Passing the Torch of Knowledge in Wireless Technology

Photo courtesy of Diana Hernandez

Ten New York City science and math teachers spent the summer learning how to master the most advanced techniques in wireless technology with help from researchers at Columbia University, Columbia’s Data Science Institute, and NYU. The middle and high school teachers teamed up with researchers on both campuses to design web-based lab experiments that illustrate the theory and practice of wireless networking. The teachers will begin using the lab experiments in their classrooms this fall, giving students hands-on experience with the next wave of mobile technology.

The Research Experience for Teachers activity took place within the recently funded $22.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) project called Cloud Enhanced Open Software Defined Mobile Wireless Testbed for City-Scale Deployment, or COSMOS. COSMOS is an advanced wireless testbed which is being developed and deployed in West Harlem by Rutgers, Columbia, and NYU. The testbed, covering a square mile, will include a high-bandwidth, low-latency wireless network and is expected to allow applications to transmit data faster than one gigabit per second and reduce response times to a few milliseconds. It will enable researchers from anywhere in the country to log in and test their ideas for improving network performance and for creating city-focused applications.

Though COSMOS is slated to take a few years to build, the COSMOS team wanted to share the technologies under development with NYC K-12 teachers and students. Columbia Engineering Outreach, led by Emily Ford, NYU Center of K-12 Education, led by Ben Esner and Dr. Sheila Borges, the Columbia Office of Government and Community Affairs, and Silicon Harlem, a COSMOS community partner, reached out to Harlem’s Community School District 5, numerous schools, and their network of K-12 collaborators to recruit interested teachers. Of the 10 teachers chosen for the program, six taught in Manhattan (four of them in Harlem); two in Brooklyn; and one each in the Bronx and Queens. The subjects they teach are math, science, robotics, and art and technology.

 “We want to the share the cutting-edge technologies we are developing with teachers, school students, and the broader community in Harlem and throughout NYC,” says Zoran Kostic, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and member of the Data Science Institute who led the Columbia effort along with Columbia Engineering Outreach. “When we received the grant, one of our top priorities was to craft COSMOS as an educational platform to improve K-12 STEM education in city schools.”

Harry Title, who teaches art and technology as well as special education at the Urban Assembly Academy for Future Leaders Middle School in Manhattanville, said he learned a great deal in the summer program.

“The Columbia and NYU faculty and students really helped me and the other teachers find interesting ways to use the COSMOS testbed in our curriculum,” he said. “It was a very inspiring educational program.”

During the first part of the summer, the NYU researchers, led by Thanasis Korakis, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, took the lead in presenting the training material to the teachers. In the second part, the teachers were divided between Columbia labs and NYU labs, where they worked with Prof. Korakis. The Columbia team consisting of Dr. Jonathan Ostrometzky, Dr. Hazel Yüksel, and Tony Zheng from the groups of electrical engineering professors and DSI members Kostic, Harish Krishnaswamy, and Gil Zussmanworked with 5 of the teachers on the project phase of the program. Prof. Kostic described the summer program for the teachers as “successfully intense” with the faculty, postdocs, students, and teachers working together to develop 35 lab experiments; 15 of which are for math, 14 for science, five for computer science, and one for art and technology. Korakis mentioned that “The labs are designed to give students a chance to understand the operation of a networking system that represents the future of the wireless technology.”

At the end of the summer, the teachers were given COSMOS educational toolkits composed of PCs, wireless devices, sensors, and software defined radios. Their students will use the toolkits in their experiments, which eventually will be connected through the Web to the COSMOS testbed, allowing them to follow the experiments done by the researchers in real time. As the teachers begin implementing the lab experiments, Columbia and NYU researchers will visit their classrooms and continue to mentor them. The teachers will also present this innovative curriculum at upcoming conferences, including during a workshop organized by Judy Capa, Patrick Callahan, and Richard Foster for the Northeast Association for Science Teacher Education Annual Conference (NE-ASTE 2018).

Photo courtesy of the COSMOS RET program.

Deirdre Walker, who taught at Kappa IV and now teaches science at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor High School on Governors Island, said the outreach program will help her better connect with her students. They are infatuated with cell phones and mobile devices, she says, and the labs she designed at Columbia will allow them understand abstract concepts such as radio waves and signals in a tangible way that connects to real-world applications such as baby monitors and cell phones.

“My kids love experiential learning and the chance to make real-world connections,” says Walker, “so the labs we designed were all about connecting concepts like radio waves to devices they use every day. The program helped my professional growth as a teacher and is helping my students to learn experientially, which is the way they like to learn.”

Title, the art and technology teacher, also found a concrete way to connect the wireless technology of COSMOS to his students’ interests. Working with researchers at Columbia this summer, Title designed a lab project that will teach students about sound waves and sound modulation through the use of GarageBand, the software program for creating music or podcasts.

“All kids listen to music on their cell phones,” says Title, “so connecting how sound waves travel to their use of GarageBand will help me get the attention of my students.”

Melissa Sanchez is a math teacher and colleague of Title’s at the Urban Assembly Academy for Future Leaders, and she too found a way to use COSMOS to enliven lesson plans. During her summer at Columbia, she learned that the COSMOS network will tap unused radio spectrum bands and integrate optical fibers underground while installing radio antennas on city rooftops and light poles. The high-bandwidth network, she further learned, will transmit data at rates above one gigabit per second, improving performance tenfold over current wireless networks. Sanchez was impressed by the technology, but the question for her was how to translate these innovations into algebra experiments for her students.

Working with her Columbia mentor, she designed a lab in which students can calculate the unit price for bandwidth, which helps her teach proportional relationships – one of her themes in algebra. As part of the lab she designed, her students have to collect data and compare internet providers, as well as analyze variables such as the price and upload speeds of the different companies. The students also have to find the slopes and constant rates of proportionality and then graph their findings, says Sanchez, which will help them to learn key algebraic concepts.

“The summer program was definitely intense,” she adds, “but in the end the experiments we designed will make abstract concepts more concrete for my students. And that will help them better understand and enjoy their math classes.”

More details about the COSMOS project are available in the COSMOS team press release, NYC press releaseElectrical Engineering news item, and project website.

— Robert Florida, Data Science Institute

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