CS + biology projects

Most (67%) of today’s tech jobs are in non-tech fields. And the problems each field has is unique. San Francisco State University is developing tools at the cutting edge of biology and computer science (CS) in their CS + biology student program PINC (promoting inclusivity in computing).

PINC is run by CS faculty Ilmi Yoon, Anagha Kulkarni, Kaz Okada, and Biology faculty Pleuni Pennings and Carmen Domingo. With a team of CS graduates, the team mentor freshman and sophomore biology students in projects ranging from 3D cell visualisation to creating driver safety apps that can evaluate drunkenness based on cues in your speech and through facial recognition.

The project based learning activity run across 15 weeks and teaches a variety of CS skills, like database structures and algorithms, treating the biology class as a ‘client’ in a unique approach to developing project management, entrepreneurship and problem solving skills in the teams, says Anagha.

“We have formed groups of 3-4 students, and each group gets a CS graduate student or senior as a mentor. The goal is for them to get hands-on experience using CS knowledge on a problem from their own field.

The D3 group focusses on ‘don’t drink and drive’ and uses audio and facial recognition signals that can indicate early stages of the physiological effects of alcohol. The app can then warn the user, or could even connect directly with their car, to prevent them from drink driving.

“If the app is on it can be listening to your speech – you don’t have to talk to it,” says Anagha. “If someone is in the bar getting drunk they are not going to enter data like how many drinks they have had and how strong the drinks are. If they fall into a certain range of alcohol intake, maybe it’s time to call for a ride-sharing service.”

“My role is to crystallise what the needs of the project are, and how they can go about creating this using the introductory CS skills they have learned.”

Other projects include a cell counting tool that can work in 3D, while existing cell-counting tools work with 2D images.

The nature of the projects helps in promoting inclusivity in computing, says Anagha.

“All of the students are new to computer science. I think they are feeling more confident than when they started the project,” she says, however she adds that the project is still in its early phases and the school is working to get more data on how the students progress.

“Students come into the program very anxious and with the self-inflicted ‘inability to code’ feeling that many students have,” says Anagha. The students go from this level of experience to gaining a minor if CS, which “will be very helpful in the job market’ says Anagha, particularly as bioinformatics is a growing careers area.

“We want them to have this computing component on their CV and in their skill set.”

Meet some of the amazing people working in non-tech fields in computer science.

– Heather Catchpole

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