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Building Strength in Computer Science and Engineering

September 12, 2006

MERCED - The founding faculty in computer science and
engineering at the University of California, Merced, are adeptly
finding the balance between offering a firm footing in the basics
for students and exploring new horizons in their field.

“Our computer science and engineering professors are innovative
thinkers and determined researchers,” said UC Merced Dean of
Engineering Jeff Wright. “Each of them holds an ambitious vision
for the future of computer science and engineering as they work to
build strong collaborative ties with faculty in other disciplines.
That means that our students get a solid foundation in computer
skills and theory while also obtaining a strong sense of how that
knowledge is applied in the real world.”

Professor Alberto Cerpa specializes in sensor networks for
environmental applications like river systems, and envisions using
the same principles to help improve efficiency in buildings and
energy systems, as well. He collaborates frequently with other UC
faculty in those fields at Merced and at sister UC campuses.

“My goal is to build and deploy useful systems, and with that in
mind, I’ve never had to search for a problem to solve in my
research,” Cerpa said. “There are infinite problems, and the
problems find you. It’s also very rewarding - the problems are
really worth solving.”

Cerpa also introduces students to open-source computing in UC
Merced’s innovative Linux teaching lab, where all the computer
stations are connected to a single server. Any user can call up
work from any other user on his or her own monitor. This makes it
extraordinarily easy for students - and their professors - to work
and learn in collaboration.

Professor Marcelo Kallmann’s expertise lies in creating
realistic animated or robotic reproductions of complex movements -
for example, walking by a pillar or street lamp while holding an
umbrella. He collaborates with faculty in UC Merced’s cognitive
science program to examine how the brain learns and then reproduces motion.

“When we learn how to synthesize motion, we can better
understand real motion and learn to recognize it,” Kallmann said.
“That might help us in the future to create better intelligent
rooms or security applications.”

Kallmann recognizes that his work will also apply to the
burgeoning field of computer game development, and hopes to offer
students a good background for working in that arena.

“After the dot-com bust, the United States is facing a shortage
of qualified information technology work force,” he said. “To
overcome that, we have to change the image of back-room
programmers. Teaching good programming skills comes automatically
when we’re working on exciting applications.”

Professor Shawn Newsam works in advanced image recognition
techniques, striving for a day when image databases will be
searched based on the content of images rather than on keyword
descriptions - for example, your online image search for “hats”
would find any image that looks like a hat, not just images labeled
with the word “hat.” His work lends itself to interdisciplinary
collaboration with biologists and environmental scientists.

“Computer image recognition is now mimicking the early steps of
the human visual system,” Newsam said.

This year, Newsam will also advise a group of Engineering
Service Learning students exploring the potential for developing a
UC Merced radio station. They’ll consider technical requirements, a
business model and the community’s programming needs.

And, along with his colleagues, he’s expanding the computer
science and engineering major to bring students into the field
where this exciting work is being done.

“We don’t have a legacy restricting us at UC Merced,” Newsam
said. “Instead, we have young faculty bringing in new ideas based
on their research and experience. We get the students grounded in
the basics with a broad background, and then help them learn to
apply those skills in niche applications. Based on that approach,
we’ve come up with a cutting-edge computer science and engineering program.”

Cerpa, Kallmann and Newsam all joined the faculty at UC Merced
in time for its opening a year ago. Two new faculty members will
soon add to the computer science and engineering team. Acclaimed
cognitive scientist David Noelle, hired in a joint appointment with
the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, will help
strengthen connections between the computer science and engineering
program and the cognitive science program. And Stefano Carpin, who
will arrive in January, specializes in robotics and machine
learning.