When defense meets education

DARPA said it recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers.

DARPA said it recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers.

Thanks to a new direction at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the phrase “always 10 years behind” no longer might apply to education: The agency that developed GPS and the internet is stepping up its efforts to deliver new technology to sectors other than the military—and schools will be among the key beneficiaries.

As part of its newly expanded focus, DARPA is advancing its collaborative work with universities. One example of DARPA’s new focus on collaboration with the education sector is the agency’s work with Louisiana State University (LSU).

A research group with LSU’s Center for Computation and Technology has received two awards to provide technical contributions to DARPA’s Ubiquitous High Performance Computing Program (UHPC).

According to DARPA, UHPC brings together researchers and scientists from universities, businesses, and national laboratories to develop new system architecture and software to support the creation of next-generation supercomputers. The first models will be completed by 2018, the agency says.

LSU is an academic partner of the X-Caliber project—a lead component of UHPC, led by Sandia National Laboratories, to develop advanced computing systems capable of running complex calculations a thousand times faster than today’s most powerful supercomputers.

National science and engineering organizations have made developing new supercomputing systems a top research priority, because today’s largest and most powerful supercomputers will be too slow and obsolete to run the kinds of applications needed to use computational science efficiently.

Scientists say they could complete astrophysics research to investigate black hole and neutron star collisions, study RNA molecules passing through cell membranes to understand how viruses are transmitted and spread through the human body, and forecast hurricane paths and their resulting damage more quickly and effectively if they had more advanced supercomputers.

“Such systems will enable applications that require months of computation time today to take hours by the end of the decade and make possible real-time applications that cannot be done at all now,” said Thomas Sterling, a professor in LSU’s Department of Computer Science.

Sterling and his research group at the Center for Computation and Technology, where he has a joint appointment, will lead LSU’s contributions to the project, which include execution models, runtime system software, memory system architecture, and symbolic applications. To complete the project, Sterling received $1.2 million from DARPA for four years of work.

“We are entering the next phase of computing and, essentially, everything has to change,” said Sterling.

New beginnings

LSU’s partnership with DARPA is just one example of the agency’s new direction, thanks to DARPA’s new director, Dr. Regina Dugan.

Dugan, 47, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, is DARPA’s first female director.

DARPA recently has been criticized for focusing too closely on “deliverables” for the military, while forgoing the high-risk technology gambles that originally were the agency’s trademark.

Dugan, who was hired in part to balance the agency’s agenda, is now trying to focus on areas as diverse as advanced manufacturing, rapid developments of vaccines, cyber security, and biological sensors.

Last fall, Dugan visited six universities—Virginia Tech (her undergraduate alma mater), Texas A&M, UCLA, Caltech, Stanford, and UC Berkeley—in an effort to reopen partnerships between DARPA and universities.

“We came to a better understanding of what the agency needs to do, and then we went to the university community with a challenge for their side as well,” said Dugan in an interview with the New York Times, “which is to bring their best and brightest to the table to work on defense problems.”

According to Dugan, DARPA recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers in important fields, including computer science. The agency is relaxing its conflict-of-interest rules for individuals working at DARPA, making it easier for university researchers to spend time at the agency.

There also will be “a renewed emphasis on students [and] on their ability to surprise us with outside-the-box thinking,” Dugan said.

New projects

Dugan immediately set out to change the game by initiating a $40,000 prize for a balloon hunt—DARPA’s Network Challenge—that charged teams of volunteers to locate 10 large red balloons hidden around the country.


UC campuses mitigate risk–and save millions in the process

The University of California’s Office of Risk Services worked with IBM to design and build an Enterprise Risk Management System based on IBM’s analytics, portal, and collaboration software to manage risks and improve security. The move helped the school mine its databases to spot trends, such as a rise in pushing and pulling injuries at medical centers. Once that particular trend was spotted, officials were able to take action to prevent such injuries, like purchasing better equipment and launching training programs designed to limit them.

Information about the real and potential risks from departments and locations across the university system’s 10 campuses, five medical centers, laboratories, and field sites is aggregated for better insights and management, so that UC administrators can isolate recurring incidents and break the cycle of injuries and costs that ensue.

As a result, injuries have been cut by 39 percent—and the cost of the university system’s insurance has dropped by $167 million since the system’s initial deployment in 2006.

“We are now able to determine where we are the most vulnerable by creating dashboards so managers can access their data in real time,” says Grace Crickette, chief risk officer for the University of California. “They can target the key variables that influence outcomes and make changes to increase productive trends or intercede in operations that are having a negative impact.”

Traditionally, risk management programs in many sectors have relied heavily on quantitative analysis, but they have lacked qualitative measures and analysis. Using the advanced analytics and business intelligence capabilities of IBM’s Cognos software, UC’s Enterprise Risk Management System uses both quantitative and qualitative data to highlight emerging risks and assist with avoidance measures. The software also has helped university officials know the best way to deploy resources—money, people, and time—which is vital during a time of severe budget cuts.

But analytics alone are not capable of making change happen, Crickette points out.

“One of the benefits of analytics is it can be a great motivator of people,” she says. “Our tools can show us how [we] are performing in different areas, which helps to motivate people to implement good policies and procedures. Analytics for analytics’ sake is, without action, not very useful. But analytics that help drive action can be very powerful.”



Helping schools forecast future trends

In the last few years, IBM has acquired two companies to help it improve its offerings to the education industry in the predictive analytics space.

In 2007, IBM acquired Cognos to accelerate its information-on-demand business initiative, followed by the purchase in 2009 of SPSS.

IBM Cognos helps schools improve student performance, deliver on performance mandates, and improve financial performance, IBM says, by aggregating critical data and identifying trends.

For example, Cognos can help schools:

  • Calculate curriculum costs, or identify good fundraising programs.
  • Monitor student headcount and performance, program outcomes, school reputation, national agendas, and other key performance indicators.
  • Share secure web-based information with all stakeholders.
  • Manage endowments and recruitment through driver-based planning.
  • Spot high- and low-performance schools or programs.
  • Map enrollment to attendance and attendance to performance.
  • Speed compliance reporting.

IBM Cognos is currently in use by more than 1,000 institutions of higher education and more than 530 K-12 school districts (representing more than 20,000 schools), IBM says. Additionally, 13 state departments of education and the federal Education Department use IBM Cognos.

IBM’s SPSS Modeler is another tool that schools have found of great benefit in predictive analytics. With Modeler, users can access a broad range of data, including data stored in operational databases and files, as well as unstructured data such as call center notes, eMail messages, Web 2.0 sources, and survey responses, which can be mined, modeled, and deployed via a simple desktop tool or via advanced client server architecture. This allows organizations to integrate predictive analytics into their everyday business processes, IBM says.

The data can be used to create predictive models in a way that doesn’t require programming, which means users can access information without waiting weeks for their IT department to respond to data requests.

SPSS Modeler provides deeper insights and more accurate predictions than simple analytics, because it uses all data assets to provide a complete view of a school district’s data, regardless of where these are stored.

For example, a community college in California uses Modeler to predict which students are less likely to return to school, helping faculty and administrators improve retention by providing appropriate counseling, financial aid packages, and curriculum offerings.

Partly as a result of these programs, the college ranks third among the state’s community colleges for the percentage of students successfully transferring to the University of California system.



HISD sees 151-percent ROI in 10 years from analytics project

The Houston Independent School District faced the same management challenges encountered by many large urban school districts: a wide variety of incompatible information systems, reliance on multiple manual processes for transferring data between those systems, and no way of looking across systems to find redundancies or business process problems.

The school district decided to improve operations in key organizations, consolidating business applications onto a common platform with a centralized, enterprise-wide administration database. The district worked with SAP, using its enterprise platform for education. HISD broke even on the project in about five years, with an anticipated 10-year ROI of 151 percent, officials say.

Broken down, this equals:

• More than $3 million in labor savings and warehouse cost reductions in food services;

• More than $5.5 million in savings on labor, paperwork order reductions, fewer vehicles kept in inventory, and improved maintenance in Fleet Operations;

• $5.7 million in reduced headcount and other savings in Administrative Operations; and

• $52.3 million saved in labor, bulk purchases and negotiated cost savings, inventory reduction, and eliminated waste in Materials Management.

To make such an implementation work, educators and administrators should take certain steps, HISD managers say. Like Kirk Kelly of the Hamilton County, Tenn., Department of Education, they suggest that stakeholders be engaged early in the process to help identify goals, including annual reporting requirements. They also suggest appointing a “project champion” at the highest levels of administration. Such a person can be valuable in making sure the project has adequate resources and that individual departments are on board and remain committed.

Team training is also an ongoing need. Work up a communication plan and stick to it to keep all stakeholders informed of progress or issues, HISD suggests.



Tennessee district improves student performance, reduces dropout rates

The Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) oversees nine K-12 school districts in and around Chattanooga, Tenn. Evaluating and improving school performance became a critical task for the districts, owing largely to No Child Left Behind. HCDE officials knew the students in their districts were scoring below state target levels, but it was difficult to understand why—and without that understanding, it was nearly impossible change the situation. HCDE also had a high dropout rate among high school students, and officials wanted to reduce that number.

Administrators chose IBM’s SPSS Modeler and SPSS Statistics software to take a deeper look at student performance by combining data sources and exploring variables beyond what the state reports provided.

Now, HCDE evaluates student performance and keeps students on track earlier in their academic careers by analyzing students’ test scores and combining that information with information on student attendance, behavior, parent information, class schedules, and other data. “Then, we can go through and begin to look at making predictions and identifying students who might be at risk,” says Kirk Kelly, director of testing and accountability for HCDE.

For example, even before the school year begins, teachers now have a remarkable amount of data on the makeup of their classrooms and on which students might require additional instruction and focus. A teacher will know in September if the data predict that a student will not perform well on the early college assessment ACT Explore test, which takes place in November. That student then can be given the extra attention needed to bridge the gap and, ideally, exceed expectations.

This has led to an improvement in test scores, with Hamilton County students performing well above the national average for the ACT Explore test in English, math, reading, science, and overall composite categories for the last three years.

HCDE also noticed a trend having to do with dropouts: Kelly learned that 63 percent of all dropouts were over the average student age. In fact, that was the biggest indicator contributing to the high school dropout rate. Kelly looked at students from kindergarten through high school to discover just how and when they become overage students.

“A student might be retained and then retained again, held back a year for issues such as athletics or maturity,” Kelly explains. “Then they run into problems.” What 21-year-old, he points out, wants to remain in school with a bunch of 18-year-old kids?

Understanding the high correlation between overage students and dropout rates allows HCDE to be proactive. Officials can identify a student coming into ninth grade who is already 16 or 17 and help the student before he or she gets into trouble, Kelly says. Even earlier in the process, educators can make sure that students—particularly those who have late birthdays—don’t get held back more than is absolutely necessary.

“By making schools aware, we’ve gotten numbers down to a very small percentage of students who are overage being retained. We’re also taking steps to provide help,” Kelly says. HCDE has been doing this for about seven years now; the group of students containing fewer overage children has begun to move into high school, and dropout rates have improved significantly. In fact, HCDE saw dropout rates go from 30 percent to 22 percent over the past year.

HCDE also uses the IBM solution for teacher incentives. “We go through and estimate the scores a student would make based on past history. We predict where a student will score, and track teachers who beat those predictions. Then we rank those results, and if a teacher is in the top 20, they receive an incentive,” explains Kelly.

Kelly’s department started out as a group of three people several years ago, but now it has eight people using the analytics system and looking at anything that might have an impact on student achievement.

The department purchased the base analytics package for about $4,000 in 1998. As they improved results, administrators recognized a greater need—and the department increasingly received a larger budget.

Kelly suggests that education leaders who want to begin doing predictive analytics bring together a group of stakeholders to decide what kinds of information they want to be able to capture, and to begin making sure they have good data. There might be eight or so data points the stakeholder group agrees on, such as age, ethnicity, income, and other variables. Once those have been decided upon, the group should make sure that every student record contains all of this information, and that it is accurate.

“Look at outliers,” he suggests. “Do you have a two-month-old high schooler, or a 99-year-old first grader? Then you might have a transposed birthday. Flag those. Then go through and flag missing variables. The people who are pulling the data and the people who are entering the data will have to interact.”

Good, clean data strengthens your success rate as you look at analytics to head off problems before they occur, Kelly says.



Leading design software AutoCAD returns to Mac

Autodesk announced Aug. 30 that its AutoCAD software used by professionals to design everything from skyscrapers to pocket knives is reuniting with the Macintosh computer platform, AFP reports. A version of AutoCAD has been tailored for Macintosh computers, and applications for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch devices will let people collaborate on designs using those popular Apple mobile devices. AutoCAD is returning to Macintosh after parting ways with the platform in the early 1990s in favor of computers running on Windows software made by Microsoft, according to the company. Autodesk was not selling much of its computer-aided design program for Macintosh machines, because much of the architecture, design, and engineering world at that time opted for Windows computers. But about five years ago, Apple began shifting to Intel computer chips that let Macintosh computers run programs designed for Windows machines. AutoCAD is Autodesk’s “flagship” design and engineering software that lets people work in 3D to create detailed plans for nearly any type of product. Free applications for iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch devices will let people use those gadgets to review designs and suggest edits with the professionals behind creations able to watch in real-time on desktop Macintosh screens. The Macintosh version of AutoCAD will be released in the United States and Europe in the coming months and will be free to students at high schools or universities, where Macintosh has a strong foothold in the United States…

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Google tool tries to cut through eMail clutter

Google Inc. can sift through more than a trillion web links in a matter of seconds, but can the internet search leader help people wade through their overflowing eMail inboxes? That’s the challenge Google will try to tackle Aug. 31 with the introduction of a tool called “Priority Inbox” in its Gmail service, reports the Associated Press. The feature relies on formulas devised by Google engineers to automatically figure out and highlight which incoming messages are likely to be the most important to each Gmail user. Users who opt to turn on the Priority Inbox will see their messages separated into three categories. “Important and unread” eMail messages will be at the top, followed by messages that have been previously stamped with a star by an account holder. Everything else appears at the bottom. Switching back to the standard view of the inbox can be done with a click on a link along the left side of the web page. Google’s eMail analysis is based on a variety of factors, including a person’s most frequent contacts and how many other people are getting the same message. The content of the message also is factored into the equation. Although it might unnerve some people, the notion of Google’s computers scanning through the content of eMail isn’t new; Google has been doing it for years to determine what kinds of ads to show to the right of eMail messages and to block junk eMail, commonly known as “spam.” With more than 100 daily messages pouring into some inboxes now, people now need help to identify “the bacon and baloney” along with the spam, said Keith Coleman, Gmail’s product director…

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Advances offer path to shrink computer chips again

Scientists at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard are reporting this week that they can overcome a fundamental barrier to the continued rapid miniaturization of computer memory that has been the basis for the consumer electronics revolution, reports the New York Times. In recent years, the limits of physics and finance faced by chip makers had loomed so large that experts feared a slowdown in the pace of miniaturization that would act like a brake on the ability to pack ever more power into ever smaller devices like laptops, smart phones, and digital cameras. But the new announcements, along with competing technologies being pursued by companies like IBM and Intel, offer hope that the brake will not be applied any time soon. In one of the two new developments, Rice researchers are reporting in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, that they have succeeded in building reliable small digital switches—an essential part of computer memory—that could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using conventional methods. More important, the advance is based on silicon oxide, one of the basic building blocks of today’s chip industry, thus easing a move toward commercialization. Separately, HP is to announce that it will enter into a commercial partnership with a major semiconductor company to produce a related technology that also has the potential of pushing computer data storage to astronomical densities in the next decade. HP and the Rice scientists are making what are called memristors, or memory resistors, switches that retain information without a source of power. “There are a lot of new technologies pawing for attention,” said Richard Doherty, president of the electronics market research company Envisioneering Group. “When you get down to these scales, you’re talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip.”

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ACLU says Washington schools can’t seize student phones

The American Civil Liberties Union has objected to a proposed new policy in a Washington state school system that would let school officials seize students’ cell phones if they have probable cause, reports the Seattle Times. Bullying has taken a technological turn, and officials at Oak Harbor School District are looking for ways to control it. Under a proposed new policy, that might mean seizing students’ phones with probable cause. But do schools have that right? The ACLU of Washington says no. “One shouldn’t have to give up the right to privacy to have the other right of public education,” said Brian Alseth, director of the group’s Technology and Liberty project, which aims to protect technological rights and prevent governmental abuse. The organization objected to the proposed policy in a letter to the district superintendent; it has offered proposed changes, too. The School Board discussed the policy at its Aug. 30 meeting. Superintendent Rick Schulte said the district wouldn’t implement it until at least Sept. 13. He said the board will take that time to consider advice such as the ACLU’s. The proposed policy would fulfill a state requirement that bullying policies be updated by 2011, he said. Alseth said his main concern is that school officials would have “unfettered access” to students’ phones. If principals were searching a phone for harassing messages, they might, for example, learn about a pregnancy or a student’s politics—information that should be private. But Schulte said that although the policy would allow district officials to seize cell phones without permission, they’d avoid doing so…

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Ed tech is one focus of Maryland’s Race to the Top funds

Maryland recently became one of 10 winners of the second round of federal Race to the Top grants, and Charles County officials are ready to get the ball rolling with several projects, some of which involve education technology, SoMdNews.com reports. The Maryland State Department of Education announced that Maryland will receive up to $250 million in federal funding. Charles County school officials said they are pleased with the $1.5 million the local school system is set to receive. Race to the Top reforms include revised curricula based on core standards for college and career readiness, improved technology to aid instruction and track student achievement, prioritizing teacher evaluation linked to student test scores, and a plan for improving performance in struggling schools. Judy Estep, the county’s assistant superintendent of instruction, said one component of the county’s plans is a digital classroom at the new St. Charles High School. The digital classroom will include stadium seating and a dome that will surround students with images four times the resolution of a home high-definition television—and it would be open to all schools in the area and the community…

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