Alumnus Named Top Innovator by MIT Technology Review

Humans have forty-three muscles in their face that can be combined to create 10,000 unique expressions. Imagine programming a computer to interpret all of them. And, when you’re done with that, add in the other factors that effect social interaction – body language, culture, gender, and more.

Impossible?

That’s a word that doesn’t compute for Dr. Ehsan Hoque ’04, a Penn State Behrend Computer Engineering graduate who was recently featured in MIT Technology Review as one of the top 35 innovators under the age of 35. He was recognized for developing two computer technologies— MACH (My Automated Conversation coach) and ROCspeak—that train people to excel in social settings.

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Dr. Ehsan Hoque ’04, a Penn State Behrend Computer Engineering graduate, innovator and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester. Photo credit: Adam Fenster

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Hoque has been turning “impossible” situations into opportunities since his undergraduate days at Behrend.

“A scheduling mix-up required me to take some courses out of order and without having had the recommended prerequisites,” he said. “I really struggled, but it was a good thing because it made me resilient.”

His resiliency was put to the test in his final year at Behrend when his team took on a senior design project that they weren’t sure could be done. Not only did the team complete the project—a robot that could see, hear, and recognize people—but they also won the “Best Design” award.

So when Hoque was a doctoral student at MIT presenting his work on a computer program capable of gauging a user’s mood, and was challenged to expand it, he didn’t balk.

Challenge accepted

“After demonstrating my research at a workshop, a gentleman approached me and said he was very awkward in social situations and wondered if my technology could be used to create some sort of automated program that he could use at home to practice making eye contact and improve his social skills,” Hoque recalled.

As the primary caretaker of his brother who has Down Syndrome, Hoque had witnessed first-hand how difficult social interactions can be for some people. He also suspected that social stigma and shame kept many from seeking help.

“A computer, however, is completely objective, standardized, and non-judgmental,” he said. “It’s a safe place for people with social anxiety or awkwardness to practice and learn.”

Hoque, now an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, started working on MACH, a system for people to practice social interactions in face-to-face scenarios with a 3D character that can see, hear, and make its own decisions in real time.

Conversations with computers

In MACH, a virtual businesswoman has been programed to recognize the user’s expressions and statements. She can also nod, smile, and even ask questions. At the end of the conversation, the businesswoman gives users feedback about their interpersonal performance, including body language, intonation, and eye contact.

The program went live in 2015 and, to date, more than 20,000 people have used it to improve their social skills. Users can choose to share their results for research purposes and more than half have done so. Hoque uses the data to further improve the program.

“Building the original platform was easy, but then you have to add in all the insights,” he said. “That never really ends. It is an ongoing, evolving process.”

Hoque also designed a pared-down mobile version, Rocspeak, free for anyone with Internet access to use. There’s no animated character; instead, it records video and sends you a report on various aspects of your performance, such as speed of speech, pitch, intensity of smiles, and how often you repeat wrds.

Applied science

Applications for MACH and Rocspeak have gone far beyond the original intended audience. Hoque said his tool has been used by all kinds of people, including customer service representatives, nervous students with looming classroom presentations, and individuals simply preparing for a big date or a job interview. It can also help those who have social anxiety or challenges, such as those with Asperger’s.

Hoque, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Memphis and a Ph.D. from MIT, said he enjoys being able to use his skills to make a real-world impact.

“I have these advanced degrees and technical skills and, if I can use those to solve problems for people, then it is knowledge and time well spent,” he said.

Blast from the past

Check out Hoque’s Penn State Behrend senior project presentation: VisionPSU, a human interactive robot (below).

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Also, peruse these vintage photos, where you may recognize some School of Engineering faculty members, including Dr. Ralph Ford, now Penn State Behrend’s chancellor.

Makers Engineer Ornaments, Fun

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By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

The upcoming holiday season offers the perfect distraction for stressed-out students. In this last week of classes, we found plenty of holiday cramming going on with every area from Housing and Food Services to Student Activities to the School of Engineering fitting in some festive merrymaking before things get serious with Finals Week next week.

Wednesday evening, a dozen students gathered in an electrical lab in Burke 145 to munch holiday treats and craft acrylic LED ornaments with Dr. Chris Coulston, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Students first drew snowflakes on computers using CorelDraw and added any text they wanted before sending their creations to the laser printer to be cut out of acrylic. Then, they used soldering irons, wire, LED lights, and batteries to make their snowflakes glow.

Though the Makers group meets fairly regularly, Coulston refrains from calling it a club.

“It’s more like a gathering of like-minded makers,” he says. “I just invite students to show up and make something. It gives them an opportunity to try some of the tools we have, like the laser cutter and soldering equipment.”

Ultimately, though, it’s about encouraging critical thinking and creativity, which are key concepts for engineering students to grasp.

“We try to come up with things that challenge them or make them look at things in a slightly different way,” Coulston said. “For instance, before Thanksgiving, we made LED hot dogs. Who’d have thought you could light up a hot dog?”

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While there may be no practical application for glowing frankfurters, there is certainly a demand for people with the creativity, technological skills, and theoretical knowledge to use ordinary objects in a truly unique way.

While the majority of those who attend Coulston’s Maker gatherings are engineering students, he welcomes all students and faculty members.

“I’d love to have some artists and scientists join us, too,” he said. “The more, the merrier. They’d probably have some really cool ideas.”

Coulston brought a special guest to Wednesday’s gathering, his pug, Shiloh, dressed in her holiday best.

“Anyone can get a picture with Santa, but where else can you get a photo with Santa Pug?” he says with a smile.

Just like an engineer, always looking to improve the original product.

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Behrend alumni lead textbook company’s transition to digital age

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Behrend alumni Erika Dauber Berlin and Matthew Totzke are challenged with running a textbook company, Larson Texts, in the 21st century.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

In an age dominated by tablets and tweets, the prospect of running a textbook company might seem daunting. There’s nothing “textbook” about the operations of Larson Texts, however.

Technology has changed the game, but the Erie-based company has continued to adapt.

“The physical book is still valuable, but the way you get your hands on it is much different,” says Matthew Totzke, CEO of Larson Texts and a Penn State Behrend mathematics alumnus. “The technology now allows us to do a much better job of enhancing the learning experience.”

Larson Texts was founded more than 30 years ago by Ron Larson, then a professor of mathematics, now emeritus at Penn State Behrend. At the time, Larson was responding to what he saw as the need for more student-friendly math textbooks.

Today, the company produces math textbooks for sixth grade through college-level calculus classes that are used by more than five million students each year. Larson has also published textbooks for such well-known educational publishers as Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and W. H. Freeman and also publishes its own textbooks through Big Ideas Learning and AndYou.com.

Publishing a book, involves more than producing a physical textbook. With every college-level textbook that Larson Texts creates, the company also develops a fully-responsive companion website for all platforms: desktops, tablets and smartphones.

“We’re able to access so much more information than ever before. Now, we can really blend a great print book with strong digital content,” Totzke says.

That type of digital content featured on the companion sites includes worked-out proofs, instructional videos, rotatable graphs and downloadable data. All of these tools are great reference materials for students.

“There’s a lot of modeling in mathematics that you just can’t show on a print page,” Totzke says. “We put together interactive explorations that bring three-dimensional concepts to a workable medium.”

Being ahead of the digital curve is no new development for Larson. In 2001, the company created the website CalcChat as a tool that students could use to double check answers to questions posed in textbook exercises.

The site has since been supplemented by a tutor component and corresponding Twitter and Facebook accounts where students can talk with an actual tutor if they are struggling with a particular problem. Larson Texts monitors the tutor conversations as a way to gain feedback and develop solutions in areas in which students are continually struggling. According to Totzke, an estimated six million upper-level high school and college students have used the CalcChat service since 2010.

Through Big Ideas Learning, Larson publishes its own primary-school level books, a market segment the company expects to see expand as schools catch up to colleges and universities in terms of technology.

“Schools are beginning to have the infrastructure to embrace some of this technology,” says Erika Dauber Berlin, vice president of technology at Larson Texts and a Penn State Behrend communication & media alumna. “We have to draw inspiration from a lot of different areas and then anticipate how we’ll meet teachers’ needs into the future.”

It may not be the “textbook” method for creating educational publications, but Totzke would not have it any other way.

“We consider this to be an opportunity,” he says. “We’re able to deliver high-quality educational materials like we’ve never done before.”

Behrend senior committed to seeing StudentTrade.net succeed

Wehler, May 2015

Eric Wehler will graduate next week from Penn State Behrend, but the senior project and supply chain management major is committed to seeing StudentTrade.net succeed.

By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend

Next week, Eric Wehler will be one of more than 500 students to graduate from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Like many other successful graduates, he has a job lined up, but he also has a unique connection to Behrend that likely will not be ending anytime soon.

In December, Wehler created StudentTrade.net, an online marketplace where members of the Penn State Behrend community can exchange or purchase textbooks, school supplies, appliances and furniture. The site began as a class project for Wehler’s MIS 430: Systems Analysis course but has expanded since then.

Today, StudentTrade.net has more than 90 registered users and forums for nine different colleges and universities. Earlier this month, Wehler established the site as a limited liability company (LLC). There have been growing pains along the way, including a redesign that resulted in the loss of previously registered users, but Wehler is committed to the cause.

“It keeps fueling me because I really believe this has a chance of succeeding,” says the senior project and supply chain management major who will begin work as a supply chain associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in May. “It’s really just a better version of a classifieds website, but it’s able to help students save money. I feel as if this could be the next big thing.”

Wehler is not alone in his enthusiasm for the project. Faculty members in the Black School of Business have encouraged him to continue enhancing and promoting the site, and Wehler sees Penn State Behrend as an integral part of any future success that the site may have.

“I’m aware that it’s going to take time, but if it takes off at Behrend, then I think it will just grow from there. I give so much credit to the college, the School of Business and the Office of Marketing Communication for their help with this. Even if the site grows, I always envision it being ‘housed’ at Behrend,” he says.

Wehler envisions the site remaining a free service for students, but he hopes to eventually charge property owners for posting information. He also believes the site could generate ad revenue.

For any of that to happen, however, StudentTrade.net needs significant web traffic, which is what Wehler is working to increase during his final days as a student at Behrend. Right now, the site is running a campaign in which students are automatically entered to win a $25 gift card if they post an item on the site.

“The site is like a second full-time job for me, and I plan on continuing to do what I can, so it eventually will become my full-time job,” Wehler says. “I see myself one day going from college to college and pitching the site to schools. In the process, I hope that I will also be able to inspire students to pursue their own paths as entrepreneurs.”

Wehler will certainly continue pursuing his.

“As long as the site is running and it’s helping students out, I’m committed,” he says. “I plan on running this thing for as long as it lasts.”

Windows 8 cheat sheets

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By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

One of the greatest things about working at a university is having access to experts in nearly anything you can think of.

Have a question about the geology of the Wintergreen Gorge? Ask Dr. Tony Foyle, associate professor of Geology. Wondering how you can build a better mousetrap? Call Dr. Robert Weissbach, associate professor of engineering. Need help identifying the strange bird you saw? Ask Dr. Margaret Voss, associate professor of biology.

You get the picture.

But the experts on campus aren’t limited to the classroom. They can be found all over campus, from The Learning Resource Center to the Academic & Career Planning Center to the Computer Center.

For instance, Carolyn Dudas, web developer/information specialist, recently compiled a list of “cheat sheets” full of helpful hints and tips for those making the transition to Windows 8.

“If you’re new to Windows 8, you may be feeling somewhat lost and experiencing frustration, especially since it is drastic change from the former operating system.  So to ease a bit of the learning curve, I’ve compiled a few resources that you might find helpful.  You can access the list here.”

I recently bought a new personal laptop that has Windows 8 on it and I have found it very challenging to adapt to. I was grateful for Carolyn’s expertise and her thoughtfulness in sharing what she found.

So now, I’m compounding that by sharing it with all of you. Pass it on.

Good luck with Windows 8 and remember:

It  is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that  survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. — Charles  Darwin

~ Heather