STARS program helps prepare next generation of research scientists

Michael Boever and Lance Cai are two of 39 “beautiful minds” that participated in the Solutia Inc. Students and Teachers as Research Scientists (STARS) program this summer.

Thirty-four students — local area high-school juniors- and seniors-to-be — and five high-school teachers worked with nearly 70 professor mentors in varying areas of science and engineering at Washington University, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Solutia, STARS pairs students and teachers with faculty researchers while educating students about professional opportunities in science and technology. There is plenty of hands-on laboratory work as well as a paper and presentation at program’s end.

In addition, STARS exposes young scholars to the many science and technology opportunities available in St. Louis.

STARS students
Ron Loui, Ph.D. (right), associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, oversees the work of Michael Boever (left) and Lance Cai at the Center for Engineering Computing. Boever, from Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, and Cai, from Marquette High School, were among 34 area high-school students participating in the Solutia Inc. Students and Teachers as Research Scientists program this summer. Loui was their mentor.

Boever and Cai actually delved into serious problems with game theory — and beyond — made popular by A Beautiful Mind, the award-winning book and movie about John Nash.

Ron Loui, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, mentored Boever, a junior at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, and Cai, a senior at Marquette High School. Boever began his work with Loui developing strategies and learning computer code for a baseball game simulator that has been used in the artificial intelligence classes at Washington University.

Boever, a shirt-tail relative of former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joe Boever, tried to improve the simulator so that programs could automatically search for the best lineup as well as distinguish between good and bad lineups. Eventually, he created an interface where a human could play the best lineup game that the computer is trying to play.

While that project launched Boever, it wasn’t at a point where Boever could write a 20-page paper and present a 15-minute oral report, which are STARS requirements. Loui steered him toward another one: He had Boever painstakingly break down the computer encodings of various entertainment files — MP3, PDF, jpeg, mov, qt, to name a few — and find a tiny string of information that distinguishes it from background digital traffic. Such information is very useful for intellectual property applications.

“It’s like automatic watermarking,” Loui said of the identifying technology. “It’s a measurement discipline. He’s come up with very valuable statistical information that some day will go into a handbook.”

While Boever has gathered a kind of data that is very useful, Cai pushed the boundary of understanding negotiation. He worked on a model for negotiation between two “players” who are making progress toward agreement in a negotiating environment.

He wrote a simulator that collects data from a large number of negotiations and compiles that into a matrix of games with various outcomes. This is called a “meta payoff matrix” — a visual tool that shows every possible negotiation policy and how the agreement is reached, providing a wide range of good and bad outcomes.

“Lance used the computer to visualize something that probably no one’s ever seen before, what the payoff matrix looks like at a most abstract level,” Loui said. “He’s actually modernizing the view of negotiation beyond game theory’s way of looking at it.”

Cai said, “I came into STARS (as) a blank slate, but the possibility of doing this grabbed me right away. I’d seen A Beautiful Mind and knew there were lots of ways to model behavior, but I didn’t know I’d be doing it.”

“Lance is very special,” Loui said. “He clearly has an aptitude for programming and will make many contributions. Mike has a really good grasp of the whole picture. He’s representative of many young people interested in computer science these days. He’s got a flair for things like routing and networking but doesn’t find programming all that appealing.

“One of the things I love about the STARS program is that I get an advanced notice of what will happen to our curricular needs in the future based on our students interests and backgrounds. I’ve had numerous STARS students over the years, but this is the first time I’ve had two.

“It was great having a team. We’ve found in the engineering school that teams solve problems better, design better and build skills better.”

Loui praised the organization of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“They do a great job of running this at UMSL,” he said. “They pretty much provide the infrastructure, lectures and social activities so that we can really concentrate on the ideas here. They give them what’s needed to write their paper and provide a healthy sort of peer pressure so that the students are always on task.

“Peer pressure sets the pace. They want to make a great presentation, write a solid paper.”

On Monday and Wednesday mornings, students heard lectures on various topics, mainly at UMSL, which gave them insights into science careers. They had social committee meetings.

Afternoons were devoted to research in the laboratory. Most of their work at Washington University was from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They also worked at home.

“We didn’t have to carry a centrifuge home,” Cai said. “We could do a lot of computation at home.”

They visited places like Boeing and sites at Washington Univer-sity and Saint Louis University. They attended a ballgame at Busch Stadium; out of that experience Boever and Loui came up with ideas for improving the baseball simulator.

“I really enjoyed the lab experience,” Boever said. “It boosted my desire to go into computer science. We were very fortunate to work with Dr. Loui.”

Cai also liked the laboratory experience at the Center for Engineering Computing, in Lopata Hall, Room 407.

“I gained so many skills over the summer,” he said. “The experience broadens your idea about the various fields in science and technology. That gives you a leg up on what’s happening.”

UMSL instructor Kenneth Mares, Ph.D., organized the program again this year. He has had a long relationship with STARS, which has been a part of science and technology summer programs for highschoolers since 1988.

“We are delighted that senior faculty from Washington Univer-sity provide summer research opportunities for the STARS students,” Mares said. “They are helping to prepare the next generation of research scientists.”

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