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Team Vibe Vision and Team Spider Sense Connecting Technology and Societal Good

Building a good team is often cited as the key to success in a variety of spheres — from business to the arts, from sports to science. For Mason Mechanical Engineering professor Jeffrey Moran, however, the ability to hand-pick a team for the second phase of the 4-VA Collaborative Research project “Toward T-Shaped Graduates: A Joint Capstone Program at the Nexus of Mechanical Engineering and Science and Technology Policy”, was completely out of his hands. Fortunately, though, the eight students who signed up for the Capstone project last summer — indicating an interest in building on the continuing project — turned out to be Moran’s Dream Team.

As luck would have it for Moran, when surveys went out to rising mechanical engineering seniors outlining opportunities for capstone projects last summer, the ‘just right’ eight students chose the option of working on the vehicle alert system.

The project, which tackles barriers to operating a vehicle for the hard of hearing and deaf communities by building assistive technologies to alert drivers and passengers to sounds around the vehicle, was launched by Moran’s capstone students in collaboration with a counterpart team at James Madison University, in the 2020-21 academic year. Yet, in part because of pandemic-related restrictions that kept the teams from working together, the tools and technologies that were developed on the project needed some advancements to improve the final product. Refinements and enhancements were necessary.

The reasons the eight students selected the project were as diverse as their backgrounds. A sampling:

  • Javeria Jawad, who acted as one of the two team leads, was drawn to the hands-on aspect of the task, explained, “I liked the practical implications of the project, it wasn’t just theory, it actually built something.”
  • Wadeed Fakhoury felt that the project fulfilled two of his interests, “I like to work on cars, and I love to help people. This opportunity to benefit the hard of hearing operating a vehicle was just what I wanted.”
  • Michael Mullins enjoys developing electronic games and has a computer science background. He saw the project as an opportunity to add to his coding skills. In fact, he led the coding efforts on the project, making crucial improvements to the machine learning-based sound detection platform developed by last year’s team.
  • Faiza Al-Bahrani had perhaps the most compelling interest in joining the mechanical engineering team with its sights set on helping hard of hearing communities. Al-Bahrani has a cochlear implant, without which she is clinically deaf. Removing her implant during work sessions, Al-Bahrani served as the team’s resident Chief of Quality Assurance.

Moving Forward.

This second-year team met Moran’s hopes and expectations for the phase two of the project, combining their skills and interests to build on the existing project.

That initial effort began in 2019 when Moran reached out to 4-VA@Mason with an interest in creating an interdisciplinary capstone program in collaboration with colleagues in the School of Integrated Sciences at James Madison University. The faculty members’ backgrounds ranged from mechanical engineering to political science, Moran wanted to tackle problems that do not fall neatly into one disciplinary category, including the development of renewable energy technologies, autonomous vehicles (often called self-driving cars), the use of robotics in medicine, and more. Moran sought to task students with the goal of addressing public needs; undertaking problems that straddle boundaries between disciplines. “The overarching goal is to create T-shaped graduates who have a general level of knowledge about a broad span of subjects, forming the horizontal part of the T, while cultivating deep knowledge in their own specific area, representing the vertical part,” Moran says.

The first cohort of students, working in the pandemic-affected 2020-21 capstone year, sought to focus on making automobiles easier to use by deaf and hard of hearing populations, with an eye toward self-driving cars, which are expected to number in the hundreds of millions by 2030 and will be used by individuals with varying needs. Armed with data indicating the challenges that deaf and hard of hearing populations face when driving, the students set about outfitting a golf cart with a microphone to detect noises near the vehicle, using machine learning to identify the sound, and creating a seat cushion outfitted with a haptic sensor which vibrates to let the driver know that a hazard is nearby. The driver is then prompted to read a tablet screen mounted on the dashboard that identifies the noise.

Although the 2020 students got a good start, Moran knew there could be more to the project. Much of the in-person work was not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited lab work. However, with funding still left in the budget, Moran opted to create a phase two of the effort and asked the next group of students to take up the project.

Take it up, they did. As Hoa “Andy” Huynh, another member of the team leads exclaimed, “We improved on it in every way!”

When the two team leads, Huynh and Jawad, got the project last September, they discussed a plan of activity and started preparing schedules. Jawad explains that the teams did theoretical work over Zoom meetings in the fall. Jawad’s team was tasked with input — working on microphone processing sounds to the laptop, while Huynh’s team focused on output — from the battery to the haptic feedback system. Huynh notes that the two teams initially worked separately on their efforts from September to December of 2021, and then they worked as a group every Tuesday and Thursday in a lab on the Sci Tech campus from January through May 2022. Huynh adds, “Professor Moran attended the Tuesday meetings to check in on our progress, give us feedback, and help us with questions.”

Hamzeh Amin plays an audio siren to prompt the system to identify the sound which is displayed on the laptop.

The teams did all the work in-house except for the original code which was written at James Madison University. Mullen accessed that code and built on it. He then went on to convert Spectron graph images to recognize sounds – a dog bark, gun shot, car horn, and siren — through machine learning.

Indeed, the new teams examined every element of the system and made improvements. Huynh says, “First, their system wasn’t integrated, there was only one microphone, the existing Raspberry Pi was not strong enough, we upgraded to a Windows laptop which is much more powerful.” Huynh adds that while the original cart had only one microphone, the new team installed four. “Based on the feedback from the deaf community surveys, we understood that it was important to indicate which direction the sound was coming from,” he says. “Michael was able to develop a system that identifies the sounds in 2.5 seconds and then it appears on the laptop monitor and also indicates the direction from which the sound is emanating.” Jawad adds that the seat cushion was also expanded to include four vibrating haptics which reveals to the driver the direction of the sound.

Mounted laptop identifying sound and the direction of the sound.

With the newly enhanced golf cart, the 2021-22 group was ready to share the results on the lawn in front of the Nguyen Engineering Building on the Mason Fairfax campus on May 5 for Capstone Day. Nathan M. Kathir, Associate Professor & Director of Senior Projects, says it was an opportunity to, “See their creativity in-person.”

Cars of the Future.

Moran reflects on the progress made by the second phase team and indicates that, with funding still left in the budget, he’d like to return to another collaboration with Integrated Science and Technology group at JMU next year. “Tremendous possibilities remain with this project; we can take this to the next level by making the sound detection system even faster, training it to recognize a wider array of sounds, or filtering the input noise to pick out the hazard from a noisy background,” says Moran. “We’re also interested in making the intensity of the haptic feedback depend on the distance between the sound source and the vehicle.”

Because it is expected that the coding requirements for the project will be expanded, Moran anticipates adding at least one Computer Science major in the team to take ownership of the increasing demands. Moran also hopes to continue to address the policy-related issues associated with the use of conventional and autonomous vehicles by deaf and hard of hearing communities, explaining, “In keeping with the original vision of this project, I would also like to see next year’s students look at the policy implications of this work, particularly the updates that are needed to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to enable individuals with various needs to use autonomous vehicles more effectively, since AVs are only going to become more numerous on our roads.”

Kyung Min (left) reviews the project with attendees at the Capstone Day project presentations.

“After the Capstone Day event, we had several people say to us, ‘I want this for my car’ – even people who have full use of both ears!” Moran adds. “We’re grateful for 4-VA’s continued support and flexibility as we’ve steered this project through two — and soon to be three — academic years, not to mention a global pandemic. We’re excited to see where it goes next.”

Team Vibe Vision: Hoa “Andy” Huynh (team lead), Michael Mullins, Wadeed Fakhoury, Faiza Al-Bahrani
Team Spider Sense: Javeria Jawad (team lead), Jimmy Torrico, Hamzeh Amin, Kyung Min

The Dream Team (Featured photo) Left to right: Wadeed Fakhoury, Kyung Min, Jimmy Torrico, Professor Moran (in cart), Hamzeh Amin, Faiza Al-Bahrani, Javeria Jawad, Hoa “Andy” Huynh, Michael Mullins (kneeling).

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Grant Stories

Alexa, Are You Listening?

4-VA@Mason Team Leads Consumer Privacy Analysis of Personal Assistant Devices  

Today, smart home devices are ubiquitous, and increasingly, are playing a more prominent role in the lives of millions of Americans.  The question is, however, how big of a role?  And is it one that most of us are comfortable with?

Vivian Motti

These were the topics attracting the attention of Vivian Motti, Assistant Professor in Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing, Department of Information Sciences and Technology, along with two other Virginia professors — Ahmad Salman at James Madison University and Carol Fung (previously at Virginia Commonwealth University), now at Concordia University, Montreal.  Although Motti was aware of the similar paths of work being conducted by Salman and Fung, she saw an opportunity to intersect with them and combine their work via a grant from 4-VA.

Ahmad Salman
Carol Fung

Now — two years, dozens of interviews, hundreds of reviews, thousands of hours of analysis, and one pandemic later — “Human-Centric Privacy-Preserving Controls for Smart Home Devices” has delivered a concrete set of privacy controls for smart home devices that are effective and easy for consumers to adopt, and relevant and useful for practitioners to incorporate in the implementation of next-generation smart home devices.  In fact, the research team has already provided these controls for future implementation by community members from academia, industry, and standardization bodies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Motti began her journey by considering how smart home devices were being used – by both tech savvy and not so tech savvy — consumers.  “What we learned is that the people who are very tech savvy were able to keep their data more private because they know how to configure their network. Consequently, the devices they use only have access to information inside the house and it does not get out,” says Motti.  The trouble began, however, with consumers that were not able to get control of their Amazon Alexa, Echo or Dot, or Google Home products.  “These consumers didn’t know how to access the log, or how to delete it, were in danger of losing their personal information.”  Further, Motti explains, the first versions of the device did not even provide access to these logs to the users.  Consequently, says Motti, consumers started to complain.

But just as Motti’s team’s pencils were sharpened, the pandemic hit.  Labs were shuttered and students were sent home. The plan to conduct individual consumer interviews needed to be scuttled.  The group continued, undaunted. “We could not meet with participants in person, so we modified and amended the protocol of the user studies,” says Motti. “Specifically, we relied more on the analysis of online reviews. Then, we conducted user studies using Zoom and Miro (for the co-design sessions). Lastly, we collected data through Amazon MTurk, reaching a larger number of users and analyzed publicly available online reviews.”

With the data (finally) in hand, the team began parsing out the work.  Salman handled the experimental design and data analysis while Fung evaluated physical prototypes to test controls, collaborating with data collection and analysis from user studies.  Motti’s students got involved remotely, with Chola Chhetri, a Mason Graduate Research Assistant leading the way with experimental design and data collection and analysis.  Chhetri also assisted with papers preparation, submission, and presentations. Graduate students Huining Feng and Haoran Lee helped with the analysis of online reviews, experimental design, and data collection while undergrads Jacob Cox and Joseph Aversa looked at graphic user interfaces for privacy controls.

The next hurdle was to aggregate the information and data collected and present it to stakeholders who could impact how the information is implemented within the industry.  “Chola led the meeting with advisory board members from academia, industry, and NIST, sharing the major findings as well as the recommendations and suggestions that we developed to improve current devices,” says Motti.  “It was great because he received very positive feedback about the validity of the work, and what the industry must first recognize to better understand the needs of consumers and end users, and second, to recommend what should be implemented and deployed in the next generation devices.”

While the pace of both compliance and legislation has been slow and reactive in the personal assistant environment, Motti says that a pathway forward is now in the hands of a breath of consumers, industry, and regulators thanks to the 4-VA grant.  In fact, their findings have been widely distributed at the National Cyber Summit, Human Factors in Cybersecurity, Human Aspects of Information Security & Assurance, and the International Conference on Information. Additionally, the study will appear in the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, and at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting.

But Motti sees a longer road ahead, “This grant allowed me to start with an exploratory approach — we looked at the online polls, looked at the literature, interviewed and surveyed participants. But it also sparked new research questions, new areas we would like to test and to go into more depth. Once we saw the results, we know that there is still more work to be done. So, we plan to apply for larger grants from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and the National Science Foundation to have more validation for future work related to the project.”

Alexa will be listening…

 

 

 

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Grant Stories

“Mapping the University” Using Archives and Digital Tools to Explore Virginia Campus Histories https://mappingtheuniversity.rrchnm.org/

With the expertise and resources of Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and Executive Director Mills Kelly to support her, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jessica Mack considered this possibility: Could digital media and mapping tools be utilized to illustrate the growth of Virginia university campuses, analyzing histories using university archives, digital mapping, and aerial photographs?

This approach, Mack thought, is particularly important as universities across the U.S. reckon with their institutional backstories—including difficult histories of slavery, exclusion, segregation, and bias in higher education. Mack believed it would be revealing to examine how these records left traces on the physical structures of the campus. The project, she determined, would necessitate blending a group of scholars including university archivists, historians, digital specialists, as well as graduate and undergraduate student researchers.

Mack received an enthusiastic response when she contacted other 4-VA

Steve Bookman

schools to get their input on the proposal. However, one institution stood out as the perfect partner – Old Dominion University. ODU was a good fit for two reasons: Like Mason, which broke from UVA 50 years ago to stand on its own, ODU moved out from under the wings of William and Mary. What’s more, when Mack connected with ODU’s University Archivist Steven Bookman, she found the perfect co-PI with the ideal skillset for the project.

After receiving the 4-VA@Mason approval for her proposal, Mack set out on a year-long discovery trail, with she and her team connecting at various points on Mason’s Fairfax campus and throughout the state.

(L to R) Jessica Mack, Laura Brannan Fretwell and Catalina Mayer on Mason’s campus

Mack and graduate research assistant and PhD candidate Laura Brannan Fretwell began archival research trips in Fall 2021 — to Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia, the Fairfax County Courthouse Historic Archives, and the Virginia Room at the Fairfax Public Library, as well as several visits to Mason’s own Special Collections and Research Center at Fenwick Library. “During these visits, we took digital photographs of large quantities of archival material about the founding and early construction of Mason and ODU,” Mack explains. “Vanessa Baez and Professor Matthew Rice of Mason’s Geography and Geoinformation Science Department assessed the aerial imagery that is available of Fairfax and Norfolk around the time these campuses were built, and we created a digital repository of documents, images, and maps.”

“The partnership with ODU has been generative and interesting,” says Mack. “We were able to meet with our 4-VA partner, Steve Bookman, in person last fall at ODU and learn quite a bit about ODU’s history.” Mack’s team held an ongoing series of Zoom meetings with Bookman throughout the year. “As a digital humanities enthusiast, I enjoyed bringing the history of ODU online as well as introducing archival research to my history student,” says Bookman.

The project team also included Greta Swain, another RRCHNM GRA and history PhD student, who created campus maps using a geographic information system during the fall semester.

Joseph Moore

During this time, Mack hired two undergraduate student researchers, Catalina Mayer and Joseph Moore, who worked on the project during both the fall and spring semesters. The project team spent the fall semester gathering archival material and processing and carefully labeling each item using Tropy (tropy.org), a research photo management software developed at RRCHNM. Mack explains, “This was a great opportunity for the students to gain firsthand experience with archival research as well as valuable experience with software, database management, and metadata.” Mayer and Moore made several trips to Special Collections Research Center at Mason’s Fenwick Library to listen to oral history interviews of key Mason administrators and community members to identify audio clips to be used on the site.

The team spent the spring semester analyzing documents, selecting sources, and drafting narrative essays for the site. With the information collected and documentation researched, the team launched into the second phase of the project,https://mappingtheuniversity.rrchnm.org/ which opens their research to the public via a lively and interactive website.

Jason Heppler, senior web developer at RRCHNM, built the website and designed an interface that presents narrative essays alongside dynamic, interactive campus maps. The maps are essential elements on the site as they provide visualizations of the campuses of George Mason University and Old Dominion University developed over time.

“Thanks to a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant, we have learned more about the parallel histories of these two Virginia institutions and been able to teach students about archival research, digital methods, and writing for broader publics in the process,” says Mack. “Throughout this collaborative project, everyone involved learned new digital and archival skills, and I see that as the greatest success of the project.”

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Researching Polar Thermoelectrics: Mason, UVA, JMU Effort Nets Promising Results

Xiaoyan Tan

There’s a lot of energy in the field of energy these days.  One specific area that attracts much attention is in thermoelectric materials, which transforms heat into electricity or converts electricity into cooling technology for power generators or refrigeration. There’s also another appeal in thermoelectric materials — their ability to generate electricity from waste heat released by spacecraft, motor vehicles, and industrial plants — a positive checkmark in the environmentally friendly ‘green’ movement.  Drilling down this issue even further is the area of polar thermoelectrics. The reality in this field, is that fundamental mechanisms which govern the thermoelectric properties in this class of materials are not fully understood.

Gaining a greater awareness of polar thermoelectrics has long intrigued Xiaoyan Tan, Assistant Professor in Mason’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. Tan’s research focus is the discovery of functional and multifunctional inorganic solid-state materials, ranging from intermetallics to oxides, with applications in technology and energy conversion.  Tan foresaw the benefits of using density functional theory (DFT) calculations to understand these polar thermoelectric materials better and predict novel polar thermoelectrics. She also saw possible options to expand her research in the field with two other 4-VA schools – UVA and JMU. Tan recognized these routes after reading several of Dr. Prasanna Balachandran’s (UVA) papers and meeting Dr. Masoud Kaveh-Baghbadorani (JMU) at the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Prasanna Balachandran
Masoud Kaveh-Baghbadorani

Tan also saw a valuable opportunity for Mason students to learn DFT calculations from Balachandran and to learn how to characterize materials using the second harmonic generation technique from Kaveh-Baghbadorani, which were not available to Mason students.  Tan envisioned that a collaborative research grant from 4-VA@Mason and 4-VA Complementary Grants, available at UVA and JMU, could provide the opening to engage in the shared research.

With the grants awarded and in hand, Tan initialized her plan: Mason students would first synthesize thermoelectric materials, determine the crystal structure, and measure the low-temperature thermoelectric properties. The prepared samples would then be sent to JMU to measure the second harmonic generation properties. Faculty and students from UVA would undertake the majority of theoretical DFT calculations of electronic structure and thermoelectric properties, providing the theoretical understanding of the measured ultra-low thermal conductivity data. Based on knowledge learned from UVA, Mason students compare the experimental results with theoretical results. In addition to the collaboration with UVA and JMU, the team also collaborated with Prof. Susan Kauzlarich at UC-Davis, who assisted with high temperature thermoelectric properties.

With limited access due to pandemic shutdowns, Tan found it initially challenging to manage this research plan. However, the group made do and got to work. Mason PhD candidate Callista Skaggs (pictured in featured image with her poster) was responsible for synthesizing the pure compounds, the characterization of thermoelectric properties at low temperature, and data analysis of obtained results. “I met with the UVA team over Zoom to discuss the project,” says Skaggs. “Each meeting would increase our overall understanding of the compound, allowing each group to discuss what they were doing in data analysis. These meetings allowed the groups to have a better understanding of the project as a whole and to keep the project on track.”

Zachary Messegee

Mason PhD graduate student Zachary Messegee says that working on the project provided an invaluable education. “I learned new instrumentation techniques and got the understanding behind the measurements,” Messegee adds, “During the project, we tried a couple of novel techniques in our lab, and now these experiences and understandings can be replicated for future research activities and passed along to other new members of the group.”

Messegee further explains, “I was responsible for measuring the optical properties of the compounds that Callista prepared and performed data analysis and corresponding figures for publication.” Messegee also benefited from an additional perk on the project, students completing their degrees at Mason were able to attend the “Introduction to Materials Informatics” class taught by Balachandran at UVA. Students learned about machine learning and DFT calculations, which equally expanded knowledge and skills.

The collaboration was appreciated by both students and faculty. As Kaveh-Baghbadorani notes, “First and foremost, this project was a great collaboration with an enthusiastic researcher like Dr. Tan. I found the project an enthralling topic with great potential. In addition, through this project, an undergraduate researcher here at JMU found an opportunity to start learning about a cutting-edge topic.”

And the research has paid off.  Says Tan, “We have successfully identified two promising thermoelectric materials Ag2GeS3 and Ag10Ge3S11. A phase-pure polycrystalline Ag2GeS3 sample has been prepared, and the polar crystal structure and low thermoelectric has been confirmed.”  The results were enthusiastically received at the American Physical Society Spring 2022 meeting, the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2021 meeting, and the North American Solid State Chemistry Conference (Summer 2021), where Skaggs won third place in the poster presentation. The results of this project have been published in a high impact ACS Journal, Chemistry of Materials (https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chemmater.2c01050)

Skagg’s Third Place Poster

“This was a great experience!” says Skaggs. “I was able to meet professionals in my field and discuss my research with them. They were able to give suggestions on different analysis techniques and characterization methods, that I was unfamiliar with, that could improve my understanding of the material.  Winning third place was a shock – it was gratifying to see that the research I and others had done was valued so highly.”

Balachandran’s take on the project echoed the benefits of the exchange of ideas, “Our group enjoyed the interactions with PI Prof. Tan’s group at GMU. I believe that we understood the strengths and weaknesses of our research capabilities better, which is crucial as we transition to writing collaborative grants. Without this funding, we would not have had a clear path to have generated sufficient preliminary data for a publication and demonstrate that our groups collaborate well.”

Kaveh-Baghbadorani concludes, “There might have been a day, hundreds to thousands of years ago, that scientists and philosophers would sit in a corner and write about their thoughts. That model is destined to fail these days. Great scientific discoveries happen through diverse collaborations. Collaboration with other schools is an inseparable part of conducting any kind of research, that leverages the strength of each partner university and improves efficiencies in higher education. We are thankful for 4-VA at JMU and GMU for promoting this partnership.”

 

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4-VA@Mason and BAS: Getting to the Finish Line

For some students who begin their college career at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) — especially adult learners, first generation students and veterans — taking the leap to a four-year degree requires much more than negotiating transfer credits, selecting a class schedule, attending class, and doing homework.  For these students, sometimes finding time in the day for education is itself a challenge.  Life gets in the way. However, thanks to 4-VA@Mason and the Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) program, there is a path for a smooth transition from that two-year experience to a four-year diploma.

BAS offers a unique curriculum which has grown from two specializations to eight concentrations with four in technology-rich fields.  Many BAS concentrations can be completed entirely online, or via a hybrid format. Importantly, BAS ensures that all credits are transferred from NOVA to Mason.

Although the BAS program has experienced growth over the years, with its humble start of 1 student in 2012, the BAS program has ballooned to an expected 170 new students in Fall 2020.  While enrollment rates have accelerated as the program has grown in size and strength, the COVID – 19 pandemic is thought to be the reason for the explosion of registrations in the Fall class.

“Because of our extensive online offerings, BAS has attracted a surge of students since in-person learning was discontinued in March,” explains BAS Academic Program Coordinator and Adjunct Professor Krystal Dains. “We recently held a virtual transfer orientation for our Fall transfers which was an absolute success.”

What’s more, Dains says, those students already in the BAS program experienced a seamless shift to the virtual learning world.  “Overall, I would say that BAS students were perfectly positioned to adapt to the sudden changes in their education. Since many of our concentrations can be completed entirely online, the abrupt move to online classes in the Spring did not seem to have a huge impact on our students,” explains Dains. “Although some students have previously chosen in-person courses, all of them have had at least some experience with online learning, so it wasn’t totally new territory.”

Through 4-VA@Mason, the BAS program has changed exponentially, including removing various barriers — such as age restrictions — which allowed more students access to the opportunity.  Additionally, the program has expanded the degree pathways, and is now offering degree completion programs in the following areas:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Cyber Security
  • Technology & Innovation
  • Managerial Leadership
  • Legal Studies
  • Health, Wellness, and Social Services
  • Human Development and Family Sciences
  • Applied Conflict Analysis and Resolution

Dains also notes that the Mason BAS program is built on flexibility.  Even the approach to constructing the degree pathway is nimble. “The benefit of this model we’ve created is, it’s really quick. We get the correct people around the table.  We decide the learning outcomes and which classes support them.  We develop the curriculum and submit it to Undergraduate Council (UC).  For BAS, once UC approves it, we are good to go,” says Dains.  “We are perfectly positioned to put a new program in place quickly so we can be on the cutting edge.”

While Dains is enthusiastic about the future of BAS at Mason, she points to the already realized success of graduates who are flourishing in their careers (See “BAS Program Opens New Doors”).

“We have so much potential for future growth,” says Dains.  “For me, it’s an exciting program to work with and a great opportunity to be a part of something new and growing — and growing fast.   Our technology offerings are the right degrees at the right time.”

 

BAS Program Opens New Doors for Army Veteran

After seven years in the Army, including deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq, Gavin Amy returned to Northern Virginia to begin the next chapter in his life.  Studying his options, he decided to take advantage of his GI benefits and enroll at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

His time at NOVA moved quickly thanks to several Russian language classes he had under his belt which were applied to his general studies courses.  He then began classes specific to an Associate of Applied Science degree in Cybersecurity.  Soon after, Amy learned about Mason’s Bachelor of Applied Science program which could help him see that next goal – a four-year degree.  “When I looked at the cybersecurity option in the BAS program, it offered a more practical and focused group of classes that could lead me to a job,” he recalls.

At the BAS orientation at Mason, Amy met his future counselor, Krystal Dains.  “Krystal answered all my questions that day” and, as Amy also credits, from that day forward. “She was my first exposure to the BAS program.  The transition to BAS was seamless and painless.  But probably what helped more than anything was Krystal.”

In 2019 Amy graduated from Mason with an Applied Science degree with a concentration in Cybersecurity. “In my second to last semester of undergraduate, I applied to the graduate program to get a Master of Science in Digital Forensics.”  The graduate degree allowed Amy even more opportunities in the job market.

Reaching his goal has resulted in a successful outcome for Amy.  He is beginning a new job in Incidence Response, which combines his academic experience in cybersecurity and forensics.  “I’m happy with what my academic career has led me to.”

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Grant Stories

Applying AI in Complex Macromolecular Modeling: A Difficult Challenge Realizing Beneficial Gains

AI is a hot topic these days, with engineers and scientists looking to adapt artificial intelligence (AI) technology into a variety of chemical, physical and materials applications.  However, its use in predictions of kinetics and dynamics has not been studied as closely.  This subject came to the fore at Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling in the form of a question, “Is AI capable of identifying meaningful patterns in the temporal behavior of solvated macromolecules?”  This question is important because it is understood that chemical sciences combined with engineering the associated data will be critical for finding solutions for environmental pollution, healthcare, sustainable energy resources, and global warming.  Learning how these processes occur at the molecular, nanometer, and mesoscopic scales — inspected through computational simulation — and analyzing how associated big datasets can play a fundamental role in tackling complex systems could prove valuable. This question prompted Professors Olga Gkountouna (then in the Department of Computational and Data Sciences at Mason) and Estela Blaisten-Barojas, the Director of Center for Simulation and Modeling sought a 4-VA@Mason grant to look more closely into the possibility.

With the grant in hand, but with the pandemic in full sway, Gkountouna and Blaisten-Barojas devised how the work on this important research could be conducted within the restrictions of the shutdown.  They needed a bright, independent thinker who could be taught to take up this big question.  The solution was found when they tapped (at the time) doctoral student James Andrews (pictured above with Blaisten-Barojas on an earlier assignment) to do the difficult research.  Andrews had previously worked with Blaisten-Barojas on several projects leading to his doctoral dissertation, and both professors felt as though he would be up to the complex task.

Andrews dove into the project, exploring the ability of how three well established recurrent neural networks — ERNN, LSTM and GRU — could provide viable data models.  “Basically, James worked on forecasting how and if a group of macromolecules in a solution are going to keep together as a cluster or not,” explains Blaisten-Barojas.  “If we can analyze how the macromolecules are behaving, we can estimate a prediction of what will come in the future. It is an estimate of the future, similar to what is done with the weather.”

After much analysis, Andrews and the two PI’s concluded that the recurrent neural network architectures investigated generate data models which reproduce excellently the macromolecules fate in the solution in the short-term. In the long-term, the forecasts statistical distributions yielded time events with limited variability.  However, the team was able to discern the parameters of when supervised machine learning serves as a viable alternative for long all-atom computer simulations.

Blaisten-Barojas adds that another important outcome of the research was the energy savings – both human and computational.  “Predicting modeling saves hundreds of hours of computing time, which require a lot of energy. Indeed, the Office of Research Computing big computers would be crunching numbers and storing the many terabytes of space, for output that could be avoided. Having a reliable forecasting model predicting if it is worth continuing a simulation or if it is going to give results that are not expected is a highly desirable tool.  With some information on the simulation future, one can plan ahead, stop, make changes, go in a different direction, or eventually continue the simulation. In a nutshell, our new decision-making tool aids the simulation practitioner to assess when long simulations are worth continuing.”

While the analysis was tedious and difficult, Blaisten-Barojas reports that Andrews found an outlet to keep up with the hard work – by leaning on peers in his research group.  Andrews and three other doctoral students in the Computational Sciences and Informatics PhD program met virtually on Fridays during the pandemic to exchange their graduate research results, share comments, input, suggestions, and provide encouragement.  “These meetings maintained a supporting and cheerful platform during the uncertain pandemic times,” notes Blaisten-Barojas.

The PhD study group: (From top) Scott Hopkins, Greg Helmick, Yoseph Abere.

Andrews’ hard work paid off, with a paper published in Chemical Science, the prestigious journal published by the Royal Society of London: “J. Andrews, O. Gkountouna and E. Blaisten-Barojas, “Forecasting Molecular Dynamics Energetics of Polymers in Solution from Supervised Machine Learning.””   The work has also been disseminated in arXiv, a preprint repository maintained by Cornell University and Zenodo, a database repository of codes and data maintained by CERN.

 

 

Another jewel in the crown for Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling, with some help from 4-VA@Mason.

 

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News

4-VA@Mason Awards 2022-2023 Collaborative Research Grants: Mason Faculty to Partner with Seven 4-VA Schools

Eleven pilot research projects, submitted from a wide range of departments across Mason, are set to launch July 1, 2022, thanks to funding from the state-sponsored 4-VA program. The 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants are designed to encourage new and innovative research conducted in conjunction with faculty at other 4-VA schools across the commonwealth.

“Our 4-VA@Mason Team as well as our Advisory Board were impressed by the depth and breadth of the proposals we received this year,” notes Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason.  “From Athletic Training degrees for marginalized students to Green Infrastructure, from Rural Virginia Landownership Trends to Avian Window Collision, there’s going to be a terrific variety of research under our 4VA@Mason banner.”

In addition to promoting partnerships among the 4-VA schools, the Collaborative Research Grants provide seed money to prove out novel concepts which often go on to receive funding from public and private institutions based on the initial 4-VA catalyst funds.

For Dr. Kuo Tian, this grant will allow his team at Mason, with Dr. Ran Ji, and his colleague at Virginia Tech to closely analyze several critical factors in solid waste collection to develop a model for reducing the impact of waste.  As Dr. Tian illustrates in his proposal, the amount of municipal solid waste production is rapidly increasing in the U.S. due to population growth and urbanization, and can create ecological, economic, and societal challenges. With anaerobic digestion on the cusp of providing a promising technology to improve the sustainability of food waste, but which necessitates citizen participation, it is important to get a clear picture of real time garbage waste and the prospect and potential of community buy-in.  The team plans to partner with the Prince William County Solid Waste Division to conduct research, do community assessments, and provide a blueprint for implementation of the process.  “This grant is the first step to help us provide municipalities with a clear and success-oriented process of execution,” explains Dr. Tian.  “We are very hopeful that with our results, we can scale up the methodology with a subsequent larger research grant.  This subject is of great interest to public agencies.”

In addition to Mason, the 4-VA collective includes the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.

“We look forward to telling the stories that develop from the excellent cross-institutional research that will soon be underway,” says Muir. “Congratulations to the Mason faculty receiving a 2022-2023 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grant.”

The grant recipients are delineated below with the PI name, grant title, and co-collaborating schools:

Broberg, Shelby — Communication Center Tutor Training Needs Assessment and Open-Access Resource Development (VT, JMU)

Caswell, Amanda — Athletic Training JEDI Increasing Retention and Academic Performance of Athletic Training Students of Marginalized Students Through a Mentoring Program (JMU, ODU, UVA)

Doebel, Sabine — How Does Experience Support Working Memory Development in Early Childhood? (UVA)

Hanley, Daniel — Coordinated outreach across Virginia Universities and behavioral experiments to invent novel technology that reduces avian window collision mortality (WM)

Kim, Younsung — Assessing Green Infrastructure Potential Using Multi-Level Ecological and Economic Factors: The Northern Virginia Case (UVA)

Ranade, Nupoor — Ethical Data Analytics: Investigating Data Analytics as a Pedagogical Practice for the Humanities (ODU, JMU, VT)

Son, Byunghwan — Globalization in Reverse: The Diffusion of K-pop in the United States (UVA)

Tian, Kuo — Decision Support Tools for Smart Municipal Solid Waste Collection (VT)

Van Sant, Levi — Participatory Methods for Land Ownership Research in Rural Virginia (JMU)

Wang, Xuan — Data-driven Prediction and Regulation of Firing Rate Dynamics in the Brain (WM)

Weiss, Margaret — Co-teaching in Secondary Inclusive Classrooms: A Professional Learning Series  (VCU)

Established in 2010 upon the recommendation of the Governor’s Higher Education Commission and the Governor’s Commission on Economic Development and Job Creation, 4-VA is a partnership among eight universities in the commonwealth. 4-VA@Mason grants are offered in four broad areas—collaborative research, course redesign, shared courses, and degree completion.

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News

Find a Need and Fill It. The Mason BAS Program.

One area where 4-VA@Mason has made a profound impact is in degree completion, specifically in the development of the Bachelors of Applied Science (BAS) degree program. Launched ten years ago with just one student and two available concentrations, it is now flourishing as a popular and effective education option with almost 300 students enrolled. 

The degree was designed to help shepherd students graduating with applied associate degrees at community colleges to concentrations that fulfill requirements for a four-year degree at Mason. Today the BAS program is open to several community colleges and has ballooned to nine concentrations across several colleges within the university. 

Together with the ADVANCE program which 4-VA@Mason also helped to build, students moving from a two year degree to Mason’s four-year programs now have a robust selection of pathways to get to the finish line.

“Although we had high hopes for the BAS effort when we began – carefully aligning courses and curricula, appointing student advisors, and building concentration tracks, we never imagined such remarkable outcomes.  The results have been very rewarding.” admits Janette Muir, Vice Provost Academic Affairs, and the Campus Director of 4-VA@Mason. 

Muir also credits the BAS success to the specific concentrations selected for the program, “We had an opportunity to look strategically at those jobs that will be in demand in the future for Metropolitan Washington DC, as well as all of Virginia, and build our degrees around them, integrating corresponding skill sets into the curriculum.  Thanks to our strong relationships with area business, industry, and government leaders, we have been able to create a pipeline of talent to fill those needs.”

The BAS program now offers these concentrations:

  • Applied Conflict Analysis and Resolution
  • Cyber Security
  • Cloud Computing
  • Data Analytics
  • Health, Wellness and Social Services
  • Human Development and Family Science
  • Legal Studies
  • Managerial Leadership
  • Technology and Innovation

One person to witness this growth from the ground level is Krystal Dains, who, in 2014, started with the Mason BAS program as an advisor and today serves as the program’s Director.  While Dains was working her way through her roles in the program, she watched the enrollment numbers rise.  She notes particularly the jump when the Cyber Security concentration was introduced in the 2014-15 academic year.  She also saw a boost during the pandemic.  “Because of our extensive online offerings, we attracted a surge of students when in-person learning was discontinued in March 2020,” she says.

Dains explains another reason for their success, “We’re built on flexibility — even the approach to constructing the degree pathway is nimble. We get the correct people around the table.  We decide the learning outcomes and which classes support them.  We develop the curriculum and submit it to Undergraduate Council (UC).  For BAS, once UC approves it, we are good to go.  We are perfectly positioned to put a new program in place quickly so we can be on the cutting edge.”

As BAS grew, especially in Cyber Security, Dains needed to grow the faculty. And she needed just the right match.

BAS Expansion. The ‘Right Place at the Right Time.’

Mason alum and adjunct professor, Jen Deavers was recommended as a perfect fit for the program. Deavers holds an undergraduate degree in Decision Science Management Information Systems, and two master’s degrees also from Mason.

While life, work, and a young family kept Deavers away from teaching for a few years, she jumped back in 2019 when Muir suggested she teach the BAS Cyber Security class and, specifically, address the two-semester research capstone project.  Muir wanted a hands-on approach for sections 492-493 allowing students to gain practical experience and build their resume.  

Deavers got to work.  “First off, we wanted the capstone project to be flexible, but to provide practical experience.  It could be an internship; it could be self-study; it could be to learn a programming language,” she says.  Also, Deavers wanted students ready for the work force, guiding them to create a resume. “We get them to The Writing Center and Career Services and start building a professional portfolio,” Deavers notes.

For Deavers, who describes herself as passionate about connecting people, ‘connecting’ is the cornerstone of the capstone project. She has a requirement that students attend networking events and ‘put themselves out there.’  However, she points out, “Networking can happen anytime, anywhere.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be in person – it can be on a Slack channel, on Discord, and through Meet Up groups — most have a digital format.”  Deavers does encourage her students to attend the two Mason Innovation Forums held each semester and target two or three professionals from industry to talk with about their career, job interests, and internship opportunities. “There are humans behind these computers,” Deavers explains.  “We just need to bring our students together with people in the workforce.”  (See “Connecting for a Dream Job.”)

After teaching the Cyber Security focused capstone class for eight semesters, it was time to grow the program again.  “I started out teaching 10 students per section and we’re up to 30 students per section,” Deavers explains.  Deavers enlisted one of her own former students, Hanna Westover, to take on teaching the second semester class.   “We are going to tag team,” Deavers says. “Cybersecurity interviews are tough. Hanna is taking it one step further and will really ‘drill’ our students for interview prep.” 

Deavers expects that the BAS Cyber Security concentration will continue to boom, “We’re in the right place at the right time.”  Adding, “We’re also going to see people coming through for Cloud Computing – that’s another hot program right now.”

Knocking Down Barriers and Adding Masters Programs. Two More Steps Forward.

With BAS concentrations filling the need for students and Virginia businesses and government, Dains has an eye toward expanding the reach of student population.  Her goal?  To remove the barriers for students matriculating into the BAS degree. As the program often assists traditionally underserved populations including veterans, adult learners, and first-generation college attendees, Dains wants to give students greater access to a great education.  Already enlarging the base, the BAS program now welcomes students from Laurel Ridge, Germanna, and Tidewater Community Colleges.  Dains hopes to expand that pool to more schools in the future.

Also on Dains ‘to-do’ list is adding to the growing number of accelerated master’s degrees aligned to the program.  Qualified students currently have access to an Applied Information Technology MS, Digital Forensics MS, and the Management MS programs if they are in the Applied Science, Cyber Security Concentration. Qualified students in the Data Analytics concentration have the option of obtaining an accelerated Applied Information Technology MS, or Data Analytics Engineering MS. Concludes Dains, “Our goal is to give our students the best options for success – in their education, their careers, and their lives.”

Connecting for a ‘Dream’ Job

Jen Deavers believes in connections and doesn’t give up a chance to bring her students together with anyone in the cyber industry.  Whether formal events or chance meetings, she takes full advantage of building relationships. 

She relates one experience when she had a potential student reach out and ask about what track to take in the BAS program.  After some back and forth, she learned that the potential student was currently in an internship with Disney in Cyber Security.  “I immediately asked, ‘Would you come in and talk to my class?’ What an opportunity to hear from someone in Disney cyber work!” she exclaims.

She concedes she often gets pushback from her students about the networking requirements in the capstone project.  She understands that it’s uncomfortable and ‘students feel vulnerable putting themselves out there.’  However, Deavers does not send them out without a good deal of preparation.  “I have them craft questions for the professionals they meet, and I go over the questions and their materials and approve them in advance,” she explains. “But I tell them: ‘Do not leave without getting a name and a number!’”

However, Deavers says the dividends are worth every bit of angst the students fear.  “When I read my students’ reflection papers, I realize that it’s making a difference,” says Deavers. Students have been thanking her for pushing them to go to the Innovation Forum, which is traditionally held at the Army Navy Country Club near Mason’s Fairfax Campus.  One student wrote about her experience, noting “I’ve never been to someplace so fancy!  I was nervous just showing up.  But when I sat down, I met a person from the industry.  They said they were fine with me calling them later in the semester for an interview!” 

Deavers recalls another former student, Mallorie Debarr, “She is exactly who I want to teach,” says Deavers.  “She has enthusiasm and was willing to do the tasks assigned in 492-3.”  DeBarr recently emailed Deavers with this exciting news:

I want to thank you for pushing me forward in my career; even though they were just assignments, they’ve been extraordinarily valuable in navigating the job-hunting process. This brings me to my fantastic news; I just landed my dream job! Well, the first of many steps in my career progression. I just accepted a position as an Information Assurance Analyst at a small but growing tech startup in Loudoun that starts on June 6th. Additionally, they want to put time into training me to be a Security Consultant and travel to meet clients. (AMAZING!)

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Grant Stories

Developing a Blood Test to Support Treatment of Surgically Induced Type I Diabetes

Starting Small.  Finishing Big.

Happenstance brought Dr. Robin Couch’s Lab and research into the 4-VA network.  Although he was aware of 4-VA@Mason’s Collaborative Research Grants, Couch hadn’t thought much about the program until he received a request from Dr. Mazhar Kanak of VCU.  Kanak approached the Couch Lab and the Mason Metabolomics Facility, asking if it was possible to identify biomarkers in blood serum which will determine a patient’s suitability for an islet cell auto transplantation, a procedure applicable to patients that suffer from chronic pancreatitis, requiring the removal of the pancreas. Couch concluded that the 4-VA program could offer an opportunity to answer VCU’s call.  Thus, he applied for, and subsequently received, a 4-VA@Mason grant.

Today, with his 4-VA project complete and yielding very promising results, Couch has emerged as an unabashedly enthusiastic cheerleader for the possibilities of collaborative research across the Commonwealth.  “Here in Virginia, we’re doing some very cutting-edge research, between UVA, Virginia Tech, JMU, VCU and all the other schools,” says Couch, “the state has really invested a lot of money at these institutions; but we’re all doing something a little bit different.  Therefore, it’s imperative that we support collaborations between the institutions to maximize our dollars so we’re not duplicating efforts.”

Couch, an Associate Professor in Mason’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department reflects on why he believed it was possible to develop a test to meet VCU’s needs.  Couch details the comprehensive testing done in the Mason Metabolomics Facility, noting, “Unlike most bloodwork — where you just are looking at a targeted analysis of say a single glucose test – in our lab, we can look at thousands of different features and do a comparison.”

Specifically, Kanak — whose position titles include Assistant Professor; VCU School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Division of Transplant Surgery; and Director of the Pancreatic Islet Cell Transplant Lab – wanted some insight into predicting which patients would be good candidates for an islet cell auto transplantation. 

When the pancreas is removed, so is the body’s ability to produce insulin.  Through islet cell transplantation however, the body can generate insulin and avoid surgically induced Type I diabetes. Yet this procedure is only effective in 25-50 percent of patients who have a pancreatotomy. Kanak postured, could a blood test serve as a predictor of successful surgery? Couch thought it was possible. 

Challenges Ahead.

Islet cell auto transplantation is conducted during the surgery to remove the pancreas.  The patient’s specific pancreatic cells that normally produce insulin (Islet cells) are extracted, cleansed, and returned into the patient.  The islets then embed themselves onto the liver and resume their function releasing insulin.  Because the islets are the patient’s own, there is no auto rejection. 

Kanak carefully collected bloodwork from nine different pancreatotomy patients at various time points — before the patient underwent surgery, at several stages during the surgery, and then after the surgery – and sent them to Couch for analysis.

Then the pandemic hit.  The analysis Couch envisioned possible looked possibly impossible.  Labs were shut down.  Students were sent home. Faculty couldn’t conduct research.  The blood samples sat frozen in the lab.  For months and months. 

Then, when labs began to open back up, there were explicit restrictions on who could be in the lab and how many people could be in the lab.  Several students originally designated to work on the project moved on to other life choices with the long break.  Fortunately, Couch had a more than suitable fallback plan.  He was able to rely on Mason Metabolomics Facility Lab Co-Director Dr. Allyson Dailey, who stepped in to handle the research.  “I was able to run all the samples and then assisted with data analysis,” says Dailey.

Dr. Allyson Dailey in the lab

Sample processing is quicker than data analysis, notes Couch. So, when the lab got back to work following the shutdown, considerable time was spent doing an exhaustive analysis of what features in the bloodwork most correlated with surgical outcomes.  Dailey concluded that of the 2,500 features found, there were only six metabolites identified as predictors of outcome.  A big breakthrough for the team.

“Now we don’t need to look at 2,500 metabolites, we only need to look at six — and we can ignore all of the other ones,” Couch points out.  “Going forward, we can focus our study and our attention only on those six and it makes it much easier to process the data. Now, it won’t be so time consuming.”

With the important groundwork done, Couch believes they can take this research to the next level.  “This is a great pilot scale investigation,” says Couch.  Next stop?  Getting a grant application into the National Institutes of Health, to seek funding for a clinical study with hundreds of participants — ensuring the biomarkers are validated.

Importantly, Couch thinks there actually could be much more to the research.  He wonders, if it is possible to identify the successful candidates for islet cell auto transplantation; is there a future where this procedure could be valuable for all Type I diabetes patients?  “Is it feasible to engineer out the problems and then make it successful for everybody?” Couch asks. “Hopefully,” he answers.

Drs. Allyson Dailey and Robin Couch

Couch and Dailey reflect on the research and its outcome.  Concludes Couch, “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the 4-VA funds.  We would have never had access to those samples, and we would never have done the research if it wasn’t for this program that fosters that collaborative environment.  We’ll get further faster with this type of collaboration. It’s one thing to fund individual islands (schools) with equipment and personnel, but to make a bridge between the islands, it really makes a big difference.”

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4-VA Initiatives

Providing Balance, Injecting Energy, Creating Student Savings – Redesigning:  HIST 121

After spending almost one full year redesigning HIST 121:  Formation of the American Republic, Dr. Cynthia Kierner rolled out the new course and awaited student response:  Judging from the feedback, the new HIST 121 is a great success.

Here’s a sampling of students’ comments:

  • The Civil War letters assignment “crafted my skills as a writer & document analysis . . . It should be like this for all classes!”
  • “It was a great experience. I was able to get the info I needed on Monday and work collaboratively on Wednesday.”
  • “Really appreciated the opportunities for discussion in lectures. It helps cement the material.”
  • Modules were “a good way to shift focus from memorizing information to interpreting information.”
  • The Civil War letters assignment “allowed me to really dive into primary sources to learn about history.”

Beginning the redesign, Kierner recognized her challenge.  The course, a sweeping overview beginning with the Native Americans and moving through Reconstruction, covers a lot of ground.  Moreover, the introductory class is primarily taken by non-history majors who do not necessarily harbor a passion for the subject.

“I sought to use the 4-VA@Mason grant to redesign HIST121 to emphasize skills and active learning while simultaneously lowering student costs,” explains Kierner. “Specifically, I planned to replace expensive textbooks and document readers with free online sources–including the acclaimed opensource U.S. history text, AMERICAN YAWP–and also to create a series of new module assignments that give students the guidance they need to use online databases encouraging the development of research questions, to find and interpret primary sources (words and images), and ultimately produce their own small-scale research projects. In other words, to let them act like real historians.”

Although quite familiar with many sources available to create the modules, as a researcher in the field who has taught this course often, Kierner conducted some further investigation to identify new informational sources, including digitized Civil War letters.  Kierner credits Mason’s History Librarian, Dr. George Oberle, for his assistance in finding information and making it accessible.

Concludes Kierner, “This was a desirable opportunity to retool a lecture class to emphasize active learning. It re-invigorated my teaching in lecture-style classes, while providing students with a better experience at a more affordable cost – reducing books and materials costs from $100-$150 for to $0!”