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Bringing Technology to Public Good

Mason and JMU “Engineers” Project for Hard-of-Hearing Community

When a proposal to fund a project entitled “Toward T-Shaped Graduates: A Joint Capstone Program at the Nexus of Mechanical Engineering and Science and Technology Policy” arrived at the 4-VA@Mason office, it was quickly apparent that it would check more than a few 4-VA boxes – creating an interdisciplinary, wholistic approach for education which utilizes technology for societal good.  As it turns out, the 4-VA Advisory Board agreed, and a grant for the research was extended.

This project asked students from James Madison University and Mason to consider how technology can be applied to solve challenges that include both technological and policy components.  Through trans-institutional partnerships, students were challenged to innovate outside of their disciplinary backgrounds by collaborating across programs.  They were guided by four faculty advisors from a range of fields — engineering, biotechnology, political science, and communications. As the lead PI Dr. Jeffrey Moran explains it, “T-shaped graduates are those that represent both a depth (the stem of the capital letter ‘T’) and breadth (top of ‘T’) of expertise.”

Moran sought to task students with the goal of addressing public needs; this often means tackling problems that straddle boundaries between disciplines. Moran noted that today’s environment calls for a new type of student and professional – an individual who is skilled in transcending disciplinary silos to address undertakings that do not fit into a single, specific category. 

Mason student and team lead Kyle Hall called the project assignment complex and challenging. “It was so broad and open, it was hard to know where to begin,” Hall says.  That, along with the shutdown brought on by the pandemic, the team (naming themselves ‘Level 6’ — see below) was prevented from meeting in person with the JMU students or with policymakers (as originally intended) to discuss the project.  Nevertheless, they forged ahead armed with research confirming that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community were often hampered by their disability when driving. 

Looking toward the future of autonomous vehicles (AV), the team settled on creating an alert system for an AV to support hard-of-hearing adults as they rode in an AV.

Their first assignment would be to learn more about the specific needs of the population. Fortunately, Hall notes, the JMU group had experience in theory and research reports and were able to provide the necessary foundation to begin project development. Additionally, because the JMU team also had experience in research involving human subjects, they were able to obtain permission from an institutional review board to start the study almost immediately.

Following the JMU start, the Mason team procured a golf cart to function as the prototype vehicle for the project, and they launched on a series of technological modifications to alert the ‘driver’ to activities around the vehicle.

First, the students created an alert system using a 360-degree microphone mounted in the cart.  The microphone, linked to a Raspberry Pi (a small onboard computer), reads sounds in the immediate area. Using machine learning approaches, the system detects 10 different sounds that signal the need for increased caution, including an ambulance, fire engine and police siren, honking horn, construction work, people yelling, children playing, and dogs barking. The process was sometimes time-consuming – as is typical for machine learning, the system had to be “trained” to recognize these sounds, sometimes taking up to 100 hours for the network to learn one sound. When one of the 10 noises is detected, a seat cushion outfitted with a haptic sensor vibrates to let the driver know that a hazard is nearby.  The driver is then prompted to read a tablet screen on the dashboard which identifies the noise.

One additional piece of instrumentation outfitted in the vehicle is a camera installed on the ceiling, which is pointed at the driver’s forehead and can read body temperature.  Although not solely relevant to deaf users, the team anticipated that body temperature checks will be widely considered the norm for ridesharing in the post-COVID-19 era.

This labor-intensive systems creation and testing was undertaken in a workshop located on the Science and Technology campus in Manassas, where the group met most Friday afternoons during the spring semester. There, Hall says, they each focused on specific elements of the technology, but worked together to ensure a seamless final product.  (In one positive outcome of the general switch to virtual learning due to the pandemic; a JMU student on the team, who was living at home in Northern Virginia taking online classes, was able to join the Mason team in person in Manassas.)    

“This project allowed the advisors and students to tackle complex, multifaceted problems for the public good while building a great relationship with our colleagues at James Madison, which will continue in the future,” says Moran.  “And the students far exceeded our expectations for finding creative solutions to difficult problems, especially during this complicated year and with such an open-ended project.”

Nathan M. Kathir, Associate Professor & Director of Senior Projects in the Department of Mechanical Engineering Projects agrees, “A primary objective of the mechanical engineering program’s senior design course, also known as the capstone program, is to enrich the educational experience of senior-level students with a real-world engineering experience.  Mason’s six students on the Team level-6 experienced much more than that.”  Kathir continues, “In the program’s five-year history, they were the first team to collaborate with those outside of Mason and they did that despite restrictions due to Covid-19 throughout the year.  In a T-shaped graduate manner, not only they used their technical expertise, but they also excelled on other areas such as collaboration, communication, partnering with external stakeholders, managing risks, and planning for unknowns.”

Hall and Moran foresee that this project could be the beginning of a true legacy project, augmented by students in the future, adding modifications for communities with vision or mobility issues.  “I can see that this project could continue to build great things,” notes Moran.


Meet the Level 6* Team

Although each member of the team focused on specific and separate modifications for the vehicle, it was a group effort to bring the total technology to fruition.

Josh Ogden — devised the technology for the camera.

Paul Cipparone — formulated the haptic cushion.

Jeorge del Carpio Arispe — focused on the touch screen.

Oliver Lopez — worked on CAD modeling.

Raizel Clemente — handled all communications, purchases for items and materials.

Kyle Hall — organized the project and insured deadlines were met and wrote all the reports.

*The Level 6 name is a nod to the ratings of AVs – as a Tesla is considered Level 3, highly autonomous cars are Level 5 — this team’s development of technical modifications is Level 6.

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Putting the History of Higher Education Under a Microscope

While the Council for the Advancement of Higher Education Programs (CAHEP) considers the history of higher education a required knowledge area, and it is often a core course in higher education programs nationally, Mason’s Kelly Schrum, PhD, recognized that the class is rarely taught by historians and often lacks a focus on the critical thinking, research, and digital literacy skills essential for success in the rapidly changing higher education workplace.

When Schrum, a historian and associate professor of higher education, discussed this disconnect with colleague Chase Catalano, PhD, at Virginia Tech (VT), they saw that within this challenge there was an interesting opportunity:  Create a history of higher education course at Mason and VT that is founded on historical thinking and research skills. Students could work collaboratively on digital research projects that draw on university archives locally and nationally.  Moreover, they could build on this work to create an open educational resource (OER) on the history of higher education.

Schrum developed a plan, and then turned to 4-VA@Mason to seek a Collaborate Research Grant for her project entitled, “Reimagining the History of Higher Education in the Digital Age.”  Subsequently, Schrum and Catalano received 4-VA funding to help get the project off the ground and, joined by Sophia Abbot, a doctoral student at Mason, they got to work. 

Abbot, who has previously been involved with faculty development and has studied student-faculty partnerships in teaching, plays several integral roles in the project. The first is determining the current teaching landscape in higher education.  To that end, Abbot and Mason sophomore, Kelly Tcheou, sent out surveys to instructors involved in teaching the history of higher education around the country to determine the specific subject areas included in their courses.

Along with Schrum and Catalano, Abbot implemented a new primary source learning activity for their courses this past fall. While Schrum and Catalano supported students in the selection of their research topics and their analysis of primary historical sources, Abbot helped students translate their research to the digital space as they developed online learning activities for their peers. Abbot shares the example of one student’s research which looked at the history and the language of the Pell Grant.  The student gained a deeper understanding of how the language used in the original legislation resulted in who was able to gain access to the grants over the years; and who was not.  “Their research is doing exactly what we’d hoped… students are empowered to take historical thinking into their work,” says Abbot. “When students create historical narratives — learning the context and history of the sources — they can look back at sources and understand the impact of the history of higher education on colleges and universities today.”

Additionally, Abbot introduces students to the opportunity to share their work on the primary source website the team is building. Here, Abbot acts as a liaison between the Mason and VT students and faculty.  “Because I am not in an evaluation role, I am able to make sure that students understand that sharing – or not sharing — their work is completely optional and will not affect their grade.  I’m there to communicate the importance of consent,” she notes. 

Assisting Abbot with the website is Carolyn Mason who graduated from Mason in December with BA in anthropology and plans to begin a PhD program in anthropology in the fall. Mason identifies primary sources related to higher education including a university’s founding, student life, academics, and campus culture and uploads them to the website. She is also collecting a list of university archives that house historical documents related to their institution.

At the conclusion of the history courses, Abbot returns to interview students on both campuses to determine their thoughts about the class and their decision regarding sharing their work on the website.  She has interviewed 12 students and collected 19 student projects from both campuses.

While the project is still in its infancy, it has already generated a lot of attention. The prototype website https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/ presents more than 100 primary sources. Over 60 history of higher education instructors have responded to the invitation to share their teaching practices. And the team has piloted their primary source learning activity in two different higher education graduate courses (Fall 2020) and recruited a third course to pilot the activity (Spring 2021).

“We were delighted to have the ability to enrich the study of higher education, offer our students the opportunity to develop asynchronous online learning activities, and promote collaboration across institutions,” explains Schrum.  “Already, we have had great results.”

Abbot, Schrum, and Catalano presented initial findings at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy in February.

“This project has been a wonderful exercise in collaboration and research,” concludes Schrum.  “In fact, it has caught the eye of our colleagues at several additional 4-VA schools who are interested in partnering with us on this in the future.  We are also looking at the development of a workshop on this for instructors in the history of higher education. There may be more to come!”

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Virginia Food Systems Leadership Institute: From Concept to Course

     4-VA@Mason takes great pride in being the catalyst for hundreds of impactful research projects and innovations in higher education.  This is achieved via micro grant seed funding for Collaborative Research Grants; supporting projects that encourage cooperation between partner schools within the state and capitalize on the strengths of each school.

     However, a new milestone was reached in this effort this spring — as one such grant team partnership morphed from a multi-year, thoughtful, wholistic, statewide Collaborative Research project to another of 4-VA’s foundational endeavors, Shared Courses.  The Shared Course concept has its roots in the 4-VA commitment to identify and deliver top tier courses between partner schools, thus saving the costs involved in bringing unique classes to fruition on each campus.

     The project crossing this boundary is the Virginia Food System Leadership Institute (VFSLI), which found its footings at a 4VA-funded symposium in 2015 at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal.  There, interested faculty were brought together from Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, James Madison University and George Mason University.  Also attending the symposium were campus dining services personnel and sustainability managers. They discussed avenues to harness the intellectual, human, and economic capital of colleges and universities to foster the emerging food economy in Virginia.

   “Immediately, we saw a lot of synergy.  We had a passionate group of folks involved in all areas of food — producers, delivery partners, and consumers.” says Kerri LaCharite, PhD, Assistant Professor in Mason’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. “What’s more, we also recognized the need to support small-to medium-sized growers by helping them access institutional markets — a real boost for Virginia’s rural economy.”

     In April of 2016, again under the 4-VA banner, a second symposium convened more than 40 Virginia food system stakeholders including farmers and processors; distributors and Aramark and Sodexo representatives (food service vendors at Virginia colleges); and faculty from the four schools.  Their focus was to increase university sourcing of Virginia-grown food.

     In 2018, the leaders of this effort from the four 4-VA schools developed an intensive four-week class which was piloted at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.  It was an instant success. 

     Mason Nutrition and Food Studies graduate student Kelly Kogan attended the course.  “This course was a fantastic chance to really immerse myself in the complex and changing chain of food delivery systems in Virginia,” Kogan said.  “I also loved the mix of students who attended.  We were graduates and undergraduates representing five schools.”

     This year, the latest breakthrough is the course: NUTR 626 Food Systems — a fully online, asynchronous, and synchronous, class offered through 4-VA Shared Courses program.  It will run Monday through Friday May 24 through June 17 with synchronous sessions 12-1 pm and 5-6:30 pm. Although Mason’s LaCharite and UVA’s Tanya Deckla Cobb will take the lead, the teaching will be divided between all the schools – including Tech’s Kim Niewolny and Michael Broderick from JMU. This year, this top team is joined by former Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Basil Gooden, currently a visiting scholar at VCU.


(Part of the VFSLI team on a recent call:  Clockwise from top right:  Kerri LaCharite, Basil Gooden, Michael Broderick and Tanya Deckla Cobb.)   

     “This is a one-of-a-kind class which could only have been developed through a true collaborative effort,” explains LaCharite.  “Each school contributed something vital to the project, and we are the better for it.  But, without the 4-VA funding, this would never have happened.  We’ve gone from a concept to a reality which will benefit students – and, subsequently, food system sustainability, farmers, schools, and businesses throughout Virginia.”

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Collaborative Research Grant Calls for Proposals Now Open

4-VA@Mason has opened calls for Collaborative Research Grant (CRG) proposals for the 2021-2022 academic year.  Proposals will be accepted from March 1 through April 15, 2021. Proposal information can be found here. The grants are designed to facilitate and support alliances which leverage the strengths of each partner university to improve efficiencies in research and higher education.

“The 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant program provides our Mason faculty an opportunity to bring to life a research endeavor that will benefit our students, higher education, citizens statewide, and audiences beyond,” explains 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator Janette Muir.  “This CRG program provides faculty with seed money to develop proposals and hypotheses with an eye toward improving research competitiveness in the state and winning subsequent major, federal grants for the projects.”

Since the premiere of the Collaborative Research Grant program at Mason in 2013, more than 65 4-VA CRG projects have been funded, covering a range of topics throughout schools from humanities to the sciences.  Previous grant subjects have included increasing food sustainability in the state; testing the antibacterial activity of computationally designed antimicrobial peptides; redesigning a core course on the history of higher education; and accelerating the discovery of novel polar thermoelectric materials.

Successful proposals will incorporate collaborations with faculty from at least one other 4-VA partner school; opportunities to engage undergraduate and graduate student researchers for real-world experience and growth; and plans for the dissemination of research findings statewide or nationally.

The Collaborative Research Grants are just one segment of a greater 4-VA mission to identify and boost efficiencies in educational design and research.  Now in its 10th year at Mason, the 4-VA program also supports Course Redesign, Shared Courses, and Degree Completion.

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4-VA@Mason Offers Online Academic Assessment Grants

4-VA@Mason is offering ten $4,000 grants to support faculty interested in developing and piloting alternative assessment strategies for online learning.  The goal of the effort is to examine student evaluation practices and help bolster student engagement, encourage academic integrity, and reduce tendencies toward academic outsourcing.  To ensure broad representation from all disciplines, proposals for the grants are encouraged from all ten colleges within the university. 

The grants are being offered under the direction of The Stearns Center, which will provide 1:1 instructional design support for the accepted proposals.

“When we pivoted to remote learning in March, through the Instructional Continuity Working Group, we quickly heard that faculty were struggling with academic outsourcing and other integrity challenges,” said Charles Kreitzer, Executive Director of Online Operations.  “Through these grants, we want to work together to develop strong, tested models for assessment.”

The proposals are due November 20. The planned timeline builds out the assessments in the spring, with pilot programs running in the summer and fall.  From there, each program will go through data analysis to closely examine impact before they are introduced for use. 

“One of the pillars of our mission at 4-VA@Mason is to identify and grow innovative ideas in teaching and learning,” explains 4-VA Campus Coordinator and Associate Provost Janette Muir.  “This effort to reimagine online assessment practices clearly supports that goal.”

For more information, contact your school’s Instructional Continuity Working Group representative.

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Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling “Scales Up” with 4-VA Partner ODU

Of the 21 iterations of the definition of the word ‘scale’ in the Oxford Dictionary, one is particularly applicable to the latest 4-VA grant project “Scalable Molecular Dynamics;” that is: “the full range of different levels of people or things.” This definition illustrates both the scope of the research and the collaborators involved in the effort.

While orchestrating a variety of other projects and programs at Mason’s Center for Simulation and Modeling (CSM) located in the College of Science, lead PI Dr. Estela Blaisten-Barojas took on one more when she applied for and received the 4-VA grant.  Blaisten-Barojas was interested in undertaking a serious study of predictive computational and simulation-based approaches in chemical and materials sciences combined with engineering approaches. This study is central to finding innovative solutions for environmental pollution, healthcare, sustainable energy resources, global warming, and ways of fighting terrorism, crucial to both Virginia’s and the nation’s competitiveness in science and engineering.

Blaisten-Barojas consults with team member James Andrews

To launch and deliver “Scalable Molecular Dynamics” a full-throttled balancing act was necessary, Blaisten-Barojas called in her colleague Dr. Robert Handler from the Mechanical Engineering department at Volgeneau and Dr. Eric Weisel, Executive Director, Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center (VMASC) at Old Dominion University, a 4-VA partner school.  Then, she added a number of talented students, including Gideon Gogovi, Scott Hopkins and James Andrews, to her 4-VA team.  Each brought countless hours of research to the project – enhancing both the collective mission and their personal portfolios.

Blaisten-Barojas was interested in testing computational techniques for scaling up various aspects of a molecular simulation in which a large molecule is solvated or flows in a viscous solvent. Specifically, they studied the atomistic behavior of the polymer polyacrylamide, or PAM. This polymer, when immersed in gel-type solvents, is used for the separation of proteins, an important component in bio detection.

The team’s research identified several interesting and notable characteristics regarding the structure and energetics of PAM in implicit and explicit solvents – as team members studied the chain shape and the diversity of coiling and twists of the polymer in the various solvents. The researchers noted closely the changes in shape from an elongated spaghetti string to a more football-like object.  Importantly, based on what they learned, they were able to make some scaling up predictions about how big structures can grow.  This new understanding is valuable for efficiently controlling the performance of devices based on molecular components.Once the project got moving, the full range definition of scalability was set in motion.  In fact, the simulations were so complex that they reached the maximum allowed in Argo, Mason’s centralized research computing cluster.

Gideon Gogovi presents at the ACS convention

Scott Hopkins at the poster presentation

Already, two conference presentations have been made based on the research – a talk and a poster at the recent American Chemical Society (ACS) Mid Atlantic Research Meeting; two journal papers are in submission.

Blaisten-Barojas notes that although the research, results and dissemination have been gratifying, it was the new-found relationship with the VMASC which capped the full range of different levels of people and subjects concept.  “This is a very important first step,” Blaisten-Barojas notes. “We now know who they are and they know who we are.  I know that if they see possibilities in some of their initiatives, they will knock on our door first and we will do the same.”

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Hard Work, Partnerships and a 4-VA Grant: Producing Big Results in IPF Research

(L to R) Geraldine Grant, Charlotte Nigg, Jorge Fernandez Davila, Honoria Riley, Ganit Pricer, Michelle Devlin, Luis Rodriguez

Like any cutting-edge research team, the undergrad and grad students assembled in Dr. Geraldine Grant’s molecular and cell biology lab at George Mason’s Science and Technology Campus knew that in order for their project to be successful they needed a few things to break their way. Specifically, for their 4-VA grant “Prognostic Noninvasive Biomarker Investigation of Induced Sputum and Peripheral Blood in IPF” (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis), they would need a lot of science, a touch of luck, a drop of art, and more than a little bit of help from their friends.

Their goal was ambitious: Identify biomarkers that would help track the diagnosis and progression of the disease as well as the efficacy, if even detected, of medical treatment.  The goal would be a tall order for this difficult-to-diagnose and difficult-to-treat lung condition which affects more than 200,000 people in the U.S alone.

IPF is a progressive, fatal lung disease that is survived by few patients three to five years after diagnosis. With IPF, patients experience severe scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs for an unknown reason. Over time, the scarring gets worse and it becomes difficult for the patient to take in a deep breath and inhale enough oxygen to fill the lungs.

Long-time Grant Lab member and part of the initial team writing the 4-VA@Mason proposal, Dr. Luis Rodriguez explains, “Diagnosing IPF is a difficult task.  Most of the time, diagnosis is simply a continuing series of elimination testing.  Doctors back into the diagnosis because it was determined that it’s not A, B, or C.”  What’s more, Rodriguez points out, “The disease can present in a number of different ways and the only standard for diagnosis confirmation is a sample from the lungs, but through that, the patient is at critical risk.”

However, tackling the diagnosis was just a part of the Grant lab challenge. Treating the disease can also prove problematic, as it can progress slowly or rapidly and the efficacies of treatment are difficult to determine.  With few therapeutic options, little to no systematic tracking of treatment, and a wide range of patient responses to said treatment, the work was cut out for the team.

First, they needed data, and a reliable stockpile at that.  Their objective was to get a large sample of patients suffering with the disease and to extract RNA. The next step would be to correlate the RNA with the current status of each patient’s disease, which included precise measurements of two important criteria:  1. How they breathe in and out, and 2. How far they can walk in six minutes.

That’s when they called on their first partner in the grant project, Northern Virginia’s INOVA Hospital and Dr. Steve Nathan.  INOVA has long been a recognized care and treatment center for IPF and has a history of successful lung transplants for IPF patients.  Through INOVA, the Grant team wanted to build that necessary data set to track, if possible, the measurements of disease progression.  Nathan and the clinic were all in.

With a base of 40 patients in Nathan’s province, the Grant team got to work – monitoring, measuring and capturing data.  The process was long and tedious, and they encountered their share of difficulties. One such roadblock meant refining mitochondria sensors in the patient blood samples measuring changes in oxygen that, in turn, captured the progression of the disease and the effectiveness of the treatment. Their perseverance paid off, however, with a statistically significant reliable data set. (Which, Rodriguez points out, continues to grow and provide valuable information.)

Their next task, then, was to analyze said data in a meaningful and productive way.  That’s when they called in their second partner Dr. Norou Diawara, of the Math Department at 4-VA partner school Old Dominion University.  Diawara has vast experience and expertise in the field of Biostatistics, which fit the bill for the Grant project.

All efforts paid off with noteworthy results, as the research identified gene signatures that indicated what patients responded to treatment and those that didn’t – a giant leap forward in their medicine.

What’s more, Rodriguez notes, is that the initial grant has spawned a cadre of further opportunities including OSCAR undergraduate students continuing the analysis of the data set, and grants submitted to NIH, as well as to NSF for a grant on the biology of mitochondria.   The project has also been featured in several poster presentations.  One such notable presentation was at the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation Summit in September, a convocation of the leaders of research and treatment of Pulmonary Fibrosis, where the poster ranked in the Top 10.

(L to R) Durwood Moore, Ganit Pricer, Honoria Riley, Brieann Sobieski, Geraldine Grant, Michelle Devlin

“The 4-VA grant got this ball rolling,” concludes Rodriguez, “and we’ve progressed a long way from the start of this effort.  However, I can see this initial research continuing to produce important results for years to come.”

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OER Treasure Trove: Help at Fenwick

What are Open Educational Resources?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are freely-accessible teaching, educational, and research materials that either exist in the public domain or are available to users via an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing. These resources include complete online courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, assessment tools, and software. They provide people worldwide with access to quality education and the opportunity to share, use, and reuse knowledge.

Mason’s Open Educational Resource Metafinder

In conjunction with Deep Web Technologies, University Libraries has developed a search engine that simultaneously queries a number of open educational resource sites. In addition to well-known OER repositories like OpenStax or Merlot II, our Metafinder also searches HathiTrust, DPLA, Internet Archive and other sites where valuable open educational materials may be found.

Although search targets are added regularly our OER Metafinder searches sixteen sites in real time, returning the top 250 or so hits from each site–in seconds.

Learn more at: https://publishing.gmu.edu/communication/open-educational-resources/

For more information, contact:

MASON PUBLISHING GROUP.

Aaron McCollough

EMAIL: amccollo@gmu.edu

PHONE: 3-2544

Further support:
• Assists in identifying and utilizing OER materials and publishing platforms
• Coordinates presentations/learning community meetings