Totally RaD

Totally RaD

Laboratory tackles technology needs of Creighton faculty and students, while giving students cutting-edge experience

By Adam Klinker

“It all started with an idea,” Ryan Cameron says as he sits at a table in his office under the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library. In one corner of the room is what appears to be a computer motherboard full of esoteric lights, switches and tubes of coolant like a space-age Rube Goldberg machine. Much of the rest of the space is occupied by scratch paper and pads with figures and schematics sketched out.

In the fall of 2014, an email popped up in Cameron’s spam folder, of all places, with the subject line “Build your own supercomputer out of Raspberry Pi boards.” Raspberry Pi boards, for the unschooled, resemble something approaching a computer’s motherboard, but roughly the size of a playing card.

A nominally skilled computer scientist can plug in a keyboard and a monitor and have an operating system running on a gigabyte processor in a matter of minutes. The email featured an article highlighting an engineering student at Boise State University who managed to string a couple of Raspberry Pi boards together and create exactly what he needed.

“He was having trouble getting access to a supercomputer for a research project,” Cameron says of the student. Cameron is executive director of Creighton’s Division of Information Technology (DoIT).

“We, too, have lots of research supercomputing taking place at Creighton, but it’s not centralized. So I looked at this thing, this Raspberry Pi card supercomputer, and said, ‘Goodness, I wonder if we could make one?’ No experience, just an idea, could we do this? So we decided to try.”

A dedicated band of DoIT professionals and Creighton student interns worked nights and weekends using instructions the Boise State student had shared online, and by the spring of 2015 and for less than $1,000, had built a working supercomputer.

Moreover, they had also, without knowing it right away, founded something altogether new at Creighton: the first vestiges of what is now known as the RaD Lab.

“We built a supercomputer,” Cameron says, some hint of incredulity still present in his voice, even now, fait accompli. “Things really took off from there.”

Took off so much, in fact, that the RaD Lab recently expanded to a state-of-the-art makerspace in the library — 1,200 square feet on two levels, replete with two 84-inch touchscreen monitors, custom-made computers, and green-screen and audio-visual capabilities. The new space integrates, among other things, graphic design, sound design, media production, research computing and rapid prototyping, including 3-D printing and microelectronics.

“We want to be able to solve the problems and face the challenges that our students and faculty bring to us,” Cameron says. “This new space gives us that opportunity. We’ve had such strong commitment from visionary leaders in the Creighton community in pulling this together, and we look forward to the next generation of the RaD Lab.”

Let There Be Lightboard

Not long after the team completed its supercomputer, a pair of Creighton biology professors, Alistair Cullum, Ph.D., and Mark Reedy, Ph.D., became curious about integrating more technology into their online classes. They took their questions to an informal meeting regularly hosted by DoIT, where they witnessed a demonstration of a device just taking flight at Duke University: a lightboard.

Lightboards, like whiteboards and blackboards before them, allow teachers to write on a surface for students to see. But where the other surfaces are bound to the traditional classroom, the lightboard is a communication device that uses a transparent glass surface with fluorescent markers that appear like bright, instantly lit, neon lights. Watching the demonstration, Cullum and Reedy became convinced the lightboard was something that could greatly enhance the experience for online students and provide added course content for traditional students looking to recapture elements of various lectures and activities.

The biologists approached Cameron, and asked him if his team could replicate what Duke had done. Six months later, Creighton had a lightboard.

“It was the dawn of something new, a breath of fresh air,” Cullum says. “To walk into a meeting like that and walk out with someone saying, ‘Sure, we can do that,’ and then, a few months later, it’s done; it really was a wonderful thing. To that point, I don’t think the RaD Lab existed, properly, but the lightboard helped provide us with the realization that there is a group here at Creighton dedicating themselves to these kinds of technological advances and we can go to them with our ideas.”

The lightboard also went through several iterations in Cullum’s and Reedy’s specifications, too, and the RaD Lab’s ability to adapt on the fly became more and more apparent with each change.

“There’s complete appreciation for new ideas,” Reedy says. “Halfway through the build, we’d throw a new idea out there and they were receptive and would go back a few steps and redo it, bringing out something entirely new and even better than we envisioned. It was a partnership. That, in the end, is what’s going to make it work. These things are being developed together and developed in tandem with the end-users.”

The lightboard moment set off more lightbulbs. Tim Brooks, vice president for Information Technology, saw the potential to integrate innovations from the RaD Lab into other areas across the University. Brooks formalized the RaD Lab as a full-time dedicated team, creating an innovation engine, where ideas have a pathway to become strategic priorities.

It was the kind of thing Cameron had heard about at the nation’s biggest tech schools — Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech. Faculty, staff and students studying computer science and coding at the highest levels were collaborating to anticipate instructional needs for faculty and provide students with the capabilities to come up with the next big thing.

The RaD Lab, short for research and development laboratory, started taking shape around the notion that Creighton students and faculty needed those same things — access to supercomputing and innovations in instruction. And DoIT was uniquely suited to provide for those needs, not least of all because it has an agile, motivated workforce: the students themselves.

“We had proven that we had all the smarts, all the capability to do the same things,” Cameron says. “We built a supercomputer, we started showcasing it at events all around campus, and it started this discussion about innovation and how we can do it and do it better.”

At first blush, Cameron thought the RaD Lab could comfortably engage a half-dozen student interns coming from all walks of academe — biology, mathematics, psychology, history, business, music — who could work on maybe two or three projects a semester.

“We don’t require anybody to have an extensive computer science or coding background,” he says. “It’s just desire, somebody who just wants to try something, to learn something new. That’s an ideal intern to us.”

In a very short span of time — perhaps on word circulating there was a group of people at Creighton who had built a supercomputer and a lightboard and had designs on being the problem-solving wing of the University’s technological division — the new laboratory had a dedicated following. Today, the RaD Lab counts more than 30 interns from Creighton, and other universities and local high schools, working on upwards of two to three dozen projects at any one time.

“There were these whispers about this place called the RaD Lab,” recalls Brisha Howe, a computer science major from Sacramento, Calif., who started interning at the lab in the fall of 2015. “I was just switching over my major from biology to computer science and I was looking for a job on campus. They were working on a project involving bioinformatics and genetics, so I kind of just slipped right into it.”

Howe’s familiarity with the scientific work, combined with her growing coding aptitude made her an integral part of the lab. More students from other academic disciplines also have made their way to the RaD Lab, seeking to improve their own computer literacy, to foster more ideas into tangible projects or just to help.

Already, the RaD Lab has provided platforms to study rare books as 3-D images for the English Department, provided business classes with a new way to think about apps and run the gamut of data extraction and storage in several of the hard sciences at Creighton. There’s nothing the RaD Lab can’t envision doing, Howe says, and there’s plenty the lab is imparting to those seeking to be a part of it.

“We’re rapidly approaching a time when there won’t be a single place on earth, or any pursuit, where a computer scientist is not needed,” she says. “You’re going to be learning what you’re studying, of course, but you’re going to also be learning computer science. Having that kind of technological literacy is just a given now. For the students in the RaD Lab, we get to be right out in front of that learning.”

A Heartbeat from the C.A.V.E.

With a supercomputer and a lightboard to its credit, with biology and microbiology projects in the offing, it was only a matter of time before word started spreading about the nascent power of this thing called the RaD Lab. At about the same time the lab was beginning to come into sharper relief, the School of Medicine was also thinking of ways to put technology to good use in its educational model.

Michael White, BS’96, MD’01, associate professor of medicine in the Department of Cardiology, wanted to put students in front of new visualizations of anatomical structures. And while nothing can replace the human connection found in a medical school anatomy lab, the RaD Lab provided something very close.

One of the RaD Lab’s earlier innovations was the Creighton Advanced Visualization Environment, or C.A.V.E. Built with substantial gifts and a grant from Procter & Gamble, the C.A.V.E. comprises a room in the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library featuring a curved 35-by-8-foot wall onto which can be projected life-sized or bigger-than-life images, videos, maps or interactive displays, including a virtual tour of the Vatican.

Another of those displays is a digitized model of the human heart made on a gaming platform called Unity. The heart can be manipulated on a 3-D axis, showing function from all angles, and can be programmed to show irregularities and murmurs. It was a pilot project between the School of Medicine and the RaD Lab, White says, and it has opened a wider gate for future collaboration.

“We’re seeing more medical students who come to us as Millennial learners,” White says. “They access information in different ways and are more adept with other styles. We in medical education have been a little slower to adapt to that style, but it’s a skill set that students use now and which is integral for physicians and other professionals to have.”

White says while nothing can ever replace the human-to-human contact of medical education, acclimating students to the functioning of the body via technology that very nearly replicates what’s seen in human anatomy will prove beneficial.

“You can’t learn medicine without that interaction at the human level, of course,” White says. “But if we have ways for students to get familiar with these concepts, it’s a good way to leverage knowledge students will need in patient interactions. For us, it’s been very inspiring to witness what’s happening in the C.A.V.E.”

RaD Lab Exists to Find a Way

Creighton’s RaD Lab has been able to take on a heavy load of faculty and program requests for technological innovation and to boost the University’s digital strategy, while serving as an educational tool for students majoring in computer science, and those from many walks of the academy who just want to have a better grasp of coding and computing.

To that end, Cynthia Corritore, Ph.D., a professor of business intelligence and analytics, has been one of the RaD Lab’s most frequent collaborators. Corritore’s classes are shot through with technological advances, and the professor herself speaks not so much in business terms as in computer science ones, often pointing out how the line is steadily blurring between one pursuit and the other.

She teaches an entire course on application development. The crowning moment is a contest in which teams of students compete to build the best app and put it to use in a business context. This year, the winners of the competition built an app allowing people to input the contents of their wardrobe. The app then helps them select what to wear based on the weather and the day’s activities. Cameron is now working with the student team on commercializing the app.

Corritore is further testing the RaD Lab’s range by wondering how virtual reality might be implemented in her classrooms. Corritore says after five years teaching the app development course, she sees the future in a course on developing virtual reality environments, and the RaD Lab has helped her find the scripting language necessary to create the course. From there, she says, she calls upon the lab for other projects related to education and technology.

Corritore and other professors are finding ways for the RaD Lab to help them judge one of the more subjective grades in a college classroom: class participation. The lab is also helping build a system to look for key words and topics in online discussions, interpreting what students are saying and providing output for professors to analyze and see who is chiming in and who is taking the conversation to a higher level.

With all the potential, Corritore hopes the RaD Lab can sustain its innovative edge, while also catering to the day-to-day work of maintaining servers and databases.

“They’re my favorite thing at Creighton right now,” she says, adding that these are “great experiences” for students. “I hope we can encourage more of them to be a part of it.

“It’s changing everything. It’s not just that everyone needs to know how to code, we need to be turning out the experts in that field, and the place where they develop that expertise is in places like the RaD Lab.”

Cameron says the support the lab has received across the board from Creighton faculty and administrators, along with the steady stream of dedicated interns, has ensured the RaD Lab continues to not only invent solutions for real issues, but to innovate its way into continued existence.

“We love it when someone comes to us and says, ‘I don’t think this can be done, but can you try?’” Cameron says. “The best ideas don’t come from the RaD Lab staff, the best ideas are the ones that walk in the door. We’re constantly being challenged, and it’s amazing to see how our students, faculty and staff have risen up to tackle those challenges together.”