Faculty Research and Teacher Research Topics

The proposed RET Site has eleven faculty mentors. In the original proposal, for each faculty mentor, we briefly described 3-5 activities a teacher can be involved in. While most of the activities are research-oriented projects, some involve the development of educational kits/tools. We understand that, instead of pure development of education materials and tools, each teacher should be engaged in research projects among other professional development activities. We acknowledge that mixing the descriptions of research projects with activities on educational materials, as presented in the original proposal, was confusing. In the implementation of the proposed RET Site, we will ensure that each teacher gain substantial authentic research experiences in addition to their curriculum development activities.  In the following, we describe specifically the research projects planned for the teachers under each faculty mentor.

1. Dr. Xiaobo Tan (Electrical and Computer Engineering) Xiaobo Tan

  • Faculty research area: Autonomous gliding robotic fish. Dr. Tan's recent research has been focused on soft sensing and actuation materials, modeling and control of systems with hysteresis, bio-inspired design and development of fish-like robots, and collaborative control of autonomous robots. In particular, his group is developing and deploying a novel type of underwater robots as mobile sensor platforms for monitoring harmful algal blooms, oil spills and other environmental processes. Named gliding robotic fish, these robots combine the advantages of energy-efficiency of underwater gliders and high-maneuverability of robotic fish. His work in this area has been selected twice as NSF Highlights, and covered by a number of popular media, such as Scientific American and Bloomberg.
  • Research projects for teachers: (1) Examining mechanisms for harvesting wave energy to enable long-term operation of gliding robotic fish in coastal waters; (2) investigating mechanisms and developing prototypes for underwater optical communications for small underwater robots; and (3) designing and developing smartphone apps for interactions between a human operator and autonomous robotic fish.

2. Dr. Ranjan Mukherjee (Mechanical Engineering)Ranjan Mukherjee

  • Faculty research area: Bio-inspired underwater propulsion mechanism. Dr. Mukherjee's research group has been involved in the development of a propulsion mechanism capable of providing underwater vehicles with efficient thrust and superior maneuverability. Specifically, he studies a bio-inspired submersible that uses a fluttering fluid-conveying tail to produce thrust as a synergistic combination of jet action and jet-induced tail motion. Analytical work and simulation results show that the traveling waveforms so created produce a net thrust, in excess of the momentum flux from the jet exiting the tail. Experiments testing the aforementioned analysis have confirmed the findings.  
  • Research projects for teachers: (1) Optimizing the efficiency of the robot through the design of hull and tail planform; (2) improving maneuverability of the robot by using the tail as a control surface and by adjusting the vector of the jet's thrust; (3) designing the robot controller for tracking a given trajectory and validating the controller performance through experimentation.

3. Dr. Jongeun Choi (Mechanical Engineering)Jongeun Choi

  • Faculty research area: Autonomous robotic boats. Dr. Choi's core research area is synthesis and analysis of distributed learning and cooperative control algorithms for multi-agent systems with applications in environmental sciences, such as prediction and tracking of algal blooms in water and toxic chemicals in air. His group has also been developing solar-powered autonomous robotic boats for the purpose of validating the developed algorithms.  
  • Research projects for teachers: (1) Developing a microcontroller-based intelligent power-management system for coordinating solar-charging and use of batteries; (2) Investigating the improvement of the robotic boats with motion and environmental sensors and developing the interface between these sensors and the microcontroller; and (3) Examining the implementation of the developed distributed coordination algorithms in simulation and in robotic boats.

4. Dr. Philip McKinley (Computer Science and Engineering)Philip McKinley

  • Faculty research area: Evolutionary robotics. Much of Dr. McKinley's research focuses on the evolution of cooperative behavior such as collective foraging, group-oriented predation, patrolling a region, and global synchronization/consensus, sometimes with evolved behavior transplanted into  commercial robots. Recently, Dr. McKinley has collaborated with PI Tan to addresses the application of computational evolution to both the behavior and morphology of robots, with a focus on evolving and fabricating flexible robotic components. Robot morphologies are evolved in simulation and then prototyped on a multi-material 3D printer, part of the NSF-sponsored Evolution Park Testbed.
  • Research projects for teachers: (1) Investigating novel physical structures and corresponding controllers for robots through computational evolution, 3D fabrication, and experimental evaluation on the Evolution Park Testbed; (2) examining which morphological characteristics of robots satisfy multi-objective functions involving locomotion, complex maneuvers, and energy efficiency; and (3) developing the understanding of the “reality gap” issue in evolutionary robotics by comparing the experimental performance of the evolved robot to the performance in simulation.

5. Dr. Richard Lunt (Chemical Engineering and Materials Science) Richard Lunt

  • Faculty research area: Transparent photovoltaics for buildings, cars, and robots. Dr. Lunts' research focuses on inorganic and organic excitonic materials for low-cost solar energy production and efficient energy utilization.  He looks to exploit oriented, crystalline, nanostructured, and excitonic films through organic-inorganic and organic-organic interactions while studying fundamental relationships between structure and photophysical excitonic properties.    Ultimately he aims to apply this understanding to enhance device efficiencies and lifetime, and create new functionality.  For example, Lunt has been developing additive, transparent, molecular photovoltaics and luminescent solar concentrator architectures that can retain a high degree of visible-transparency, while absorbing ultra-violet and near-infrared light for power generation.  These transparent solar-harvesting systems can lead to a highly deployable solar window that can be used in homes, skyscrapers, greenhouses, e-readers, automobiles, and robots.    
  • Research projects for teachers:  (1) Investigating the performance and luminescent properties of candidate materials embedded in waveguide systems; (2) developing a mathematical model that account for the physics of such materials and are amenable to material design; and (3) fabricating solar waveguide systems and thin-film photovoltaics designed to actually power small electronic devices.

6. Dr. Wen Li (Electrical and Computer Engineering) Wen Li

  • Faculty research area: Implantable brain-machine interface. Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) allow the control and communication of prosthetic devices (e.g., robotic limbs) with neurons through an individual's brain signals, which provide a new therapy to restore motor control in severely disabled patients such as spinal cord injury and stroke. Dr. Li's research focuses on the development of advanced BMIs to permit seamless communication between the central nervous system and the machine, by integrating recording and stimulation microdevices on biocompatible and flexible polymer platforms. Of particular interest is the development and characterization of an Opto-mECoG interface for electrocorticogram (ECoG) recording and direct optical stimulation of neural cells/tissues.    
  • Research projects for teachers:  (1) Developing a maze to train rat’s performance with multiple stimuli; (2) investigating correlation between neural population activities with animal's task performance such as limb movement; (3) developing light stimulation module for patterned light stimulation of eye and visual cortex; and (4) evaluating the long-term stability and reliability of the microscale neural interface using accelerated lifetime soak testing.

 7. Dr. Seungik Baek (Mechanical Engineering) Seungik Baek

  • Faculty research area: Biomechanics. Dr. Baek's research focuses on development of experimental and theoretical tools to characterize material behavior of biological tissues and synthetic materials, and development of computational methods for biological tissues to guide clinical interventions as well as to aid in the design of bio-instruments and prosthetic devices. Of particular interest is the growth and remodeling of soft tissues in response to altered physiological and pathological conditions, including mechanical loads, biochemical signals, injury, and diseases.
  •  Research projects for teachers:  (1) Performing mechanical testing of artery and studying its biomechanical properties, microstructure, and the contents of elastin, to improve the understanding on vascular pathophysiology; and (2) investigating biomechanics of abdominal aortic aneurysms, a symptom found in 5-7 % of people over 60 years old, using patient-specific models and computational simulations.

8. Dr. Lixin Dong (Electrical and Computer Engineering) Lixin Dong

  • Faculty research area: Nanorobotic systems and artificial bacteria flagella. Dr. Dong's group investigates nanorobotic systems including the manufacturing and application technologies of nanorobotic manipulation systems, nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS), and nanorobotic swimmers (artificial bacteria flagella). Current projects focus on nanorobotic manipulators inside scanning electron microscopes, high-resolution nanorobotic manipulation inside transmission electron microscopes, nanosystems on a tip, atomic-scale mass delivery, and NEMS based on shell-engineered carbon nanotubes. Targeted application fields include nanomaterial science, bionanotechnology, and nanoelectronics.
  • Research projects for teachers:  (1) Designing and contructing an interface for carbon-nanotube-based pico-Newton force sensors; (2) investigating the strategies for Internet-based operation of nanorobotic manipulators; (3) modeling the dynamics of artificial bacteria flagella and experimentally validating the model with scaled-up prototypes; and (4) investigating the modeling and control schemes for nanotube-based linear motors.

9. Dr. Joyce Chai (Computer Science and Engineering) Joyce Chai

  • Faculty research area: Robot-human situated dialogue. Dr. Chai's research focuses on natural language processing and situated dialogue agents.  With new generation of interactive robots emerging in recent years to provide service, care, and companionship for humans, technology enabling situated dialogue has become increasingly important.  To address this need, Dr. Chai and her students are currently developing models to mediate perceptual basis between humans and robots and creating algorithms for situated language processing.
  • Research projects for teachers:  (1) Conducting experiments to collect human-human interaction data to inform the design of computational models; (2) evaluating system functionality based on human-robot experiments; (3) developing dialogue strategies to enable the robot's collaborative behaviors; and (4) improving language understanding components by incorporating situational context.  

10. Dr. Xiaoming Liu (Computer Science and Engineering) Xiaoming Liu

  • Faculty research area: Visual computing. Dr. Liu's research interests include computer vision, pattern recognition, machine learning, and human machine interface. He has been developing various computer vision systems to extract high-level semantic meaningful information from visual data, such as images and videos. Of particular interest is human-centric visual analysis, which aims to understand the emotional status of human by an array of visual cues, such as facial expression and body gesture. The research on visual computing will allow a robot to enhance its situation awareness, as well as better understand human's response in human-robot interactions.
  • Research projects for teachers: (1) Investigating methods for utilizing various visual cues to infer the emotional status of human subjects; (2) developing methods for detecting a moving object from images taken from a camera mounted on a mobile robot through image stabilization techniques; and (3) developing an automatic rating system for the cercospora leaf spot disease of sugar beet by using the video captured from a small UAV flying over the field.