November 04, 2013

Good things seem to happen in threes. And three recent events in the computer science department will help round out the university’s position as a tech leader.

WPI has just been accepted for membership in an international nonprofit organization with 35,000 individual members and 2,000 corporate members—the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association.

WPI’s interactive media, game design, and cyber-security programs — in addition to its designation as a National Center of Excellence in cyber security — seem to perfectly complement the “exploration of issues … in information technology, communications, and electronics for the defense, homeland security, and intelligence communities” goals of AFCEA, according to its mission statement.

“The alignment with our expertise is clear,” says Karen Kashmanian Oates, dean of arts and sciences. “We are sitting at the table with leaders in the field.”

The new relationship with AFCEA is a win-win, Oates says. It will broaden the scope of experience for Oates and for WPI students, and offer the AFCEA a WPI brand of brainpower in finding potential solutions to such current issues  as detection of intrusions, for example.

Jeffrey Smith ’81, who works at Data Computer Corp. of America in Maryland, is a member of AFCEA. He said the mutually beneficial relationship with WPI and AFCEA is threefold in terms of graduates; education, interdisciplinary project management, and innovations; and research.

“A capable workforce with robust STEM capabilities is critical to the success of U.S. military missions,” says Smith. “These grads are in demand for contingency operations, warfighter support, and civil works and humanitarian assistance, among other areas.” In terms of education, WPI’s program-based applied interdisciplinary knowledge is exactly what’s called for in a relevant, 21st century workforce, in Smith’s view. “And WPI’s areas of research are quite on-point in data sciences (big data, for example), cyber security, collaboration science, crowdsourcing intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and unmanned vehicles, to name a few applications.”

Bridging The Gap

Oates was nominated to join AFCEA by Smith. She then had to complete a multipage application and detail WPI’s cyber security, data science, and information assurance. Oates has also been elected to serve on the AFCEA’s technology committee.

“The purpose of the committee is to enhance AFCEA’s outreach to IT communities; cultivate partnerships among government, industry, academic, and scientific leaders; and focus on finding solutions for the IT and related management problems facing government, military, industry, and nonprofit sector leaders worldwide,” said Smith in an email.

Oates says her committee role will involve some travel, which she hopes to also utilize for WPI’s greater good.

“I hope to attend the meetings once a month and align this travel with other work in D.C.,” she says, “such as with the National Science Foundation and with those who help provide more visibility for the work our faculty and students do.” If needed, Oates can also attend the tech committee meetings by conference call.

“Interestingly, the first meeting centers on the use of serious games to help train security professionals,” Oates says, further confirming the parallel goals of WPI and AFCEA.

Tech Milestones

WPI’s membership in AFCEA and Oates’s joining the nonprofit’s tech committee coincides with another advancement in the computer science area at the university: a new data science program approved October 10, along with an MS in data science and a data science certificate program.

It’s the first data science master’s program in the state, says program director and computer science professor Elke Rundensteiner, and one of very few in the nation. “From data mining to the predictive analytics, WPI faculty and students are creating more effective methods to access, use, and gain insights from big data and generating solutions to critical problems,” she says, “including those in industry and government.”

According to Oates, the AFCEA affiliation, her tech committee involvement, and the new data sciences program all strengthen each other, and make WPI a greater player in the organization as well in terms of what it can offer..

“WPI will not only get variability among the leaders in electronic communications, we will have the opportunity to work with industrial partners and also other institutions. We’re about solving problems,” she says “and the problems around security are of great interest to our nation.”

- By Susan Shalhoub