as well. “I set a goal to learn and practice new algorithms last year and there was no better way to achieve it than with the ACM club at the competition,” said computer science student and club vice president Matt Morgan.

RESULTS

ICPC Oregon Division 1

  • First place: Beavs’; DROP TABLE Teams; (Shaurya Gaur, Matt Morgan, Miklos Bowling)
  • Second place: Hacky Stack (Allen Benjamin, Arshia Soleimanimoorchehkhorti, Zachary Taylor)

ICPC Oregon Division 2

  • First place: Time Limit Exceeded (Wei Yu Tang, Jia Wei Cheng, Blake Cecil)
  • Second place: chmod 555 (Derek Williams, Teresita Guzman Nader, Milan Donhowe)
  • Third place: rm -f * (Sadie Thomas, Myles Scholz, Phillip Bindeman)

Kai Zeng, a computer science graduate student in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, brought home first place in the Lucid Programming Competition. Zeng competed among 260 participants from across the western United States in the hackathon. The outer space-themed challenge required contestants to solve 12 mathematic and algorithm problems such as Six Degrees of Neil Armstrong and Antimatter Annihilation.

Although he hadn’t done any algorithmic problem solving for a while, Zeng decided to enter the contest just to brush up on those skills. “I think algorithm skills should be exercised regularly,” he said. “I plan to participate in more programming competitions in the future to continue to improve my thinking and coding abilities.”

Zeng is a master’s degree student with a research focus on distributed systems and machine learning, advised by Associate Professor Lizhong Chen.

“Zeng’s excellent programming skills have helped his research significantly,” said Chen.

Photo of Souti Chattopadhyay
Souti Chattopadhyay, graduate student of computer science.

Souti Chattopadhyay, graduate student of computer science in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, was first author on a paper that won the Honorable Mention Award at the 2020 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The distinction is given to the top 10% of the papers presented.

Other authors include her advisor, Anita Sarma, associate professor of computer science, and colleagues at Microsoft and University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

“This award means that our research matters and provides deeper insight into what the future can hold in terms of accessible and inclusive computing,” Chattopadhyay said.

Chattopadhyay’s research examines how data scientists make decisions when interacting with programming interfaces. The goal is to make programming tools contextually assistive with freedom to delay and review the outcomes of decisions along the path.

What’s Wrong with Computational Notebooks? Pain Points, Needs, and Design Opportunities

Souti Chattopadhyay1, Ishita Prasad2, Austin Z. Henley3, Anita Sarma1, Titus Barik2

Oregon State University1, Microsoft2, University of Tennessee-Knoxville3

ABSTRACT

Computational notebooks—such as Azure, Databricks, and Jupyter—are a popular, interactive paradigm for data scientists to author code, analyze data, and interleave visualizations, all within a single document. Nevertheless, as data scientists incorporate more of their activities into notebooks, they encounter unexpected difficulties, or pain points, that impact their productivity and disrupt their workflow. Through a systematic, mixed-methods study using semi-structured interviews (n = 20) and survey (n = 156) with data scientists, we catalog nine pain points when working with notebooks. Our findings suggest that data scientists face numerous pain points throughout the entire workflow—from setting up notebooks to deploying to production—across many notebook environments. Our data scientists report essential notebook requirements, such as supporting data exploration and visualization. The results of our study inform and inspire the design of computational notebooks.

Photo of Jordan Bartos.
Jordan Bartos, president of the OSU Hackathon club.

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop the OSU Hackathon Club from holding BeaverHacks Spring 2020 on March 27-29. Seventy-four participants formed 17 teams to develop a website, app, or API on the theme of community building.

It was held online — the usual venue for the club’s events, since the organizers are computer science students in the online baccalaureate program. However, the global health emergency still had an influence on the event.  

“We had a lot of submissions that somehow tied to the pandemic,” said Jordan Bartos, postbaccalaureate student in computer science and president of the club.

Teams were judged by a panel of instructors and industry representatives. The club distributed $400 in prizes to the following winners:

  • First place: The Reading Room by Mae LaPresta, Elizabeth Tackett, Manda Jensen.
  • Second place: Where the Heck by Zach Tindell, Jeremy Binder, Chia-Tse Weng.
  • Third place: barterNow by Lifang Yan, Cameron Grover, Felipe Teixeira Groberio
  • New student category: Community Request Board by Jung Min (Judy) Lee, Wei Yu Tang, Angela Dimon.

All submissions are posted on the Hackathon website.

“It was incredibly gratifying to win, because the focus of our project was something all of us felt very passionately about,” said Mae La Presta, postbaccalaureate student in computer science. She was part of the winning team that created the Reading Room app to help foster a sense of community when social distancing has become the new norm.

Although the club was started by students from the online program, they welcome all Oregon State students. Bartos says his priority as president is to grow the membership of the club and raise awareness of their events. Future events could include collaborations with other clubs on campus.

“I feel pretty strongly about the benefits of the Hackathon club because when I competed in the first one, it really ignited something in me for coding in general,” Bartos said.

Participants say that learning new technical skills, building relationships with other students, and having the reward of creating something new were the main benefits of the experience.

“I was impressed by what everyone was able to accomplish by the end of the weekend. The presentations were incredible, and it was so cool to see what everyone’s ideas were,” said Manda Jensen, postbaccalaureate student in computer science.

Minsuk Kahng and colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology and Western Washington University were recognized by the prestigious journal, ACM Transactions on Interactive Intelligent Systems, for their research that impacts mobile health technologies.

“I’m honored that our paper has been nominated for the best paper. Our work addresses an important challenge of supporting analysis of large-scale mobile health data, by unifying scalable data mining and human-centric visualization techniques,” said Kahng, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering.

The paper, titled Chronodes: Interactive Multifocus Exploration of Event Sequences received the Best Paper Award, Honorable Mention. The authors are Peter Polack, Shang-Tse Chen, Minsuk Kahng, Kaya De Barbaro, Rahul Basole, Moushumi Sharmin, and Duen Horng Chau. ACM TiiS is one of the prestigious journals at the intersection of AI and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), and this award is given to top selected papers.

Margaret Burnett, Distinguished Professor of computer science, was awarded the 2020 iGIANT Champion Award for her outstanding research contributions to inclusive software design. iGIANT® (impact of Gender/Sex on Innovation and Novel Technologies) is a nonprofit corporation that promotes best practices for gender/sex-specific design elements.

“I am honored to be recognized for my work with iGIANT, but all of it was a team effort,” Burnett said.  “None of it would have been possible without the help of many other volunteers, including Larissa Letaw and Jillian Emard here at OSU, working together to help iGIANT’s mission of inclusiveness and equitable experiences for all genders.”

Over the last decade, much of Burnett’s research has focused on gender inclusiveness in software. Her internationally recognized work in this area with students and collaborators has shown gender differences in ways people problem solve with software.

Burnett developed a method called GenderMag with her collaborators that enables IT professionals to identify and eliminate gender biases in the software. She and Anita Sarma, associate professor of computer science, lead the research team that is helping academic and industry partners develop inclusive design for software and websites. Their work was featured in the story, “Oregon State leads fight against gender bias in software,” published by Oregon State’s news and research communications office.