CSEE professor Marie desJardins continues reign as crossword champ

atplay_desjardinsPuzzle Perfect

What do crosswords and Computer Science have in common? For starters there’s CSEE professor Marie desJardins. When she’s not furthering the field of Artificial Intelligence, Dr. desJardins has a crossword puzzle in hand. It’s no accident that she’s the top ranking female crossword solver in the Mid-Atlantic.

This March Dr. desJardins joined hundreds of puzzle pros at the 36th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Directed by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, it’s the nation’s oldest and   largest competition of its kind. Hundreds of competitors spend two days solving seven puzzles. It’s a race against the clock to prove their mental mettle.

“It’s a very unforgiving sport,” she says. “It’s like gymnastics. One little foot slipping off the balance beam and you’re not going to be on that podium.”

You need both speed and accuracy to succeed. Dr. desJardins can breeze through smaller puzzles in fifteen minutes; forty-five for the larger, Sunday-New-York-Times-sized puzzles. Though speed isn’t as important as accuracy in these competitions. One mistake can hurt as much as seven minutes of stalling. 

This year Dr. desJardins handed in seven perfect puzzles. That means getting every single word right—even those baffling clues pointing at pop-culture references or words all but erased from the English language. She placed 24th out of 570 solvers, finishing 5th in the “B” division.

Years ago Dr. desJardins discovered the tournament from the documentary Wordplay, which follows the personal and competitive lives of a band of crossword enthusiasts. One year she realized that the competition was during UMBC’s Spring Break. So she signed up and hit the road for Connecticut.  

DSC_5481“I wasn’t at all expecting to do well,” she says. It was a pleasant surprise when she placed in the top quarter of competitors. The success got her hooked. Since then, she’s been engaged in a personal battle to beat her own time. She has competed five times, and each year, her speed increases.  

Her secret to success? Practice is part of it. Dr.desJardins completes a lot of puzzles. She does them on Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. She does them to relax before bed. She’s adopted a policy of leaving no puzzle unfinished. Keeping a positive mindset is half the battle, she says.

Being a Computer Scientist may have something to do with it as well. Both require a knack for pattern recognition and problem solving. “It’s just the way my brain is wired,” she says.  

Had Dr. desJardins solved a mere two minutes quicker this year, she would have qualified for the finals in her division. Being a finalist would mean solving an oversized puzzle on a whiteboard against two fellow division “B” finalists. It’s a daunting and high-pressure test made tougher by the gaze of six hundred spectators. It’s no surprise that this is Dr. desJardins’ goal when she competes again next year.  

Photos: Top Right, courtesy UMBC Magazine Left, courtesty crosswordtournament.com

UMBC’s Anthony Johnson appointed to NAS committee on atomic, molecular and optical sciences

CSEE Professor Anthony Johnson has been appointed by the National Research Council to the National Academies’ Committee on Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Sciences. The CAMOS committee’s goals include providing active stewardship of the agenda laid out in the National Academies study Controlling the Quantum World and interacting with and advising U.S. federal agencies on science and technology issues involving the atomic, molecular, and optical sciences.

Dr. Johnson is the director of UMBC’s Center for Advanced Studies in Photonics Research. His research is in the area of ultrafast optics and optoelectronics- the ultrafast photophysics and nonlinear optical properties of bulk, nanoclustered, and quantum well semiconductor structures, untrashort pulse propagation in fibers and high-speed lightwave systems.

CSEE professor Nilanjan Banerjee wins Microsoft SEIF award to fund research

https://www.csee.umbc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Banerjeecropped.jpgCSEE professor Nilanjan Banerjee has received a Microsoft Software Engineering Innovation (SEIF) Award. The award comes with a $25,000 grant to help fund a research project that uses inventive wearable computing devices to help paraplegics and quadriplegics get around their homes. It’s called “Wearable Multi-Sensor Gesture Recognition in Assistive Devices for Paralysis Patients”.

Dr. Banerjee’s proposal was chosen from a pool of more than one hundred. He joins sixteen professors and researchers across the world who are also 2013 SEIF recipients.

The aim of the Microsoft SEIF award is to advance software engineering applications and tools by funding researchers with state of the art ideas. Projects involving devices, services, cloud-computing, and applications based on natural user interface (NUI) are top priority.

Banerjee’s project speaks to this goal. The project proposes a gesture-based Glovesystem that will allow paralysis patients to do everyday household activities, like watch television, adjust the thermostat, and turn on a lamp. The heart of the system is two wearable devices. A headband with textile-based EOG sensors will capture eye movement. A glove with flex sensors and an accelerometer will capture hand gestures. Once collected, this data that will be analyzed with a smartphone, translating the wearer’s intent.  

Fellow UMBC professors Shaun Kane and Amy Hurst (Information Systems) were also among this year’s SEIF award recipients. Like Banejree, their project deals with improving accessibility for the handicapped. It’s called “Wheeltop Interaction: Full-Body Gesture Control for Power Wheelchair Users”.

Professor Anupam Joshi to speak at Security & Privacy Symposium

JoshiCSEE professor Anupam Joshi–director of the new UMBC Center for Cybersecurity–has been invited to give a keynote talk at the Security & Privacy Symposium. The symposium will take place at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur India from February 28 to March 1. His talk is entitled “A Semantically Rich approach to Cybersecurity”.

The objective of the symposium is to bring together students, faculty, and researchers from across India to discuss the growing field of security and privacy. Dr. Joshi joins a dozen fellow scholars who will discuss topics including emerging security and privacy challenges and privacy and security in online social media.

Dr. Joshi is an Oros Family Professor of Technology. He has been a Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (CSEE) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) for more than a decade, teaching courses in Mobile Computing, Security, Social Media, and Operating Systems at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

His own research interests deal with Intelligent Networked Systems, with a focus on Mobile Computing. He has recently received a grant from NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program, a three year project to investigate how to better manage security and privacy constraints while querying semantically annotated linked data sources. The project, Policy Compliant Integration of Linked Data, is a collaboration with researchers at M.I.T. and the University of Texas at Dallas.

UMBC cybersecurity expert on reports of state-sponsored cyber espionage and hacking

UMBC Center for Cybersecurity

The week the PBS-distributed Nightly Business Report aired a story on international cyber espionage that featured UMBC's Richard Forno, Associate director of the UMBC Center for Cybersecurity. The piece, Washington Trade-Secret Theft Enforcement Weighs on Shareholders, discussed how cyber attacks are being used by foreign companies with the help of their governments to steal trade secrets from US businesses.


Dr. Forno was also interviewed on Tuesday on the PRI's The World radio news show about the Mandiant report that traces a wave of cyber attacks on American targets to a Chinese military unit in Shanghai. Forno's interview segment starts at minute 7:30, after the introduction.

App-ademics: Dr. Banerjee's Intro to Mobile Computing course teaches Smartphone app development


CSEE professor Nilanjan Banerjee’s new Introduction to Mobile Computing class gives Computer Science students the skills to break into the exploding field of mobile application development.

Nokia Lumia 920phoneToday, more than 125 million Americans own a Smartphone. That’s nearly 40% of the 315 million people living in the United States. And, those numbers are only growing.

For these millions of Americans, their phone is so much more than a tool for making phone calls. It’s a personal planner and a video game console; a GPS and an MP3 player. These days you can download Smartphone applications to add almost any type of functionality to your phone. Dr. Nilanjan Banerjee’s new Introduction to Mobile Computing class is inspired by this growing trend. In it, Dr. Banerjee is teaching students how to create helpful and inventive Smartphone applications.

First, the course teaches mobile phone programming essentials like UI programming, data management, localization, and programming sensors like the accelerometer and compass, mobile OS services, and mobile phone games.

Then, students work in teams of two to dream up and build unique applications for the Windows 8 platform and android platform. “Mobile System development requires strong programming skills, knowledge of networking and OS, working with phone sensors, and user interface design,” explains Dr. Banerjee. “I hope that the students will learn how to use these concepts together to build real applications.”

BanerjeepicThe class is partially supported by Microsoft’s Project Hawaii Initiative. The benefits of this partnership are two-fold. First, it supplies the class with fifteen Nokia Lumia 920 phones for app building. Second, the partnership gives students access to Microsoft’s set of cloud services, which allows students to create more complex smartphone applications. 

“Complex mobile applications like image processing or text-to-speech require computational resources which may not be available on Smartphones,” explains Dr. Banerjee. “Hence, they leverage cloud services—these are services such as a text-to-speech engine resident on powerful backend servers.”

When Dr. Banerjee taught Introduction to Mobile Computing at the University of Arkansas, students produced a range of creative applications. One team created a remote security system for cars (pictured left). The system used a Smartphone to remotely control a video camera placed inside of the vehicle.  

Another student created Project Pond, simple touch-based game (pictured right). In the game, players use their fingertips to create ripples in a simulated pond. As the game progresses, the player must use the ripples to destroy enemies like crawfish, red tadpoles, and dragonflies.

While dreaming up application ideas, the sky is the limit for students. Dr. Banerjee only requires that the applications solve Pondscreenshotreal world problems and use sensors available on the phone.  All the applications must be demonstrated in a Poster/Demo session that will be organized at the end of the semester.

Dr. Banejree, himself an iPhone user who swears by the Maps application, says that knowing how to create these applications is a huge asset for Computer Science students today. “The importance of the field can be seen by the simple fact that smartphone/tablet sales have surpassed desktops now,” he says. “With the advent of more computationally capable phone platforms, integration of sensors in smartphones, and advancements in cloud computing, it is clear that this field is going to grow in importance in the coming years.”

Dr. desJardins and team win Hrabowski Innovation grant for ACTIVE

It was a case of lab envy that inspired professor Marie desJardins to dream up ACTIVE, the new dynamic laptop lab that will sprout up in the Engineering/Computer Science building next fall.

The culprit? CASTLE, the Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment created by the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences in 2010 (pictured below). While teaching in the space for one of her courses, she looked at the low-profile computer screens, wall-mounted monitors, and circular workstations and thought: “Why don’t we have one of these?”

CASLTE Lab UMBCWhen the Hrabowki Fund for Innovation was announced, Dr. desJardins and a team of CSEE professors including Penny Rheingans, Tim Finin, and Charles LaBerge submitted a proposal to make a similar lab space a reality. This February, the team was awarded a Hrabowski Innovation Implementation and Research Grant to create ACTIVE (Active Computing Teaching and InnoVation Environment), a new classroom that will make group work and active learning a priority.

This semester, the future site will be transformed from an abandoned classroom to a “dynamic laptop laboratory”. desJardins and co. envision a room with movable furniture and easily-accessible floor power outlets. The idea is to create an open space that will make it easy for students to collaborate and for teachers to interact with students. This physical re-design is being supported by a grant from BAE Systems and the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

Instead of filling the space with bulky, expensive desktop computers that will be outdated in a few years, the lab will network students’ personal laptops using special software. It will allow for screen and application sharing between computers, an instant messaging tool between teachers and students, the ability to edit and create documents collaboratively, and more. desJardins explains it as a virtual infrastructure laid over the physical space.

“The key innovation is that courses that have traditionally been taught in a primarily lecture-based format will be able to take advantage of the physical space and software support to incorporate group activities, collaborative online problem solving and programming, real-time quizzes, and interactive laboratories that are interspersed with mini-lectures,” says Dr. desJardins. These teaching techniques will ultimately help students learn better.

A section of Dr. desJardins’ CMSC 101:  Introduction to Computing is one of four pilot courses that will be taught in ACTIVE come fall 2013. Others include Dr. Rheingans’ CMSC 346: Data Visualization, Dr. Finin’s CMSC 331: Programming Languages, and Dr. LaBerge’s CMPE 450: Computer Engineering Capstone.

Some classes have been begging for such a set up. CMSC 101 relies on group activities to help students—especially women and underrepresented minorities—feel engaged and incorporated into the Computer Science community. Last year it suffered when taught in a traditional computer lab, where the rows of cumbersome computers made it impossible for students to see the board or to break into teams. ACTIVE will make Dr. LaBerge’s Computer Engineering Capstone even more true to working in the industry by emulating state-of-the-art industrial research and development companies like Apple and Microsoft.

This summer, all four professors will re-design their classes to best make use of the space.

Dr. Tim Finin says that adapting his Principles of  Programming Languages class will “be a challenge,” but, a worthwhile one. Increasing active learning in the class will help transfer students —who typically take it in their first semester—with the often-difficult adjustment. Dr. Finin is considering techniques like “Pair Programming” and having students program in-class.

He sees the new space as a “step in trying to understand how we can teach better by exploiting new technology.” Finin thinks that the relationship between technology and education is bound to grow. “[Technology] could potentially have as big an impact on education as online-shopping had on retail sales, or as the web had on the news industry,” he says.

desJardins predicts that ACTIVE will help professors learn how to teach better, switching the focus from teaching content to teaching skills. Throughout the semester, the team will evaluate the effectiveness of their classes and share their findings at the Provost’s Teaching and Learning Symposium. They hope to share their experiences, and the space, with other professors at UMBC—professors who one day might say to themselves: “Why don’t we have one of these?”

Meet new CSEE Lecturer, Dr. Sadeghian

PedrameditedNew Computer Science Lecturer, Pedram Sadeghian, always knew that teaching was for him. It was figuring out what to teach that was the challenge.

Dr. Sadhegian studied Psychology as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until after college, when—out of curiosity—he took a class in C programming, that he fell in love with the subject. “I liked the whole concept of problem solving and algorithm development,” says Dr. Sadeghian. “It is a fun challenge to get a program to run and produce the correct output.”

He got his Master’s in Computer Science and his Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Louisville.  After graduating in 2006, Dr. Sadhegian dove right into a career in teaching.

“It never gets boring,” he says. As a teacher, he is always learning something new. Dr. Sadeghian taught briefly in Kentucky until a position at Howard Community College (HCC) lured him to Maryland in 2007. For six years, he coordinated and taught classes in HCC’s Computer Science and Information Systems program.

The biggest difference between HCC and UMBC?

“Parking,” he laughs. But, also class size. This semester, Dr. Sadeghian has a whopping 190 students—even a few former HCC students—in his two classes. He is teaching CMSC 104: Problem Solving and Computer Programming, a non-major course that ex-plores fundamental problem solving and algorithm development, and CMSC 201: Computer Science I, an introductory computer programming class for majors. For most students, these classes are their very first encounter with Computer Science.

For Dr. Sadeghian, that’s what makes them his favorite classes to teach. He enjoys the responsibility of opening young minds to the field, and ultimately, future careers, in Computer Science. To do that, Dr. Sadeghian knows that he must engage his students.

“I really like to make the class session interactive and dynamic,” he says. Dr. Sadeghian demonstrates programming concepts on the computer, rather than stuffing them into slides. He gives live demos, knowing that even when mistakes happen, students are engaged and learning better.

His goal is to be the best teacher that he can be.

“The qualities of a good teacher are that they are interested in the subject, are prepared for their lecture, explain concepts clearly, give meaningful examples and assignments, and are ready to address questions both in the classroom and during office hours,” he says. “I try to demonstrate these qualities in my courses.”

CSEE Department welcomes Don Engel as Affiliate Assistant Professor

DonEngelThe CSEE department welcomes Dr. Don Engel as an Affiliate Assistant Professor. Dr. Engel currently works as UMBC’s Assistant Vice President for Research, where he manages prospective internal and external research partnerships.

“I believe this [new appointment] will make me better at my core duties by putting me in the same situations that UMBC students, staff, and faculty face every day,” he says. He is eager to draw on his background in Computer Science and Physics through research and teaching.

“Perhaps most importantly, I like the people in the department and am glad to be a member of the departmental community in a formal way.”

Currently, Dr. Engel is working with CSEE professor Dr. Tim Finin and Dr. Anupam Joshi on research with NIST, while also exploring research opportunities in Big Data and Bioinformatics. He hopes to eventually teach classes that are at the intersection of computer science with physics, the life sciences, linguistics, and politics.

Dr. Engel has had a passion for Computer Science since elementary school, when he taught himself BASIC. He has written a handful of applications including when2meet.com, a scheduling tool that coordinates busy schedules that was inspired by his stint in student government, and ShowMe3D, an iPhone application that takes and displays 3D photos. “I code to solve problems I’ve run into firsthand and because it’s fun to learn new things and apply them,” he says.


Cindy Greenwood joins CWIT as Assistant Director, Cyber Scholars Program coordinator

The Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) welcomes Cindy Greenwood as their new Assistant Director. Ms. Greenwood will spearhead the new Cyber Scholars Program which kicks off this fall.

Cindy Greenwood loved college so much that she never wanted to leave.

So she didn’t.  

When an Advertising and Public Relations internship during her senior year of college showed Ms. Greenwood that it wasn’t the career for her, she switched gears. She let her heart decide.

“I felt like I could make more of a difference by going into higher education,” she says.

Greenwood knows first-hand the difference that the college experience can make. Raised in Ishpeming, Michigan–a small town of no more than 7,000 people that is “half the size of UMBC,” she says—Ms. Greenwood thought it would always be her home. That is, until she left for Grand Valley State University.  

“A college campus is like no place else. You can do anything,” says Ms. Greenwood. “You can go from a cultural event where you’re trying food from Cambodia, to a dance party with glowsticks.” The atmosphere of possibility urged her to try new things, like studying abroad in Australia.

Afterwards, a master’s program in Higher Education Administration at the Leadership Center of Washington State University beckoned to her. After graduating, Ms. Greenwood spent eight years working for and with college students, first at Ferris State University in Michigan, and then at the University of South Florida.

In 2011, she joined UMBC as the Alumni Programming Coordinator in the Office of Institutional Advancement. Here, she started the Student Alumni Association to help connect current students with alumni. Hungry for more one-on-one time with undergraduates, Ms. Greenwood volunteered to be the advisor for the UMBC Vegetarian Student Group.

It’s the chance to work with students on a daily basis that drew her to the Assistant Director position in the Center for Women in Technology, she says. Ms. Greenwood will coordinate the new Cyber Scholars Program, which is run in partnership by CWIT and the UMBC Center for Cybersecurity. Her duties include overseeing the Cyber Scholars Living Learning Community, planning events, advising scholars, and teaching a seminar and bridge program for Cyber Scholars.

“The scholars programs are really interesting [at UMBC] because they really touch on every part of students’ lives,” says Greenwood.

An advocate of social justice and equality, Ms. Greenwood says she identifies with CWIT’s mission to bolster support for women in the male-centered fields of Engineering and Information Technology. She is a co-chair of UMBC’s Presidents Commission of Women. In the end it all comes back to her experience in college.

“I’ve had some good female mentors throughout my career,” says Ms. Greenwood, “and I definitely hope to be that to other females as well.”

*Ms. Greenwood joins CWIT as Assistant Director on January 28, 2013.

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