NMSU computer science degree earns accreditation, faculty get nearly $2 million in NSF grants

by Minerva Baumann for the Sun-News and NMSU News Center; reposted with permission.

Big data, cyber-human systems and flash drive technology are among the projects receiving more than $1.89 million in National Science Foundation awards to computer science faculty at New Mexico State University this year.

In addition to the research grants, which range from two to three years long, NMSU’s computer science department in the College of Arts and Sciences has another reason to be proud. The department recently received initial accreditation for NMSU’s bachelor of science in computer science degree from the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

The process started four years ago and culminated in an 18-month review and evaluation over the summer, after which the accreditation was granted. The ABET accreditation lasts for seven years.

“We really wanted to do it for our students because when they can say they’ve graduated from an ABET accredited program it really helps them,” said Jonathan Cook, computer science professor and interim department head. “Just yesterday I had a student in the hallway thank me for getting accreditation because that actually helped him to get an internship at Sandia Labs.”

The accreditation is retroactive so that alumni who graduated with the computer science degree back to 2014 can claim the status. However, it also means the department will have to go through the process again in 2020 to renew the accreditation, which costs about $10,000.

“The accreditation process is a lot of work, but it’s worth it for our students,” Cook said.

Another benefit for NMSU’s computer science students is the opportunity to get involved in various research opportunities working closely with faculty members. This year alone, five NSF awards total nearly $2 million.

“We as a small department have been extremely successful in being able to fund our research,” said Jonathan Cook, computer science professor and interim department head. “This year’s awards are wonderful examples of the strengths of our faculty and the quality of our faculty and the research they are already producing. It will allow them to continue doing great things.”

Huiping Cao (principal investigator) and Satyajayant Misra (co-principal investigator), both computer science associate professors, are leading the first NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site at NMSU through a 3-year grant of $361,791. This project will provide undergraduate students the opportunity to work with big data analytics in cyber physical systems to prepare them for future scientific work.

“This REU site will provide students with problem solving skills for conducting research in big data analytics and presenting scientific findings verbally and in writing,” Misra said. “The students will be mentored by researchers to disseminate their research findings at professional conferences and through the REU website.”

Cao is also the NMSU principal investigator for a three-year grant for $359,151 through NSF’s BIGDATA program. The project goal is to establish the theoretical, algorithmic, and computational foundations of Context-Sensitive Impact Discovery in complex systems. The project will include mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students at both NMSU and Arizona State University.

“Successfully tackling many urgent challenges in socio-economically critical domains (e.g. sustainability, public health and biology) requires obtaining a deeper understanding of complex relationships and interactions among a diverse spectrum of entities in different contexts,” Cao said. “This project will fill an important hole in decision making in many critical application domains, including epidemic preparedness, biological pathway analysis and resilient water/energy infrastructures and will enable applications and services with significant economic and health impact.”

NMSU computer science assistant professor Mai Zheng’s award for $173,747 will allow diagnosis of failures in flash-based storage systems. These hold financial transactions, scientific computation results, family photos and more. The goal of the project is to advance the dependability of storage systems for this important data. The project also will include undergraduate and graduate student participation through the Alliance for Minority Participation and Young Women in Computing Programs.

“Flash-based storage systems are revolutionizing the way we store our data in computers.” Zheng said. “They can provide hundreds of times of speedup compared to traditional technologies under some common workloads. However, as a young and disruptive technology, their reliability is not as well-understood as the old systems. With this award, my students and I will investigate the unique failure modes of new systems and reveal the complicated causal paths leading to data loss. This is the first step towards building truly dependable storage for various invaluable data we have today and in the future.”

Zachary O. Toups, computer science assistant professor, is the principal investigator for a $495,628 NSF grant along with co-principal investigators Son Tran, computer science professor, and Igor Dolgov, psychology associate professor. The aim is to consider how wearable computers can support urban search and rescue contexts as science advances to move from multiple humans piloting one drone to one human directing many drones. The project uses simulated drones supporting game players moving in the physical world as a way to design these systems

“With this project, my hope is that we can really impact future disaster response practice and employ games for design, rather than training,” Toups said. “Wearable computers often have impoverished means of input (e.g., a few buttons versus a full keyboard) but enable environmental awareness and physical world action, which are essential for the safety of disaster responders.”

In addition to the strong research opportunities and ABET accreditation, NMSU’s computer science students will be looking forward to a new degree in cyber security to begin next year. The computer science department in collaboration with electrical computer engineering will develop the curriculum and hire two new professors to teach the subjects. They expect to begin the degree in fall 2017 and to gain certification for that program within two years.

With 250 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students, NMSU’s computer science program has consistently increased enrollment over the 20 years Cook has been at NMSU. He credits the success of the program to the connection between professors and students that goes beyond the classroom.

“One of the strengths of all of our degree programs from undergraduate to graduate is that the students interact closely with our faculty. I hope we never lose that.”