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Making a Practical Difference

Our Faculty and Graduate Students Devote Themselves to Addressing Practical Problems as Well as to Advancing Knowledge.


Aaron Bloomfield


Strengthening Local Nonprofits

Erin Griffiths


Smart Homes

As a board member of Madison House, Associate Professor Aaron Bloomfield became aware that cash-strapped local nonprofits often faced challenges in areas that a good software program could solve, like scheduling. As a faculty member, he understood that growing enrollment was making it increasingly difficult for the department to find worthwhile senior thesis projects for its students, and to supervise them. He devised an elegant solution to both problems: the Service Learning Practicum (SLP).

This two-semester sequence for fourth-year computer science majors gives students the experience of seeing a large, real-world software engineering project from specification to deployment while having the satisfaction of applying their skills to make a difference. Assigned to nonprofits in need of software solutions, students work in groups of six or seven, progressing through a series of two-week deadlines designed to keep their project on track. Students complete an initial version of the project by the end of the first semester. During the spring semester, they take the project through a series of iterations that leads to a six-week period devoted to testing, tweaking and deploying as the academic year ends.

Last year, 100 students in the Service Learning Practicum took on 15 projects, contributing more than 10,000 hours to local nonprofits. For instance, students created a web portal for The Haven, that enables its more than 800 volunteers to schedule shifts on their own. Eleis Lester, the organization's volunteer coordinator, noted that the new system saved her hours of work each week, time better devoted to serving the homeless.

Jennifer Walker, director of programs for Madison House, had similar praise for the online scheduling system that SLP students created for the organization, and, like Eleis, she praised the professionalism of the students. "The students paired with us were extremely hard-working and ... professional," she says. "I could not believe they were college students!"

People spend roughly half their lives at home. Technology that graduate student Erin Griffiths is developing with Associate Professor Kamin Whitehouse has the potential to help people not only make their homes more energy efficient, but also make better use of their time there. "Most often, people think of smart-home technology as a way to help residents cut heating and cooling bills," she says. "It could also generate lifestyle information — for instance, documenting how much time they spend alone or with their family."

Erin and Kamin detect occupancy by placing inexpensive ultrasound and infrared sensors at the threshold of each room. These sensors provide information about the height — and ideally the identity — of individuals passing through a room, as well as their direction of movement.

Their challenge is to link patterns in the sensor data with human behavior. "A lot of what I do is signal processing," Erin says. "You need to know how a pattern maps in the real world if you are going to provide actionable feedback." They have found that as long as sensors record movement at doorways and not in rooms, most subjects don't object to using them to evaluate their use for mapping.

One of the impediments to large-scale adoption of smart-house technology is the complex setup it typically requires. Erin and Kamin are also experimenting with self-organizing systems. "We would like to get to the point where an entire system configures itself," Erin says.

As an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound, Erin was told that U.Va. was a good place for women computer scientists. When she arrived, she found that there was indeed a support network that she could access. Erin has herself become part of this network, as a teacher and mentor. For her work, she was named the department's 2015 Outstanding Teaching Graduate Student.

BACK TO CS News Summer 2015