Mountaintop Mentor – Michael Spear

Last week, we profiled the student research projects under the Smart Spaces umbrella. These projects aim to develop intelligent technology for living spaces. Michael Spear, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh, is one of the professors mentoring students on the various projects that fall under Smart Spaces. Here, he tells us why he got involved, what his students are learning and why BIG — is definitely better — at Mountaintop.
Michael Spear Lehigh Mountaintop Mentor

Give us your take/opinion on Mountaintop & the unique experience it provides participating students.

One of the most exciting aspects of Mountaintop is that it provides an opportunity for hands-on learning and putting ideas into practice. In the classroom, it’s easy to overlook how much of a problem has already been defined, designed, and solved, before students even read the assignment. At Mountaintop, students do all of the initial work, instead of just producing the end result. In our project, this means that the students aren’t just figuring out how to make clients talk to existing servers. They are also building the servers and inventing the protocols that the servers will use to listen to the clients. It means that when they build a sensor device, they have to think through issues related to power, reliability, and maintenance. In the classroom, we often don’t get a chance to emphasize these practical aspects of engineering or to require students to build a complete, end-to-end system. But at Mountaintop, these are first-class topics.

The other part of the Mountaintop experience that I think is so fun is that the students can define the scope… and then they have to live with it. There are so many intricacies that arise when you build something that other people have to use and interact with, as opposed to something that a professor asks you to build for a class. In our project, where we are trying to build a physical space that responds to the people inside of it, the students are not allowed to post instructions on the wall, or tell people how to act when they are in the space. The space has to do what the students originally envisioned. It has to be futuristic. It has to be really smart.

A small example of this is that we have a voice-recognition system that is always listening for instructions. I think it was a big surprise for the students to realize what it really means if the system has to always listen! They couldn’t say “stand in the corner near the microphone when you want to give voice commands”. They couldn’t say “turn on this program when you want the space to start listening to you”. Instead the system has to be listening all the time. It has to know how to ignore noise most of the time. It has to be energy efficient when it isn’t in use. And it has to be ready to respond to lots of different voices at any time, without warning.

How/why did you get involved with this project/these students?

As a professor, I love guiding students as they learn on their own. As an engineer, it is exciting to have the opportunity to lead a team working on big problems in a one-of-a-kind space. So when I learned that I could combine these two passions, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

What value does this space/approach to learning at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

There are a lot of aspects of the Mountaintop space that are big enablers for us. The first was that we had enough room for everyone to do what they needed to do. In an electrical engineering lab, there aren’t many workstations for doing serious programming. In computer science labs, there aren’t stations for soldering. Neither sort of lab has enough floor and table space for 10 people to stand around something a student built and watch how it behaves. But at Mountaintop, there’s enough room for students in different fields to work side-by-side, to have the resources and equipment they need, while all still being in the same place and interacting with each other all the time.

Another big enabler was that we had enough room to go ahead and build a mock-up room and start installing our devices into it. Our smart room is 10 feet high… you can’t build a 10-foot high room inside of Packard Lab, and then be able to stand on top of the roof to install cameras in the ceiling. If we couldn’t build the space, we wouldn’t have been able to test out nearly as much, or to run into all of the headaches (well, let’s call them “learning experiences”) that arise when you try to integrate so many different components into one system. Simply put, if we didn’t have so much room, we would have ended up with eight or ten small projects that never coalesced into one big project. And the physical size of our project is part of what makes it so valuable.

Lehigh Mountaintop Mentor Michael Spear

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

The biggest challenges are never technical. The biggest challenges have to do with how the students will learn, and how they will respond to the changes that happen during the course of the project.

Students are going to discover that some things they thought were easy are actually really hard, and some things they thought were hard are easy. That’s a natural part of problem solving. But what’s really fun is to see how they respond to these discoveries. Will realizing that something is easy inspire the students to try to do much more than they originally planned? Will the discovery that something is difficult lead them to redouble their efforts, or to try to redefine the problem to make it easier? How will students change their work habits in response to success? In response to failure? How well will they learn to work together, and to know when they need help? Will they be confident enough to seek that help?

It’s easy to look at our students, who are incredibly smart, and forget that they are 19 years old. It’s easy to forget that this is the biggest project they’ve ever worked on. And so I think the biggest challenge, or at least the biggest source of uncertainty, is that I can’t predict how much personal growth is going to take place. But in the end, that’s part of the joy of being a professor- that I get to watch and guide students during this process of self-discovery. And in the end, I’ll probably end up learning a lot about myself, too.


Mountaintop Mentor – Nik Nikolov

Nik Nikolov, assistant professor of architecture in the Department of Art, Architecture and Design, partnered up with Wesley Heis, also an assistant professor of architecture here at Lehigh, to mentor a diverse group of students this summer. Nik shared with us some of the reasons he got involved (by accident? luck? good timing?) with the Mountaintop experience and why he believes the opportunity is so unique.

Nik Nikolov Lehigh University Mountaintop

Give us your opinion on Mountaintop & the unique experience it will provide participating students.

I have always observed with curiosity the love affair that Lehigh students harbor with conceptual development — the love for ideas, the thrill of generating something “new,” the total subjectivity through which they view their place in the world. What a luxury! To be afforded the freedom, to put an “I’ in the center of the forest and be allowed to organize the world around it …

Coming myself from a practical profession (architecture), I am continuously surprised how great ideas have the shelf life of bananas. It takes courage to test an intoxicatingly great idea- it takes perseverance and it sometimes takes so much time, you even forget what the whole reason for it was in the first place… Good ideas beat you down. (paraphrasing one of our crew members) This is what attracted me to Mountaintop. Discovery is a process, not an ‘a-ha’ moment. It is a pursuit. A pursuit that is not always possible in the class environment of a regular semester. Here at Mountaintop, we can focus, fail, persevere, take time, keep asking, be mindful.

You know, snipers are taught special breathing techniques that slow the heart rate down. Design is a war of attrition — we train to breathe, aim (high), release.


How did you get involved with this project/these students?

Fellow faculty member Wes Heiss and I did a very successful student/faculty collaboration last year. Together, with undergraduate Architecture/Engineering dual-majors Kathryn Stevens and Julia Klitzke, we designed and built a playhouse after-hours over a couple of months. We called it Imaginarium – a small, kid-size building made in response to the 2013 Annual Playhouse Design Competition organized by the Eastern PA chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The competition promoted design and architecture in the Lehigh Valley and the entries were open to the public to use with the start of Christkindlmarkt, the traditional festival of the season in Bethlehem, PA. In late December, the entries were auctioned to raise funds for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley. We were interested in expanding the idea of play beyond something that is either learned or unlearned. The resulting design is a mysterious, faceted crystal-like house which resisted the common strategy applied to children-bound creations – to create small versions of big things (princess castle), or big versions of small things (mushroom house).

So when the call for proposals for the Mountaintop experience came up, it all clicked — the space, the philosophy, the freedom … we were ready for the next playhouse. We called it Shapeshifter as it will be transformable and will react to human occupation. It will be large enough for a child to play in and will be designed for outdoor use, utilizing materials that will withstand the elements. Further, it will be transportable and most importantly: it will invite participation.

The idea of play has been widely theorized in every possible meaning and application. From anthropology to engineering, play is fundamental to the acquisition of knowledge while challenging it at the same time. Play, according to Huizinga, “is older than culture.” Please resist imagining jungle gyms or cute stacks of fisher-price cubes!

We have a truly multidisciplinary crew of dedicated students: Liz Phillips (graphic design), Luke Genthe (electrical engineering), Matt Wetzel (civil engineering), Dylan Petruskevicius (mechanical engineering), Michelle Vollmuller (environmental engineering), Tess Flemming (architecture), Ben Gingold (product design). For us, it entails a path both made and found. We describe it as a poetic use of technology in ways mediated by material and time.

So how did we get involved? I don’t know, an accident? It all started with an idea and we’ve been continually playing and testing since.

Mountaintop Mentor – Elizabeth Fifer


We asked Professor Fifer to give us some insight on the student project happening at Mountaintop this summer under her mentorship and she shared, in her own words, her thoughts on their progress to date and the hopeful outcome of their efforts.

The Mountaintop Project gives students a chance to work independently as a group with faculty guidance, but not direction, so the students can be as creative and wide-ranging as they want.

I applied for a grant for 4 interns to edit 9 short films my English 11 students made last semester about Wislawa Szymborska. They are making a longer film from the various parts, adding their own films and an interview with Joanna Trzeciak, who translated the collection Miracle Fair on which all the films are based.

The greatest challenge for them is technical–will they be able to create a coherent film from many disparate parts? I think with their high level of skill they will be able to meet this challenge.

I hope that they finish the project with a 20 minute film that serves as a celebration of Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska and an introduction to her beautiful poetry.

Mountaintop Mentor – John Spletzer

John spletzer Lehigh

A car that drives without a human driver, using lasers and sensors to respond dynamically to its environment.

A system that allows wheelchair users to get into and out of their vehicles, stow and retrieve their chairs, and drive while sitting in traditional auto seats that meet federal safety regulations.

A smart wheelchair that navigates on its own, with no human guidance, transporting users along city streets while avoiding stationary objects and adjusting to pedestrians and bicyclists.

And a small aircraft that studies climate change and tracks weather patterns as it glides endlessly through the jet stream, consuming no energy and again, requiring no human intelligence.

These are just some of the ways in which John Spletzer practices the art of engineering. Spletzer, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is director of Lehigh’s Vision, Assistive Devices, and Experimental Robotics Laboratory, or VADER Lab, for short.

This summer, Spletzer is mentoring two teams of students who are seeking to extend “intelligence” from vehicles to spaces. How can an intelligent living space sense and respond to your mood? How can it respond to collective behaviors? The 20 students in the project will make use of 3-D augmented reality, ambient intelligence, computer vision, embedded devices, mobile computing, networking and wecurity, robotics, and user interface design.

Here, Spletzer shares his thoughts on Mountaintop and the opportunities it is providing his students.

How/why did you get involved with this project/these students?

Smart Spaces Lehigh Mountaintop

A year or so ago, I got an alumni email from University of Pennsylvania about Max Mintz – a professor whom I really admire. He is very passionate about undergraduate research. Of course I started reminiscing, so I did a quick search to see what he was up to. Well among other things, he was heading up a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site which provides internship opportunities for undergraduates in Penn’s robotics laboratory.

I did a little more digging about NSF REU Sites and thought it would be great to get one at Lehigh in computer science. However, awards are very competitive. Fortunately we were able to catalyze our research around the Mountaintop experience and proposed “The Lehigh Smart Spaces Project.” The idea was well received at NSF and in April 2014, we were awarded a grant of $340K for which I am Principal Investigator. The grant funds ten summer intern positions per year for the next three years. When combined with the interns supported by Lehigh, our department has roughly twenty students working at Mountaintop this summer.

What value does the space/approach to learning at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

I’ve heard analogies to how things are set up to emulate Google or Facebook, but I view it a little bit differently — it reminds me of cooperative start-up spaces where you have a host of small start-up companies collected in the same space. One obvious benefit to this arrangement is the sharing of physical resources. However, the biggest benefit is leveraging the *people* resources. With over 100 researchers in one space, there’s a lot of intellectual diversity. We encourage the students to take advantage of it. Walk around. Talk to other groups. It’s amazing how much can be learned.

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

Smart Spaces 02 Lehigh Mountaintop

The biggest challenge is time. Everything takes longer than you think, and we only have 10 weeks. The good news is there are mechanisms at Lehigh (internships, independent study research, etc.) to continue the work beyond the summer if the students are interested. So, it doesn’t have to end in the Fall.

Mountaintop Mentor: Murray Itzkowitz

Murray Itzkowitz, department chair and professor of biological sciences, is an evolutionary biologist who studies the theoretical aspects of social behavior. His interest in the endangered Leon Springs Pupfish of West Texas was triggered when he inherited a ranch near Big Bend National Park along the border between Texas and Mexico.

For the past 15 years, Itzkowitz and his students have spent summers studying the mating habits of the pupfish in the 100-degree-plus West Texas heat. Alarmed by the decline in the pupfish’s population as well as its habitat, the group has applied for and received several grants from the Texas Fish and Wildlife Department. The group’s efforts are paying off, as the pupfish population has begun to rebound.

At Mountaintop this summer, Itzkowitz’s students are observing pupfish in wading pools whose temperature, salinity and light exposure replicate as nearly as possible the conditions that prevail in the cienegas, or rare and isolated desert marshlands where the Leon Springs pupfish lives. By controlling these and other critical variables, the group hopes to learn which environment best promotes the pupfish’s mating and, thus, its chances for survival.

Here, Itzkowitz shares his thoughts on Mountaintop and the opportunities it is providing his students.



What are your thoughts in general about Mountaintop? What is the value it holds for students at Lehigh?

I have always been amused that many people separate their time at a university from what comes after- “the real world.” I’m not sure what is meant by a “real” or “unreal” world, but I think the common knowledge is that the university curriculum is composed of material that is largely unimportant after graduation. It is not surprising that online courses are the current fad when so many believe that university courses are just a bunch of lectures and exams. To further diminish the university education, we often hear that successful people have talents that do not require a university education, e.g., intelligence, interest, and the ability to form creative collaborations. But are these successful people really unique? With the new space available at the Mountaintop, Lehigh is testing the idea that these skills can be learned, nurtured, developed and ready for use at the time of graduation. Judging from my group, I see students using their already well-developed academic skills to understand complex problems. I see them developing communication skills that allow unique ideas to be heard, vetted and tested. Perhaps because of their project “ownership,” I also find them to be enthusiastic and hard-working. If Lehigh can expand this experience, I think we will provide students with a unique and important educational opportunity. When students leave here, the “real world” they will soon experience will be pretty much what they experienced at Lehigh.

How did you get involved with this project and these students?

I got involved for two reasons: First, Lehigh provided me with an opportunity to expand my research on the conservation of a highly endangered desert species fish found in West Texas. Second, I was intrigued by an educational model in which the boundaries between faculty and students blur, by allowing students to become research collaborators while faculty serve more in the role of a mentor. I thought it was a worthwhile education experiment to see how or if creative collaborations among students could enhance or even replace the lecture-test paradigm.

What value does this space at Mountaintop hold for this project in particular?

The project itself could not have been done without the large amount of space available for the experiment. However, the space itself was unique because it was controlled by the students and thus allowed them to have far more creativity on the direction of the research. I also believe the close proximity of other undergraduate projects will fuel their enthusiasm, creativity and collaboration.


What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

The road to a successful scientific outcome is littered with obstacles, and the ability of the team to navigate these obstacles is the challenge. The large amount of work required to do the experiments and the complexities of problems can only be overcome by the collaborating spirit of the team’s members.

What hopes do you have for your teams’ outcomes?

I have two straightforward hopes: First, I hope the project is successful and will provide a model for conserving a very unique group of desert spring fishes. Second, I hope these students enjoy and gain from this unique educational experience.



Mountaintop Mentor: Bryan Berger

Brian Berger, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Lehigh, has made a big name for himself with research that sees him working “at the interface of biophysics and engineering.”

Lehigh University Professor and Mountaintop Mentor

This summer, Berger is bringing his unique expertise to Mountaintop, where he is mentoring two groups of students. One of those groups is working on a project called “Integrating Molecular and Bioengineering Approaches to Address Challenges in Microbial Pathogenesis,” and will be co-mentored by Xuanhong Cheng from the department of materials science and engineering and Vassie Ware from the department of biological sciences. The other group will be tackling “Scalable and affordable nanoparticle synthesis for water purification in the developing world,” and will also draw on the expertise of Steve McIntosh and Mark Snyder from the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

With his groups just getting to work in early June, Berger checked in to share his thoughts on Mountaintop–and the opportunities the initiative provides not only for students, but faculty members as well.

How did you get involved with these particular student groups?

Vassie Ware and I had been discussing research for a while, and it kept coming back to projects we had going on separately in our labs, but both dealing with aspects of bacterial pathogenesis. We started kicking around ideas. Vassie was helping us with some biological techniques in engineering E. coli, and we helped her with electroporation of some bacterial samples. Eventually we converged on the idea of integrating our projects this summer around a common theme of looking at mycobacterium, which presents a whole series of unique challenges. For me, I have the chance to learn more about phage biology, which has a number of interesting aspects that could be relevant to treating multi-drug resistant infections- Vassie has been working on this for a long time. This summer is giving us both a chance to go after some ideas we had been discussing for awhile and were excited to pursue.

With Steve and Mark, we arrived at a similar kind of outcome. Steve and I had been working on using biological systems to synthesis nanostructured materials, with a focus on low-cost, high-yield methods to overcome current limitations of chemical synthesis as part of a NSF EFRI grant. One interesting application of this work is in photodegradation of organic pollutants from wastewater, where nanotechnology presents several potential solutions, though none are cost-effective for large-scale implementation. This is particularly important in communities where access to electricity or other resources may be limited; in other words, the solution needs to be both cost-effective and robust to a wide range of working environments. So we needed someone with expertise in materials synthesis (i.e., Mark), and the three of us decided to go for it.

Mountaintop Project Team

What value does the physical space at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

I think integrating students from chemical engineering, bioengineering, biochemistry and biological sciences is valuable for both of our teams. The kinds of problems we are trying to address are ones that are inherently multi-disciplinary, and they need both graduate and undergraduate students from the life sciences and engineering working together with faculty from both as well.

Educationally, I feel this experience is also very important, as inevitably many of these students may go on to careers in industries such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, alternative energy or advanced materials, where the teams they will be working in will be comprised of engineers, scientists and people with diverse backgrounds in general. Thus, working together in diverse teams with undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty across colleges is key to providing a cutting-edge education in engineering and science.

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

I think learning the experimental techniques will take time, but I also think the students are very motivated to learn and are working hard. Biological systems can also be unpredictable, particularly when we are trying to merge aspects of biology with engineered systems for a hybrid prototype, so we will likely encounter challenges this summer in producing the biological components necessary for our respective projects.

Berger Mountaintop

What hopes do you have for your teams’ outcomes?

I hope we can demonstrate feasibility for the concepts behind both projects. I think we can. I also hope several of these students will continue these projects as sponsored undergraduate research throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, so we can continue to build off of the success we have this summer.

Portrait by Ryan Hulvat

Mountaintop Mentor: Kelly Austin

Mountaintop 2014

Lehigh prides itself on fostering a professor-as-mentor approach, and this summer at Mountaintop is just another example of that long-established ethos.

Throughout the summer, this blog will be bringing you interviews with the professors that are mentoring the student-driven projects at Mountaintop.  First up in our series is Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology​ in the department of sociology and anthropology.

Austin, along with Associate Professor Breena Holland, is mentoring a group of six students working on the project called “Innovation in ventilation: A combined research experience on indoor air pollution.” Soon after the students got to work in late May, Austin spoke to us about her thoughts on the Mountaintop project and her hopes for her group this summer.

What, in your mind, is the value of the Mountaintop experience? What can it offer to students?

The Mountaintop program is really amazing, as it has allowed me to develop truly interdisciplinary research ideas and teams of students. Our team of students is comprised of three social scientists and three engineers. These students would never have come together (or seen the value of coming together) without the support from Mountaintop. Our project involves designing innovations in ventilation to reduce indoor air pollution in small kitchens in Sub-Saharan African nations, as well as producing scholarly research that examines the larger socio-economic causes of solid fuel use and the health risks associated with indoor air pollution.

It is amazing to see the entire team working together and learning with one another. They are learning that the best-designed intervention is useless if it is not culturally appropriate, or if it doesn’t take into account social inequalities in household decision-making where the intervention is targeted. Thus, engineers and social scientists really do need to come together to make projects like this successful. Daily, I get to witness “ah-ha” moments like when a sociology student learns about the relevance of wind currents for our project or when an engineering student learns about the role of gender inequality in vulnerabilities to indoor air pollution.


How did you get involved with this project and these students?

I got interested in this project after conducting my own fieldwork in rural Uganda related to HIV and malaria. I had heard of the problems with indoor air pollution before, but was very shocked to see women cooking in tiny huts for hours with no windows. As I started to delve into the issue further with one of my students, Theresa, who is currently on my Mountaintop project, we came to learn that key interventions around indoor air pollution involve implementing new stoves or fuel sources. However, this is really not a feasible intervention for very poor households who cannot afford to buy fuels or for which the stove design is not culturally appropriate. We instead thought that focusing on interventions to simply improve ventilation may be more appropriate to implement, and more likely to be adopted by the household, as it does not require purchasing a new fuel source, etc.

I have had the pleasure of working with four of the students on the project before, including all three social scientists and one of the engineers. Amber, one of the team’s engineers who was on another interdisciplinary team I facilitated, helped me to identify two more engineers who would be great to work on this project. So really, the team naturally came together given the students’ interests and different expertise on the issue, and was student-driven in its formation as well.

What value does the space and/or unique approach to learning offered at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

I spoke to the value of an interdisciplinary approach in my response to question one, so I will focus on the space aspect here. The space at Mountaintop is truly necessary for our project. This week, the students will begin building a mock kitchen using sticks and clay–just as is it is done in Uganda. They have already begun harvesting poles and smaller sticks and storing them at our work space at Mountaintop. It would have been impossible to do a project like this without the raw and large space that Mountaintop provides. Without having the space to really be able to get their hands dirty (and the space dirty, too), we would not have been able to carry out such a project.


What hopes do you have for your team’s outcome?

Each of the social science students have the goal of producing a scholarly research article, and the team of engineers also plans to write a publishable paper framed as a service learning piece which details the results of our experiments comparing the success of the different ventilation interventions being tested. We also hope to apply for funding in the fall to support actually implementing the best identified intervention(s) at kitchens in Uganda. This would really bring the project full-circle, and could potentially have a global impact that improves quality of life for people in poor nations.