Public Science Goes to Washington

Earlier this month graduate students, undergraduates and program directors from the College of Sciences hit the road to share their science at the 4th USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo in Washington, DC.

Nearly 350,000 attendees packed into the Washington Convention Center April 15-17 and participated in thousands of hands-on activities, experiments and live performances, all focused on science and engineering.

Undergraduates from the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Village focused their activities on “making” — volunteers helped K-12 students build LED flashlights, create silly putty, and design windmills. WISE Director Katherine Titus-Becker explained, “The goal of this event was to create excitement for STEM fields and excitement for kids and their parents.”

Graduate students from Eric Laber’s group in the Department of Statistics showcased their research to Festival-goers by engaging them in a video game called Laser Foxes. The game is built on the following premise: you control a fox that shoots lasers and face-off against a computer programmed to learn your strategies and use them against you. The computer takes in information from your gameplay and classifies players based on their gameplay style: hiding in a corner, focusing on game-changing power-ups, taking on the enemy head on, or avoiding the enemy’s lasers.

Graduate student Nick Meyer, who worked on the game’s development and also volunteered at the Festival, said, “The game was designed to help us better understand how humans see a problem and approach it.” In fact, the statistical approaches used in Laser Foxes, where the computer takes in information and adapts accordingly, can be applied elsewhere outside of video games. Meyer explained, “[Our research] could be used in the medical field: past data from patients could inform future personalized treatment.”

Children and adults alike lined up at the Laser Foxes booth to test their skills and strategies. Meyer reflected, “One of our goals with this trip was to increase awareness and interest in statistics through an engaging and exciting video game. Seeing so many people enjoy playing it and ask questions about the algorithms we used was very satisfying and motivating to the group.”

David Dickson is a graduating senior studying meteorology at NC State.