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Developing the developers: hands-on research is key for undergraduates in computer science

Uri Priel was inspired by a backpacking trip in Ecuador to create a program that can recognize a whale shark simply from a photo of its markings. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Uri Priel was inspired by a backpacking trip in Ecuador to create a program that can recognize a whale shark simply from a photo of its markings. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

For computer science students at the University of Toronto, learning means doing and their research projects reflect a broad range of talents and experiences.

Third-year student Uri Priel, for example, was inspired by a backpacking trip in Ecuador to create a program that can recognize a whale shark simply from a photo of its markings. During that trip, Priel met a marine biologist who was researching manta rays. The biologist needed drawings of manta rays that could be used for identification purposes. Priel could draw and so, in return for being taken out on dives, he made 134 portraits of manta rays in 21 days.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but I told him a computer would take 10 minutes to identify creatures from images,” said Priel. “He told me it wasn’t feasible. So I decided to go into computer science and prove him wrong. Now my next degree will be in marine biology.”

Fourth-year student Jaisie Sin, who also studies neuroscience, worked with the Technologies for Aging Gracefully (TAG) lab at U of T on an e-reader for seniors. Sin helped to create a user interface with accessible large text, clear labels and a simple design. The e-reader also allows others caregivers, a grandchild or other family member to record their voices so that the senior can be, in effect, read to by a loved one rather than an anonymous voice.

“When you’re young, your parents read to you, but when you get older, you can start reading to your parents,” says Sin.

Diane Horton, a computer science senior lecturer who organizes an annual undergraduate research showcase, says that through research projects, the students are able to use many of the skills they are learning from programming, proofs and experiments to math and statistics.

“I am frequently blown away by how much they accomplish,” she says.

Priel and Sin were two of the presenters at a research showcase in August, which was also the official kick-off party for the department’s 50th anniversary. The showcase was not only a great source of pride for the department’s chair Sven Dickinson, but a friendly meeting ground to connect undergraduate researchers with possible future mentors or career goals.

“One of the great strengths of our department is research,” said Dickinson. “When undergraduates come to the University, they think of courses, but we want to open up their experience to include access to our world-class researchers and some of the great things that we’re working on.”