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2015-2016 Focal Point Projects

Climate Action Policies and International Policy Negotiations

Organizers: Nuole Chen (graduate student, Political Science); Hui Li (graduate student, Atmospheric Science); Clifford Singer (faculty, Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering); Ryan Sriver (faculty, Atmospheric Sciences)

International responses to increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, global average temperature, and sea level will critically affect the future of climate change. Recent U.S. National Academies reports (U.S. National Academies, 2015) emphasize the importance of considering measures to increase reflection of sunlight as comparatively inexpensive but controversial supplements to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and possibly also removing already emitted CO2 from the atmosphere.  This Focal Point project seeks to reveal insight regarding 1) the likelihood of implementing solar radiation management (SRM) measures that increase reflection of incident sunlight, 2) the unknown consequences of SRM measures, and 3) regional concerns, international negotiations, and ethical norms around SRM technology.  To gain this insight, the project proposes an innovative, interdisciplinary model that combines live-action climate negotiation simulations, climate modeling, and a mini speaker series to more effectively study and teach the results of climate policies.

Data Science Across Disciplines

Organizers: Halie Rando (graduate student, Animal Sciences); Diana Byrne (graduate student, Civil and Environmental Engineering); Ayla Stein (faculty, University Library); Heidi Imker (faculty, University Library)

This Focal Point seeks to expose graduate students to basic programming platforms and computational problem-solving in an environment that is open, inclusive, and supportive, especially for traditionally underrepresented populations. The motivation of this Focal Point project is to capitalize on the potential for graduate students across disciplines to advance their research careers by developing skills for data analytics and to envision and apply creative computational solutions to challenges in their own fields. Ultimately, the Data Science Focal Point serves two important and timely purposes: 1) broadening graduate training to enable competitiveness in the modern job market, particularly for those who may otherwise be discouraged from pursuing or not traditionally encouraged to acquire computational training, and 2) enhancing research on campus by empowering graduate students with the inspiration and skills to carry out their projects in a more efficient and innovative way.

Examining the Educational Experience of Latinos in the U.S.

Organizers: Joanna Perez (graduate student, Sociology); Sarai Coba-Rodriguez (graduate student, Human and Community Development); Jorge Chapa (faculty, LLS, Sociology, IGPA); William Trent (faculty, Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership)

The purpose of this Focal Point project is to bring together an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and graduate students from across campus to examine the educational experiences of Latina/o students in the United States. The following two questions will be explored through this initiative: 1) What are the barriers that Latina/o students encounter in their educational trajectories? 2) How do these barriers impact Latino students’ educational attainment, starting from preschool through college and beyond (P-20)?  The project will combine academic inquiry with outreach efforts in order to create an opportunity to not only explore educational issues but also engage with Latina/o students and experts.  As such, this initiative will have three major components: 1) A yearlong series of seminars where participants examine and discuss various research studies that are relevant to the topic; 2) Two events with one focusing on connecting participants with local Latina/o elementary school students and the second being a networking event for Latina/o undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty from across campus; and 3) A one-day campus wide conference that will feature keynote presentations by national experts who conduct research on Latinos and education.

The need to address the educational experiences of Latina/o students is of national urgency. There are two conditions that run parallel to each other that underscore the need to better understand the experiences of these students: a historic increase in the Latina/o student population and a continuing achievement gap for these students across the educational pipeline. Latinos are currently the largest racial-ethnic minority group in the U.S. (16.3% of the total U.S. population), and about 25% of all public school children are Latina/o (Kena, Aud, Johnson, Wang, Zhang, Rathbun, Wilkinson-Flicker, & Kristapovich, 2014). While Latina/o students represent a large segment of the student population, they are also overrepresented in the dropout category.  In fact, it is estimated that 41% of Latina/o students dropout at some point in their educational careers.  Certainly, programs and interventions are needed to ensure young children’s “school readiness” as the foundation for future academic success.  By participating in this focal point project, the team will aim to contribute to the national conversation on eliminating the educational barriers that Latina/o students must overcome by highlighting the strategies that result in academic success.  


Facilitating Project-based Learning in International Health Care

Organizers: Adam Rusch (graduate student, Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership); Kenny Long (graduate student, Medicine & Bioengineering); Jennifer Amos (faculty, Bioengineering); William Cope (faculty, Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership)

Today’s students are tomorrow’s global problem solvers. The global issues they will face are astounding, including climate change, an expanding global population, and the depletion of our planet’s natural resources. Experiential learning is one of the most effective strategies to gain first-hand experience working in an international, interdisciplinary environment, acquiring the skills necessary to ensure their success. The Global Health Scholars Education Program will provide education in core concepts for global health across many disciplines. Learning will be facilitated within mentored scholarly projects and global interaction through an innovative online environment. Through this Focal Point Project, we will examine the way students and teachers use the features of this environment to continuously improve the community.

Interdisciplinary Training for Engineers and Scientists: Bridging the Gap for Sustainable International Development Projects

Organizers: Sital Uprety (graduate student, Civil and Environmental Engineering); Nora Sadik (graduate student, Civil and Environmental Engineering); Helen Nguyen (faculty, Civil and Environmental Engineering); Chi-Fang Wu (faculty, Social Work); Juliet Iwelunmor (faculty, Kinesiology and Community Health); Ann-Perry Witmer (faculty, College of Engineering)

As of 2014, 748 million people still lack access to an improved drinking water source and 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. There are numerous ongoing efforts in the form of nonprofit organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), university and government based research, and others to advocate for the achievement of global access to safe water, sanitation, and household energy. While international funding for water and sanitation efforts continues to increase, 80% of countries report lacking the necessary funds to reach national water and sanitation target goals, and 30-40% of rural water supply systems are dysfunctional at any given time. We believe that a truly interdisciplinary approach is needed to address this global challenge to translate the commitments of safe water, sanitation and household energy into reality.

This Focal Point project seeks to engage a diverse group of faculty members and graduate students interested in exploring the methods of community development and the interaction amongst researchers, implementers, and communities. Our objective is to use case studies, insight provided by experts, and student and faculty innovation to develop methods to effectively nurture the interaction of persons of different skillsets to meet water, sanitation, and household energy needs worldwide. Topics will include: (1) assessment of end-user social, health, environmental and economic needs, (2) creation of strategic implementation procedures, and (3) establishment of representative-monitoring systems. Students and faculty will have the opportunity to interact with national and international NGOs and nonprofit organizations such as Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) in Nepal, Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) in Canada, and Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation in Uganda. This multidisciplinary forum will be a platform for graduate students in the fields of engineering, technical sciences, social sciences, global studies and others, to learn skills outside of their primary discipline to expand and diversify the impact of their research.


NICER (Non-Intrusive, Cooperative, Empathetic and Robust) Robotics

Organizers: Thiago Marinho (graduate student, Mechanical Sciences and Engineering); Venanzio Cichella (graduate student, Mechanical Sciences and Engineering); Naira Hovakimyan (faculty, Mechanical Sciences and Engineering); Francis Ranxiao Wang (faculty, Psychology)

With the rapid increase in the use of technology in our daily lives and the growth of population density in large urban areas, we are on the verge of experiencing multi-robot cooperative systems comprised of humans and robotic machines interacting in shared, constrained spaces. This calls for a radically new approach to designing the ways robots interface with humans, which requires a multi-disciplinary outlook. With the advent of humanoid robotics, Psychology has been working in tandem with Engineering to make extraordinary breakthroughs in the field of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI). However, the use of humanoid robots in human populated environments has several limitations, which arise from the fact that these machines are cumbersome, expensive, and limited in movement and functions. With this in mind, we envision a human-robot system where humans cooperate with small ground robots and drones, which are cheaper, more agile, smaller, and can reach nearly every place in their environment (such as higher floors, or tight spaces).

Nonetheless, human perception of these non-humanoid robots is yet to be a subject of study. In this Focal Point we aim to develop the idea of a social etiquette in such cooperative systems comprised of humans and non-anthropomorphic robots, through the study of human behavior. We are focused on building a scientific community around this idea, where Psychologists, Engineers and Computer Scientists work together to study the human perception of robotic behavior, in order to define what it means for a non-humanoid robot to be ‘socially trustable’. This Focal Point expects to make important contributions to a future society in which humans and co-robots behave and interact safely and effectively while occupying shared spaces, and will result in a better understanding of the psychology behind the human perception of robots. 

The interdisciplinary approach to HRI proposed in this study aims to create guidance and control algorithms to improve the acceptability of aerial robots in essential social environments by identifying factors that influence people’s perception of safety and comfort. The goal is to formulate models motivated by psychological and social studies, which will be used to create simulations that will define the behavior of autonomous robots. This will involve the study of human comfort levels around flying robots in a controlled environment under varying drones’ features, such as shape, size, speed and acceleration profile, turning rate, proximity to humans, direction from the person (front, back, side), predictability of trajectory, etc. In order to achieve this in a safe, low cost and time efficient manner, we will rely on a virtual arena facilitated by the latest virtual reality (VR) and reality augmentation technology to create a high fidelity simulation environment that will allow for reproducible results.


Women’s Empowerment and International Development

Organizers: Lenore Matthew (graduate student, Social Work); Elizabeth Sloffer (graduate student, Food Science); Rachel Lauren Storm (graduate student, Educational Policy, Organization, and Leadership); Colleen Murphy (faculty, Philosophy, Women and Gender in Global Perspectives); Chi-Fang Wu (faculty, Social Work)

 Women comprise over half the global population, but represent 70% of the world’s poor. Compared to their male counterparts, low-income females in developing countries are more likely to drop out of school, are less apt to secure gainful and remunerated employment, and are the most likely to be excluded from household, community, and national decision-making processes.

Women’s empowerment in development—an expanding area of interdisciplinary research and practice—takes as its subject matter these staggering inequalities. Yet there is no general consensus on how empowerment should be conceptualized and defined, and which indicators should be used to assess it.  In addition, despite the fact that development practitioners are increasingly required to work effectively on interdisciplinary teams, students are trained to  conceptualize, understand, measure, and evaluate problems and solutions solely along disciplinary lines. Moreover, graduate students—our practitioners-in-training—often occupy peripheral roles on applied interdisciplinary teams. The result is a disconnect between training and workforce needs.

The overall objective of our project is to address (1) conceptual questions about women’s empowerment, (2) methodological challenges in measuring empowerment in development research, and (3) policy and practice applications of different concepts of women’s empowerment in international development programs. Throughout the year, participants will work with experienced faculty and practitioners from U of I and outside the university to explore the possibilities, challenges, and future directions of working on interdisciplinary teams in the field of gender and international development. For the broader UIUC and international development communities, this project will facilitate practical engagement with national and international development researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in the area of gender and development. For students, this project will simulate the real-word process of development policymaking and practice, and will build vital professional skills to invest in the job market later on.