2020 | 2021


A letter from the dean

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your generous support of the Tufts University School of Engineering.

It has been a pleasure to learn and grow alongside my students and the School itself over my nearly 20-year career in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. I was honored to be named Dean ad interim and Karol Family Professor for the upcoming academic year.

This was once again a challenging year due to the pandemic, but I am so proud of our students, faculty, and staff and their collective response to a singular year. We returned to campus in a safe manner, we served our communities, we pioneered innovative research, and we continue to create a Brighter World.

Together, we have made transformative changes in many aspects of the School of Engineering. We now have the most diverse undergraduate population in the school’s history, both in terms of race and socioeconomic background. We received an incredible gift of $10 million from Jack and Jan Derby to name the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts. Finally, our newest academic building, Joyce Cummings Center, is almost complete and will house our Computer Science, Data Science, Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts, and Tufts Gordon Institute.

In a momentous honor, Stern Family Professor of Engineering, Distinguished Professor, and Department Chair David Kaplan was inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. In the past two years alone, Professor Kaplan and members of his lab have developed novel 3D tissue models, molded silk into new products, and made inroads into the quest to grow meat from animal cells.

This past year, faculty and students developed eco-friendly manufacturing techniques for an alternative to animal leather, designed lipidoid nanoparticles that could improve the efficacy of therapeutic cancer vaccines and nanoparticles that can deliver gene-editing tools to specific tissues and organs, and created metamaterials that manipulate microwave energy and new smart materials that can be controlled by light alone.

These are just some of our highlights from academic year 2020-21 and I am fully confident that our School will continue its upward trajectory.

Our success could not happen without your generosity. Thank you for all that you do for Tufts, and I look forward to speaking with many of you this year.


of Dean Kyongbum Lee

Kyongbum Lee
Dean ad interim, Tufts School of Engineering, Karol Family Professor

Alumni and Students in the News

Who Are Tomorrow’s Engineers? Meet Five with Big Ideas

Young Tufts innovators talk about what drew them to engineering and how they hope to use what they are learning

Engineers Week, a nationwide event, runs this year Feb. 21-27, celebrating engineering and engaging the next generation of innovators. At Tufts School of Engineering, E-Week, as it’s best known, may be scaled back this year, but networking events and film discussions are still planned.

Meet Five Big Ideas

In keeping with this year’s theme “Imagining Tomorrow”—encompassing role models, diversity, and what the future holds—Tufts Now reached out to five students to learn more about what drew them to engineering, what they value about their Tufts experience, and how they hope to use what they are learning out in the world—and beyond.

Zharia Akeem, E24

Zharia Akeem, a Detroit native, is double majoring in computer science and biomedical engineering. Her passion for engineering was encouraged by a summer program at MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach, and through the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) program.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of making something out of nothing. For my first project in Introduction to Computational Design, I made something from scratch. I was able to see the entire process and then see how it worked at the end. At that moment, I knew that I was definitely going to stick with engineering.

I also wanted a job that would enable me to go back to my community, because Detroit is a majority African-American city without a lot of African-American doctors, and certainly not a lot of Black trauma surgeons or woman trauma surgeons, which can create trust and communication barriers. My hope is to do bootcamp before medical school, and after school do my residency in a military-approved program, and then ultimately go back to Detroit after I have served.

One highlight of my time is studying with English lecturer Jennifer Minnen. She encouraged me to write papers on scientific research, which was a really good experience. She introduced me to other people on campus who know about research going on at the university, and was open to helping me do the things that I wanted to do.

Since I’ve been here, the student body in the engineering department, as well as the professors and the TAs, have been so welcoming. I’ve never felt more like a part of a community than I have at Tufts and at the engineering program.

Everyone’s trying to do something, everyone’s trying to create something and make a difference and break some type of barrier. They motivate me to try to do more, to learn more things.

Tyler Frasca, Ph.D. candidate

Tyler Frasca came to Tufts from Wentworth Institute of Technology to pursue graduate studies in human-robot interaction. He was the lead on the Tufts team for the 2017 NASA Space Robotics Challenge, in which Tufts was one of 20 finalists out of 93 competing teams.

What I’ve always enjoyed is taking things apart and putting them back together, and being able to innovate on different ideas. Growing up I was always taking things apart. Once I built a little device mounted next to my bed; it had two strings wrapped around it that attached to the light switch on the wall. I was able to sit in bed and turn on and off the light without having to get up.

More recently, when at Wentworth, my friend and I designed and programmed a hexapod—or six-legged—robot. I was just like, “Wow.” I was able to build this awesome little robot and program it to walk on its own. It was fascinating that I could create things that could be self-sufficient.

So, solving problems—especially that help other people, including yourself, to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do—that’s what I love about engineering.

My highlight experiences at Tufts have been working with Professor Matthias Scheutz and the team in the Human-Robot Interaction Lab. I remember the first time I taught one of our NAO robots how to dance, in the sense that it raised its arms, squatted down, and then stood back up. It was a lot of fun, being able to see my work, to design a system that allows the robot to learn new tasks.

Our work on humanoid robot capacity for the NASA competition was a highlight, too. Ever since, I’ve been working on teaching robots through natural language—being able to verbally explain a task to a robot instead of having to program it specifically.

What we’re trying to do is develop robots that learn new tasks or action sequences by equipping them with an initial vocabulary and understanding of phrases, so they learn words online through reasoning and inference.

My dream job would be to have my own robotics and artificial intelligence company. I have had some interest in assistive home care robots. Another side of me is also very interested in space exploration, so I’m little bit torn between those two applications.

That said, a lot of the internal pieces in the robotic architectures can definitely be applicable to both, and that’s something that I really like about these cognitive robotic architectures—the widespread applications; they’re not necessarily specific to a single problem.

Yiwen Jiang, E21

Yiwen Jiang, majoring in computer engineering, is a student leader of the IEEE-HKN chapter at Tufts and involved with the Women in Technology (WiT) student group. She is also first author on a recent paper in Scientific Reports that describes an application of thread sensors to classify head motion in real time, with potential implications for tracking health and performance.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of how the knowledge we learned in class is so closely related to the real world. More importantly, we are given opportunities to see and understand the discrepancies between the theory and the real world and ways we have to account for them when we design.

The junior and senior design classes have been especially great. The class provides a gateway to the real-world work environment, from our usual school environment. We are constantly being reminded to do things that would provide efficient communications and get work done, rather than do things just to turn the homework in and get the grade. I really appreciated the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration too.

Another highlight has been the chance to be part of an exciting discovery with smart threads by working with Tufts Nanolab. When I decided to major in electrical engineering, I wasn’t thinking of the medical field, but after I read how machine learning and image processing algorithms were being used in CT scans to diagnose COVID-19, it inspired me to look into electrical engineering applications in the medical field.

As a student of engineering, you have to learn to be willing to acknowledge your mistakes. I think one of the fastest ways to learn is through making mistakes, but you have to admit it to learn from it. It might not need to be a huge mistake—many times it’s just as simple as admitting that there is always room for improvement. If I have a strength as an engineer, it’s my ability to learn new things. I think as an engineer it is really important to not be intimidated by new things.

My dream job is to continue working on designing things that would improve people’s lives. I have interests in lots of areas, but there isn’t a specific area or job that I want. I’m planning on going to graduate school and would love to explore a bit more, so I’m staying open-minded.

Myisha Majumder, E21

Myisha Majumder has been named one of “2021’s 10 New Faces of Civil Engineering” (collegiate edition) by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A double major in civil engineering and quantitative economics, she has particular interest in the intersection of the environment, equity, and energy and has worked at the Applied Economics Clinic as a research assistant for more than two years. Last fall, she was editor-in-chief of the Tufts Observer (the first engineering student in the position, she believes), and is also an executive board member for the student-run think tank SYNS, organized through Tisch College of Civic Life.

When I started engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of thinking about problems and systems, not just at the level of one piece in a puzzle, but as a whole, with the idea of building things that in ways both tangible and intangible that better the world.

That way of thinking is very relevant especially now, when we’re thinking about things like systemic racism more critically. Nothing we do in engineering is really isolated; that’s something that we’ve been taught from day one. Nothing is just moving by itself in one part; it’s connected to a broader system, and we have to think about our place in the world like that, too.

I’m really grateful for how flexible and forward thinking the School of Engineering has been for me. I really appreciate the fact that I was given the opportunities to explore things other than very traditional engineering and to find support.

My advisor in the economics department, Professor Ujjayant Chakravorty, studied civil engineering as an undergrad, so it was cool finding him. And my engineering advisor, Assistant Professor Jonathan Lamontagne, was a political science major before he switched to engineering. So I found my people. They knew where I was coming from.

In the Hidden Figures movie, something that really stuck out to me was Mary Jackson telling her supervisor that she wants to study engineering and the supervisor encouraged her. She really struggled, both due to systemic barriers and personal issues, but she went on. That is emblematic of how I have seen engineering in my time at Tufts.

If professors see something in you that is innate, like the ability to solve problems and to push yourself, they will encourage you to stretch your boundaries so that you can prove that you’re strong and you can tough it out.

The biggest thing is that you have to learn to be resilient and recover from your failures. I don’t think engineering was ever designed to be easy. Failure is often seen as a bad thing, but in my opinion, a lot of the times, it is the only way we can grow.

Over time you realize that failures aren’t as important as what you’re learning. Even the classes that I’ve done the worst in, I’ve learned the most, because I’ve realized just how resilient I am and I can keep going. Overall, that growth mindset is extremely important for engineers.

I’m hoping that there will be more diversity in engineering; that’s something I’ve advocated for and will continue to advocate for as a woman of color. I have definitely grown used to the feeling of being othered. I went to a very predominantly white public school system my entire life, and then came here.

So, it wasn’t necessarily jarring by any means, but amplifying unique voices is really important in engineering. Once we recognize that all voices matter to us as a community, I think we can start to use our unique skills to progress society at a much deeper level than we have so far, and that means incorporating more diverse voices.

Eduardo Vargas Gutierrez, E22

Eduardo Vargas Gutierrez is a double major in mechanical engineering and mathematics, a STEM Ambassador (an outreach program run by the Center for STEM Diversity and open to students from the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering), and member of the Tufts Society for Latinx Engineers and Scientists, as well as a mathematics tutor for the StAAR Center.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of product design. To sketch out an idea, make calculations for its performance, and then build, test, improve—I absolutely love that process.

One of my Tufts highlights was from an engineering design class with Associate Teaching Professor Gary Leisk. We were given a structure that’s shaped like the letter C, and using a 3D program, we had to design a new structure that would be able to bend to a certain degree and also suffer a certain amount of stress. My team went over more than 100 iterations to get what we wanted. Then our professor built it and tested it, and it performed exactly as we predicted. That was mind blowing.

To be a good engineer you have to think analytically, but also creatively. Even more important is to think of the impossible rather than just what is possible. I strongly believe that the work that I’m doing here at Tufts is bringing a different definition to impossible.

People are often too quick to say “No way, you can’t do that.” In most cases—almost all—there’s always a solution. You also have to learn to be OK with a lot of failure. Something always goes wrong, but that’s fine, because that allows for a lot of further thinking and reassessing and improving. At the end of the day, the good things, the meaningful things, are going to take time.

My dream job is to build either landers or rovers to support space exploration, whether it be to explore new planets, moons, whatever it is. A summer internship at Northrop Grumman in their aerospace systems division affirmed my goal to build rockets to go to Mars.

I just want to build things that are able to travel from Earth to somewhere that’s millions of miles away and have it fulfill its purpose, whether it’s gather biological samples, or even crash into the surface, so we can explore what’s out there in this insanely massive universe.

My job as a STEM ambassador is important to me too, as I think about the future of engineering. I know there are other kids who are in similar situations to me—they have a lot of big ideas and so much potential, but they might not know that STEM is for them.

But once you realize that is a possibility, countless doors open, and you understand all the things you can do for the world and for yourself. I was fortunate that my family was always encouraging. I learned early on: Just keep getting educated and chase your crazy dreams.

Tufts alums secure funding

ZwitterCo, a wastewater treatment solutions provider with Tufts roots, received $5.9 million in financing to scale its innovative filtration membrane.

ZwitterCo, an innovative membrane technologies provider first launched by students at Tufts University, recently announced financing of $5.9 million to scale its water treatment and advanced separations solutions. The funding round was led by Mann+Hummel Corporate Ventures in collaboration with R-Cubed Capital Partners, with additional support from Burnt Island Ventures and individual investors.

Alex Rappaport, E17, MISM18, examines membranes in his lab at the Greentown Labs incubator on May 2, 2019. His start up, ZwitterCo, is one of almost 100 tech startups in the Somerville incubator. He and his team are using technology to engineer membranes to filter and treat polluted water.

The ZwitterCo team utilizes a zwitterionic polymer invented by Ayse Asatekin, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Steve and Kristen Remondi Fellow, to create fouling- or clog-resistant membranes that filter wastewater that is rich with fats, oils, proteins, and other hard-to-remove organic compounds. The innovative polymer allows the membrane to be effective in bioprocessing, agricultural waste treatment, food and beverage, and other industries where standard membranes quickly degrade.

The new funding will support the company as it completes testing in key markets, expands commercial production, and continues to support its clients.

ZwitterCo was spun out of students’ experiences in the Tufts Departments of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, Tufts Gordon Institute’s MS in Innovation and Management program, and the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center. The company is led by Tufts alumni CEO Alex Rappaport, E17, EG18, CTO Christopher Drover, EG18, and CFO Greg Fisichelli, A89, working with fellow Jumbos like chemical engineer Trang Ngo, E19, and supply chain coordinator Abigail Klotz, E20. Asatekin and alum Steve Remondi, E87, are among the company’s advisors and board members.

The ZwitterCo team tied for first place in the 2018 Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition and has previously received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and the National Science Foundation, among others.

Meet the Next President of the Tufts Undergraduate Student Government

Amma Agyei, E22, will be the first Black female president of the Tufts Community Union Senate

This spring when the Tufts undergraduate student election season was starting, Amma Agyei, E22, didn’t even consider running for president of the student body.

Amma Agyei, E22

Sure, she’d been a senator in the student government as a freshman, the Africana community representative for her sophomore and junior years, and president of the Black Student Union for the last two years. But it wasn’t until friends urged her to run for president that she put her hat in the ring.

It was a good move—she won 70% of the vote, and became the first Black female president of the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, as the student government body is known. “The community voted for me based on my values, based on what I represent and what I stand for,” she says. “It feels good to know that they supported me.”

Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center, said she has shared the historic election with the Africana alumni community, “who are really excited and eager to pledge their support, particularly from the Black Presidents Club, which includes five former students who served as president of TCU Senate during their years at Tufts.”

Agyei, who grew up in Ghana, first came to the U.S. in 2016 for her junior year of high school in Marlborough, Massachusetts. A year later she was class valedictorian. Now on the pre-med track, she is majoring in biomedical engineering.

When she started at Tufts, she planned to just focus on academics; she had joined many clubs and groups in high school, and thought it would be best to keep things simpler in college. It didn’t work out that way, of course, as she got involved in clubs and student government. But she’s disciplined.

“I think I’m just efficient at managing my time and knowing what I work on first and get it out of the way,” she says. “Especially for academics, what I try to do is get all my homework done over the weekend.”

As TCU president for the 2021-2022 school year, Agyei says she will be focusing on several goals. Among them are working closely with the FIRST Resource Center and administrators to develop more resources for first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students. That would include developing a textbook stipend, which some universities provide for students whose families qualify, she says.

Agyei is also in favor of adopting shadow grading, in which first-year students can opt to have pass-fail grading; MIT and Wellesley College, among others, have such policies already on place. Many students come to Tufts undecided on their majors, she says, and this policy would allow them to try out different areas of study without worrying if those grades will affect their GPA.

“I feel like that would take off the stress from a lot of students and allow them to adapt to college, learn how to manage their time, and learn which classes they want to take,” she says.

In addition, she also plans on working with the Tufts Police Department to come up with reforms to make sure that all students feel safe on campus.

Agyei has been a strong supporter of the Africana community, Moore noted, serving as a TCU community representative for two years and chairing the Africana Advisory Alliance (AAA) group.

“Through her leadership of AAA, she has been the convener of our bi-monthly meetings with executive board members of student organizations and provided timely updates and information that helped them to feel supported as they planned events and activities to carry out the mission of their organizations,” Moore said.

“Amma’s drive and determination is an invaluable asset to helping us to build a strong sense of community and belonging for students who often feel isolated and unheard,” she added. “Amma is simply awesome.”

One other thing that Agyei wants to work on is attracting more Black students to Tufts. She’d like to see campus tours incorporate more landmarks from the African American Trail Project, and tell more about accomplishments of Black students from Tufts. She’s also hoping for orientation programs catering to underrepresented students as well.

Though she will be a senior next year, she’s also planning on sticking around Tufts for a while to come. As a pre-med student, she has considered medical school, but feels she can help people as well through engineering—and she was just accepted to the Tufts master’s program in mechanical engineering.

Faculty News

David Kaplan

David Kaplan Elected to National Academy of Engineering

Tufts biomedical engineer and researcher is recognized for his contributions to silk-based materials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine

David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering, a Distinguished Professor, and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering in recognition of his contributions to silk-based materials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Election to the National Academies is one of the foremost professional recognitions available to engineers, scientists, and medical experts.

“On behalf of my past and current students and colleagues here at Tufts, it is an honor to be recognized by the National Academy of Engineering,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan is the director of the Initiative for Neural Science, Disease & Engineering. He leads the Kaplan Lab in its research on biomaterials derived from biopolymer engineering and on regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

For 15 years, he directed the National Institutes of Health P41 Tissue Engineering Resource Center as a partnership with Columbia University. He holds faculty appointments in Tufts School of Medicine, the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, the Department of Chemistry, and the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Kaplan has published more than 900 peer-reviewed papers and edited eight books. He is a highly cited expert in biomaterials and biotechnology and a pioneer in the use of silk as a novel option in the field of degradable medical polymers.

In 2019, a report in Nature Biotechnology recognized him as one of the top 20 translational researchers in biotechnology worldwide. He is editor-in-chief of the journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering. His lab is leading academic efforts in the emerging field of cellular agriculture through the use of tissue engineering.

Kaplan is also a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering. He was recently named co-chair of the first Gordon Research Conference on silk-based materials, slated for August.

Hitting the Reset Button on Intro to Engineering

Hitting the Reset Button on Intro to Engineering

Faculty adopt new strategies to explore the design process through student-focused, hands-on projects—despite restraints imposed by COVID-19

AThis fall, some 300 students are enrolled in Introduction to Engineering, but it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all lecture. A gateway course for aspiring Tufts engineers, “EN1” offers 12 different project-based sections that deftly balance big objectives: appeal to lively ‘what-if’ minds of freshmen through team-centric, hands-on projects that anchor engineering in everyday life, build student confidence and deepen curiosity for larger challenges ahead, and reveal the principles at work in different engineering disciplines.

Engineering in the Kitchen, for example, explores engineering through the lens of food and kitchen gadgets as an engaging introduction to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Bridges for Resilient Cities spans concepts important to research and development going on in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Molecular concepts within the context of coffee brewing are among the lessons in Coffee Engineering, co-led by faculty from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

The course’s long legacy of innovation, however, had additional challenges this fall, given constraints brought about by strict public health protocols required of a global pandemic. The context of COVID-19 prompted EN1 faculty to recalibrate and in some cases wholly rethink and retool their approach.

“EN1 instructors have an extra responsibility to engage and excite students about engineering, because we want those students to make the right decisions about how they’ll spend the next three years,” said Ethan Danahy, E00, EG02, and EG07, research associate professor at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), with a secondary appointment in the Department of Computer Science. In his role as coordinator of first-year engineering courses, he also oversees all EN1 sections, which include elements common to any career in engineering: design, group work, project-based assignments, and ethics. And he has a special appreciation for that philosophy, having taken the course himself as a Tufts undergraduate, shortly after it was created by then-dean Ioannis Miaoulis, E83, AG86, EG87, E12P, E15P, professor of mechanical engineering, CEEO co-founder, and advocate for teaching engineering through hands-on projects.

Some EN1 faculty, he said, are retaining in-person classes and labs, adhering to social distancing and mask protocols. In his own Simple Robotics section, for example, students are in-class constructing and programming robots using a LEGO-based robotics platform.

But others are offering hybrid and virtual options that still preserve project-based, hands-on learning by leveraging online tools and kits to their advantage.

Daniele Lantagne, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has shaped a virtual experience that puts students in the driver’s seat. She’s teaching Engineering in Crises, which examines the role of engineering in four units or emergency case studies, starting with the Haiti earthquake/cholera outbreak—a case that looks at complex issues around infrastructure, water, and the outbreak of cholera. Another unit has a similar all-encompassing perspective on an emergency of unprecedented proportions: the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident triggered by the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Tōhoku, Japan.

Lantagne is providing pre-recorded lectures and readings via Canvas, and after viewing, students send her a reflections email. Overall, she’s aiming to ignite active learning by “flipping” the classroom: during class time students are divided into two cohorts, and each has 35 minutes of Zoom class time during which they lead a discussion about the topics. Lantagne also offers to be available for in-person conversations during office hours—with those sessions now meeting outside.

“The most important things to keep in mind for remote learning are flexibility, clear communication, and offering lots of room for connections and discussions in smaller groups,” she said. “I want students to think critically and to be able to articulate their thoughts and reactions to material, which is critical today, as we are studying engineering in crises during a global pandemic, and into the future, for whatever emergencies befall us.”

Briana Bouchard, E14, EG18, a student advisor and part-time lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, had a chance to warm up to remote learning this summer, teaching a fully virtual Internet of Things (IoT) course to both college and high school students.

She has high hopes for the customized kits she handed out to each student in her EN1 section, Inventing Smart Toys for Kids. Students will design compelling toys that build on IoT (basically any technology connected to the internet) and, more importantly, “see the world through the eyes of a child.”

The EN1 kits include, among other useful devices, an Arduino microcontroller board, thumb joystick, light, touch and temperatures sensors, a mini screwdriver, “and a handful of cables to connect everything together,” she said.

Most critically for classes where students can’t work side-by side, the kits empower each student to work with a team member remotely.

“What is most important to me is trying to maintain the collaborative nature of this course,” Bouchard said. “I didn’t want to lose that. One of our main focuses in EN1 is making sure our students learn how to work on an engineering team. That experience sets them up for what is going to happen throughout their four years here.”

Also important is how she set up her hybrid classroom for twice-weekly lectures. In-person students are the required six feet apart and masked, but in addition Bouchard makes virtual students feel like they are also there in Anderson Hall. She uses a mobile television to display their Zoom faces, in tandem with an in-class camera, “so when in-person students were introducing themselves at the first class, we could move it around so remote students could see them,” she said.

Thomas Vandervelde, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, brings a broad perspective to Introduction to Renewable Energy, including the examination of the way the media portrays energy technologies. “While going off the grid sounds like a great idea, it is a complex problem to be solved,” according to his class description.

Labs will give students a sense for the energy generation process and its complexity, and since they’re all recorded and posted online, students can watch and analyze the data independently. Vandervelde has invited energy researchers from around Tufts to record talks about their research and virtually attend and lead discussions about their research topic.

As for online lectures—he doesn’t see how his students, restless even when sitting in a classroom normally, would be riveted. “The 75-minute lecture would have my students checking their email,” he said. Instead, lectures are now asynchronous, freeing class time for lively—and fruitful— group discussion and problem solving. These follow the civics engagement model, a process in which people take collective action to address issues of public concern. Students break into like-minded groups then come back to the full group to discuss which strategy is best.

“The students are not empty vessels when they come to class,” he said. “This not only means that they have previous knowledge on some of the topics, but also they have biases and false information. I seek to get them to confront their biases and reflect on them as well. This helps them to approach problems more objectively in the future.”

The future of high-tech transportation frames a section on the Impact of Self-Driving Cars, taught by James Intriligator, who runs the Tufts Human Factors Engineering program, and Harold Miller-Jacobs, a Human Factors engineer for many decades. The class examines all aspects of what they call “the coming revolution” of self-driving cars and aims to sensitize students “to the myriad of complexities that this involves and the impact of that engineering on the rest of society,” said Miller-Jacobs.

Technique number one was tossing out the traditional PowerPoint they prepare in advance that outlines key points. “What we’re hoping to do now is ask questions and elicit answers from the class,” said Miller-Jacobs, “and the students themselves will build the slides.”

Technique number two: they are assigning students to be scribes who record brainstorming comments on a class-wide Miro board—a shared, digital white board. It’s another tool to be as interactive as they be in a class that Miller-Jacobs sees as inherently fascinating and ripe for discourse of varying opinions. “I happen to be a big advocate for self-driving cars,” he said, “but our society has lots of questions and assumptions that we need to discuss and debate.”

The co-teachers are not hesitant to take on fears and controversy. In one of their first classes, Miller-Jacobs ask students to ponder a scenario where the Uber they’ve called shows up and it’s self-driving. “I ask them: Are you going to get in it or not?” he said. “There are students who say, ‘No way,’ and others say, ‘Of course.’ And we had a great discussion around technology, but we also talked about the complexities of instituting these, how you handle cyberattacks, and so forth.”

He and Intriligator will draw on external guest speakers from their many years in industry to share their professional perspectives, including a newly blind engineer. “He just can't wait for self-driving cars because he can’t get into a car now without having a driver, but he looks forward to the day when he doesn’t need one."

Why does this section—or for that matter all the sections of EN1—matter?

“The reason a course like EN1 works well is that it exposes freshmen to engineering concepts” that work across multiple disciplines, he said. But perhaps most importantly, “it shows that engineering is not something within itself, is not self-contained. Whatever path a student chooses in engineering, that choice is going to have an impact on the rest of society. In EN1, no matter the format or the focus of a section, want them to understand and appreciate that perspective and that responsibility.”

Marty Allen

Teaching Toward Equity: When Is Technology Unethical?

In his new computer science course, Marty Allen challenges students to ponder the bigger and messier questions raised by technology

Marty Allen comes to the study of ethics and technology by way of philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. His scholarly interests took a new, although not unrelated, direction, as he grew more intrigued by the intersection of humans and technology—especially when so-called technological advances cross swords with ethics, raising doubts about their true benefit to society.

Allen joined Tufts last year from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as associate teaching professor in the department of computer science in the School of Engineering, and director of online computer science programs, including the Master of Science in Computer Science. One additional role is that of architect of a new course, Ethical Issues in Computer Science and Technology, an example of how faculty are peeling back the hidden and troubling biases that can be embedded in technology.

It’s a course that not only fits well with his own interdisciplinary interests, but also responds to student demand. When the computer science department set up a suggestion box this spring for student input on issues of inclusion and diversity, overwhelmingly, students wanted “more discussion of societal impact in their classes,” Kathleen Fisher, professor and department chair, told Tufts Now.

Allen meets twice weekly online with about 25 undergraduate and graduate students from both the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. Assignments include reading original philosophical literature—writings by John Stuart Mill, Bernard Williams, Immanuel Kant, Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre—as well as discussions around case studies, all with the intent of examining theories of what is or is not ethical, as well as justifications for ethical behavior. Tufts Nowrecently spoke with Allen about the course.

Tufts Now: What are you aiming to accomplish with the course?

Marty Allen: I am aiming to give students the tools that allow them to unpack ethical dilemmas that they may face in technology, in their careers, or as members of society. The idea is that they come out of the class with the ability to say, OK, let’s think about this issue from an ethical point of view.

My job is not to teach the knowledge of what is right or wrong but to give students the tools to respond to ethical issues and to understand what ethical behavior means to them. Everybody needs to be able to take a tricky situation and have some kind of ability to argue that through in their own head, or with somebody else; and by argue, I mean, in a civil discourse. This is something our department wants as a whole: We want students who, once they leave Tufts, are guided by more than just the demands of the marketplace.

Why is the philosophical text important?

What a philosophical education did for me is give me the ability to approach an argument for or against a case. It gives you concepts you can apply to life. I’ll pair Mill’s classic utilitarianism—that which serves the greater good is the best moral action—with a modern critic of utilitarianism. That’s how philosophy has worked for millennia. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue between two opposing views.

Can you share an example of where those tools come into play?

One problematic case is happening in Britain around the issue of facial recognition surveillance. Law enforcement has a practice of taking mug shots of people who are arrested and entering them into a searchable database. But now you introduce facial recognition software, and law enforcement can search against that database to see if a person has had prior run-ins with the law.

The issue that has risen is that you may not ever have been convicted—and the vast majority of people in that database are people who have never been convicted of any crime. But because they’re in the database, they can start showing up in lineup books where they become vulnerable to false identification.

I frame this technology advance as an ethical case study. On the one hand, to remove those people would be tremendously expensive because someone has to go in manually and remove them. If you’re a database administrator, should you devote the resources to removing those photos? The utilitarian would ask, is the greatest good measured by the resources of law enforcement being spent wisely? Maybe facial recognition software leads to a few false positives--but that’s not a problem, he reasons, because it may prevent more crimes, and so serve the greater good. The opposing viewpoint could argue that the investment of time and money is worthwhile because of the potentially negative impact on the lives of innocent people.

You also offer students opportunities to look at the pervasive and harmful impact of technology bias. Your reading list includes a 2016 article published in ProPublica that looks at software used across the country to predict future criminals. The algorithms are generating risk assessment scores, the likelihood a criminal will be a repeat offender. Forecasting has huge implications because it will inform decisions during sentencing. The journalists show how it’s baking racial disparities into the criminal justice system—clearly it is biased against Black people. What are the key takeaways from that reading?

The journalists did intensive analysis, and multiple significant racial disparities surfaced. They concluded that the algorithms in question were highly problematic, and that their application was leading to unjust outcomes. I want students to see how the implications of bias in algorithms could be reinforcing structural racism. At the same time, there have been debates about the conclusions drawn in the study. An assignment for the students is to analyze cases like this, breaking down the arguments for and against charges of biased or unethical uses of computing. I want them to forge their own ethical judgements, rather than approaching computing always from a values-neutral technical point of view.

Tufts has set out to be an anti-racist university. It’s a context that implies responsibility for change. Does computer science need to become an anti-racist field?

That’s a complicated question. On the most superficial level: we don’t tolerate any overt racism in the field. This is our most basic responsibility.

On a deeper level, we need to be asking serious questions about bias in algorithms and their deployment. Any decent machine-learning practitioner or data scientist cares about bias in algorithms—it’s just that we tend to think about bias in a relatively neutral sense, as a form of technical data skew, without paying enough attention to how data biases can arise due to histories of human biases, based upon all the categories one can imagine: race, religion, gender, and more. The solutions to these sorts of problems may be at least partly technical—get better data, write better algorithms—but many nontechnical things contribute just as much or more. Having more diverse teams of researchers and developers can help, for instance, since sometimes biased outcomes are less recognizable to those who have experienced less bias in their day-to-day lives.

So there are a lot of places where we can make the technical outcomes better by making the field better in deeper ways, related to equity. We have started to confront the fact that it is important to ask ethics- and equity-related questions about the use of the algorithmic tools that we are building, figuring out that the technical details and decisions matter, and have real moral consequences.

And on the deepest level, we have in fact found that algorithms can sometimes show less bias than humans. There are cases where predictive and analysis algorithms can outperform even experts. So, an ideal we might shoot for is that computer science can make contributions that will actually combat racism by cutting it out of decision-making channels.

Brandon Stafford about a class he's teaching with Kristen Wendell, AG11

Engineering Success in the Virtual Classroom

Perspectives from the School of Engineering as faculty hone ideas, practices, and tools that creatively define online learning this fall

Tufts School of Engineering this fall is incorporating hybrid and virtual courses into the curriculum, and for some, it’s a valued opportunity to rethink how to deliver material and how to engage students.

“Many students are able to leverage the immediacy of the digital platform and its lower barriers with ease,” noted Kristen Wendell, AG11, a professor of mechanical engineering with a keen interest in how students learn; she is also an adjunct associate professor of education. “We’re teaching a generation that doesn’t want to get lost in technology; they want to combine it and use it to foster personal interaction.”

That mindset, Wendell said, can open new ways of teaching. For her part, it has sparked lively conversations with colleagues about course design. “While COVID has placed a constraint on the teaching system, it has been a really productive constraint in some ways,” she said. “We are more thoughtful about how we find out what students are thinking and how they are progressing.”

She’s not alone in her thinking. Tufts Now reached out to faculty at the School of Engineering to learn how the transition has provided similar inspiration to three fall courses. Wendell and Ron Lasser, professor of the practice, shared the 2020 Henry and Madeline Fischer Award (Engineering’s “Teacher of the Year” prize). Ming Chow, E02, E04, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, also won the award in 2016, followed in 2017 by the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising.

Electromechanical Systems and Robotics 1 / Department of Mechanical Engineering

A solid grasp of basic electronics is handy knowledge for mechanical engineers, and that’s what Wendell and Brandon Stafford, a lecturer who oversees the makerspace known as the Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation, and Testing (FAST) Facility, focus on in this introductory-level course. Prior to the pandemic, students met in the Nolop makerspace surrounded by all the hardware and basic tools they needed. This year Wendell and Stafford, plus three learning assistants, are working on multiple online approaches, with a limited in-person classroom opportunity.

Hands-on learning is still very much the underlying foundation of the course. Students will build, test, and debug four increasingly complex circuit boards, with the first three projects completed individually and the last one in two-person teams. The entire class of about 66 undergraduates is divided into four Zoom discussion pods for twice weekly conversations, and they can connect with each other and their teachers anytime on Slack.

Stafford, in keeping with his own passion for making (and un-making) things, will also stream electronic tear-downs. “Basically, I take things apart, see what’s inside, and stream the whole thing on Twitch,” he said. “I’m enthusiastic about it.”

It speaks to a commitment to be as real and authentic as possible with students—and vice versa. The team designed weekly assignments in which students deliver a quick, one-minute video in response to an open conceptual question related to electronics, such as “What can you get more energy out of: a three-volt battery or a 100-microfarad capacitor—and why?” These prompts not only gauge depth of understanding, but also maintain quality interactions.

“We want to know the students as people,” Wendell said, adding that the videos do double duty by giving students the experience of organizing their thoughts and translating what they know—a skill useful for any future engineer. “It’s one example of how having to design for COVID helps us learn more about student thinking.”

Stafford agrees. “With online learning, we’re relying on new tools that will be better, in some ways, than our traditional approach, with regard to gauging student progress.”

“Kristen and I have talked about how to measure our effectiveness,” he added, “and we concluded that we succeed or fail based on what kind of community we build. If we build a strong community where the students are engaged, then this is going to go really well. Community goes beyond the standard online tools and requires meeting students where they are.”

He adopted Slack because students have the chat application on their phones. “They send me messages all day long via Slack,” said Stafford, who created a Slack channel for Nolop “zealots” to talk about 3D printers (among other things) while the popular facility is closed.

The goal of community, reiterated Wendell, informs the course as a whole. “We want our students to feel like they’re learning with people who care about them and where they are in their learning progress. We want them to know there are people they can call on for help. And we want to know what kind of help they need.”

Senior Design Project / Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

This past spring, Ron Lasser, professor of the practice, learned his first and most important lesson of online teaching: “You have to flex.”

The insight came soon after his best intentions fell flat. “I gave a lecture for senior design seminar with some flip charts for about 15 minutes and then stopped the class. Everyone looked totally bored,” he recalled.

When he asked for their honest feedback, they shared several ideas, and ultimately they “flipped” the classroom to come up with a more engaging approach to the material: a storytelling show-and-tell model that involved real problems in the real world. “And that’s where real cognition began.”

He has a strong commitment to engaging students, and that means a true partnership—a two-way dialogue that’s “extremely interactive and participatory,” he said. The trick to that partnership is relevance.

“You have to fit a problem or topic into their social and emotional context,” he said. “Students need to see the value of the problem. It excites their curiosity.”

To that end, for this fall’s senior design project, which is required for electrical and computer engineering students, he buttresses a weekly a PowerPoint with something new: a 15-minute podcast about a specific design challenge.

“What I like about the podcast is that it allows the student the freedom to listen to the audio anywhere, anytime, and multiple times,” he said. “From there they will create certain materials in a very descriptive way to bring to class that everyone will discuss. “

Another new feature involves asking School of Engineering alumni to share their stories with students as part of the Zoom class. Those personal stories, he said, bring the real world into sharper view.

“I know seniors are thinking a lot about life after Tufts,” he said. “It will be great to hear about different careers and get advice from those who have already made their way in the working world. It’s another way to engage students around relevance.”

There remains, of course, the expectation that students create quality senior design projects themselves. They can opt for a hardware or a software project, and with remote learning, the actual hands-on work introduces kits that provide test equipment like oscilloscopes and volt meters. The kits allow the students to set up a lab at home, and Lasser is optimistic that seniors, as natural inventors and tinkerers, will be adept at making projects on their desktops and kitchen tables.

As a teacher, Lasser has had “several epiphanies” about online teaching since the spring and now is an unabashed evangelist for virtual learning.

“I thought about how Socrates and Plato discussed abstract concepts such as democracy, ethics, and virtue, and look at how they taught: Plato sat on a rock, and Socrates drew in the dirt with a stick and asked questions,” he said. “I don’t see anything different between me asking a question over Zoom and using an Apple Pencil to draw a picture on a screen.”

“If we can adapt to the technology and the venue, which I believe we can, from an emotional standpoint, then we’re going to be successful. I predict that when we go back to in-person, I’ll stick with the online best practices so my classroom can be even more dynamic in person than it was in the past.”

Introduction to Security and Senior Capstone / Department of Computer Science

When COVID-19 forced classes online, it was a sudden transition for many, but for Ming Chow, E02, E04, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, it was no big deal.

Chow has taught online classes in web programming and cybersecurity since the summer of 2016. He’s more than comfortable with the approach. “If I didn’t love online teaching, I would not be foregoing a summer vacation,” he said. Point made.

Online teaching, he said, is not that different from a dynamic classroom experience, but it does offer advantages. For starters, it solves problems of limited physical space, which is of some concern to his department, the most popular major now at Tufts for both Engineering and Arts and Sciences undergraduates.

“In Halligan Hall, the computer lab can fit only 30 people, and most of the classes, especially the core and intro classes, have to be held elsewhere,” he said. “My classes all exceed 50 students. By going online, the physical classroom constraint goes away.”

He’s also sensitive to the fact that not all students are natural-born extroverts. Some students are habitually hesitant to answer—or ask—a question. His in-person classes can sometimes set up a divide between the two groups.

“I ask a lot of questions because I like to engage with the students. But I can sense the dread of the quieter students,” he said. “Online classes are different and often our discussions are even better than in-person. Students can chime in anonymously—though they’re not anonymous to me. So they feel more comfortable, and often they’re writing more fleshed out questions and answers, which is a powerful reward for me, given my style.”

That style, he said, reflects a philosophy shared across the School of Engineering: students learn best by doing, and by extension, thinking through problems for themselves. How does he bring energy to that experience?

“Every week in my online and in-person class, there is a hands-on lab you do on your own time,” he said. “In my summer security class, students had to break into a system and find every vulnerability in that system. I put together an infrastructure in the cloud. Students had to go at it with their hammers and break it. And they did!”

If hands-on learning is his number one priority, number two is asking questions. A lot of questions.

“There are no lectures for my online classes,” he said. “There are videos, but at the most they’re 10 minutes long. I give a short talk on a particular topic that also includes a demonstration. I try to make the videos digestible for learning and low-definition because not everybody has a great internet connection.”

He has another “secret” he’s ready to share, one central to student-teacher rapport. “I make it very clear to students that on day one, you ask a question, you’ll get an answer,” he said. “You can ask me a question anytime. It doesn’t matter. Go ahead, ask me a question at 2 a.m. My average response time is 35 minutes.”

Perhaps the most significant lesson he’s learned from teaching online is to set expectations upfront. “I have learned to be very clear about how much time is needed to complete an assignment, as it prevents problems” around time management and, potentially, a poor grade, he said. “I shared this idea with the entire School of Engineering because I believe it’s one of the most important things we need to do when working remotely.”

This fall finds Chow teaching several courses, including Comp 116: Introduction to Security, billed as a “holistic and broad perspective on cybersecurity” that includes hands-on labs and projects. (By the end of the first week, students will learn Linux commands by playing Capture the Flags via OverTheWire.) It’s also a course that deploys the global reach of the internet; he purchased a domain, comp116.org, so that all content, most of the labs, readings, and presentations, are publicly available.

“I did this deliberately because we have desperate need for cyber security education—it’s an international problem,” he said. “I make my content available to students and the world free of charge to help close that gap. It’s also part of a conscious decision to show that Tufts is building a security program here because we take this problem seriously.”

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“We’re slowly moving on from the heart to the brain, and using the same idea of collecting the signals from brain cells."
—Akshita Rao, E21, on what comes next after her heart-on-a-chip project in the Pulsar science podcast.

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