November 3, 2009

Computer Science Students Develop Software to Aid Peers Studying Engineering and Policy Studies

They are working under the guidance of Chun Wai Liew, associate professor and head of computer science

Soon students taking Introduction to Engineering and Public Policy and Introduction to Policy Studies will have a new software program at their disposal called Urban Development Tools (UDT). The twist is that fellow students studying computer science are creating the program.

Miguel Haruki Yamaguchi ’11 (Akashi, Japan) and Rhodes Baker ’10 (Columbus, Ohio) developed the UDT concept and a basic prototype this past summer as EXCEL Scholars under the guidance of Chun Wai Liew, associate professor and head of computer science.

“Students studying engineering policies sometimes find it hard to grasp the implication of any proposed policies or changes to existing policies like rezoning land use,” Liew explains. “The aim of this project is to develop a tool that will allow students to specify land use policies, simulate the effects with a certain degree of randomness thrown in, analyze the resulting situation, and present the results and analyses visually.”

Yamaguchi says the team, including electrical and computer engineering major Aaron Springut ’12 (Scarsdale, N.Y.), who recently joined the project, plans to expand UDT’s capabilities by implementing a more advanced statistical engine, including more scenarios and policy options, and creating a more realistic city model.

“Public policy is difficult to experiment with in the real world because manipulating public policy invariably affects large numbers of people,” explains Yamaguchi, who is also majoring in music. “Just like financiers use analysis tools to predict the outcome of their plans before executing them, urban planners and policymakers require tools to assist with this kind of large-scale decision making. In its current incarnation, UDT is a basic model for simulating the effect of industrial development on urban sprawl.”

Sharon Jones, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the engineering division, has high hopes for the program and its use in her engineering policy course. Yamaguchi and Baker met with Jones throughout the summer to assess how their program would meet her students’ needs.

“It was very good interacting with the computer science students,” she says. “We reviewed the specifications several times and tested the prototypes. I hope it does more than just provide a nice exercise for students; I hope it helps them realize the value of computational methods, and perhaps they will take some of the introductory courses available at Lafayette.”

While each student has participated in all facets of the project, Yamaguchi has focused mostly on the user interface. The team designed UDT to be user-friendly rather than requiring sophisticated input options. Eventually, it will allow users to study different scenarios such as the effect of lower taxes on a population or the effect of building a highway system on a city’s pollution level.

Yamaguchi says the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research has allowed him to get a taste of academic concentrations outside his own major and see firsthand how his classroom studies apply to real-world scenarios.

“I have been able to explore interdisciplinary subjects that involve multiple areas in computer science, work with professors and students from other disciplines, and [meet] a lot of people,” he says. “I believe that interdisciplinary cooperation is one of the keys to academic discoveries. The software we created is, in essence, an experiment of the usage of computational methods for urban development and policy planning. We shouldn’t confine ourselves to just one area and never think that there are no applications in other fields. Especially in very broad fields like engineering and computer science, applications are everywhere–we just have to look for them.”

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