We’re celebrating with Dr. James Prather the successful defense of his dissertation and earning his Ph.D. after years of hard work and dedication. Defending a dissertation is the culmination of a long and laborious doctoral program, usually taking place over the span of many years. The dissertation defense is, in its self, a momentous milestone that signals reaching the pinnacle of one’s graduate student career. We’ve asked Dr. Prather to share with us his thoughts on the process.
What did you major in as a doctoral candidate?
The PhD is in Computer Science and my research focus area is Human-Computer Interaction.
Prather defends his dissertation.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in this process?
Teaching full time while also being a full time PhD student.
What were your most satisfying achievements during this process?
The publication of papers that I wrote, including work out of my dissertation.
The committee looks through Prather’s disseration slides during his presentation.
What did you learn that most surprised you?
When I was studying for my comprehensive exam in Computer Networking, I ran across a surprising little story: an undertaker named Almon Strowger found out that the wife of his competitor was the town telephone operator and was directing any calls for an undertaker to her husband rather than Strowger. So Strowger invented automatic telephone switching to remove humans from the decision making process and let an impartial machine do the job instead. It’s amazing what often drives technological innovation!
For students thinking about pursuing graduate school, what advice would you give them?
Find yourself a study group and communicate regularly – it’s a lifesaver. Get to know your professors and get involved in their research. Treat school like a job: go to work, do your work, come home and leave your work at work. Get some sleep!
You do a lot of research and projects with students. Please tell us what you have been doing this year and how you have engaged students in the process.
This year I have been mentoring a group of nine senior students who formed a local chapter of SIGCHI (Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction). They developed a research idea, carried out an experiment, analyzed the data, wrote up the results, and submitted it to a top-tier international conference (SIGCHI 2018) and were accepted. In April, we’ll be traveling to Montreal, Canada, to present the paper and enter into that conference’s student research competition. I have also mentored an individual student in a one-on-one capacity who carried out her own research project during Fall 2017. Both the large group and the individual student will also be presenting at the ACU undergraduate research festival. Finally, I also involve a student or two in my personal research into how novice programmers learn to code and how we can make better user interfaces to increase usability and learnability.
What are you looking forward to now that you have successfully defended your dissertation?
Definitely spending more time with my family.
A happy Prather with his dissertation advisor after a succesful defense.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
My wife, Erin, deserves a big shout-out because while I was spending most nights and weekends at work, she was often at home alone with our small children. This PhD was a team achievement, for sure! Also, I don’t think that it would have been possible to complete the PhD without the support and encouragement of my colleagues here at ACU. The faculty with whom I work have all been through this process and have been sympathetic and even offered to help where they could. The staff have gone out of their way to help me when I was beyond busy. I’m so very grateful to work at ACU and I’m looking forward to the years ahead spent right here.
From selling goggles at big box retailers to immersive experiences in theme parks and malls to practical use in medicine, virtual reality has become a quickly expanding technological frontier. Our professors, especially those involved with the Digital Entertainment Technology program, are making sure that ACU students are on the cutting edge of this technology. Our students are learning to simulate a virtual space while tracking real-life movements by using special goggles and sensors. Professors Rich Tanner and Brian Burton have opted to use SteamVR Home Environment, a resource associated with a streaming gaming service called Steam, to enable students to gain experience with creating virtual spaces and interacting with virtual reality in ways they otherwise could not. SteamVR Home allows the students to create virtual spaces that can be published and shared and is accessible to the general public by downloading their software.
Students work to perfect their virtual reality spaces simulating the ACU campus.
The Game Development (DET 350) class has given students the tools and opportunities to learn more about creating in the virtual reality space. The class was split into four teams and each team was assigned a space on the ACU campus to model in the virtual reality program. To create these, each room, as well as each object in the room, was measured in order to create an exact replica using 3D modeling. Once the physical space and objects were modeled, students added texture, colors and patterns, and other details so that each space looked as realistic as possible. After the modeling was completed, the 3D objects were imported and placed in the simulated environment.
Matthew Middlebrook, a sophomore DET major, is one of the students in Game Development and participated in the project. Matthew acknowledged that “while this VR project was a lot of work, it strengthened my love for 3D modeling and made me interested in the different applications that VR may have now and in the future.” Matthew’s favorite part of the project – and the part he is most proud of – was creating different textures, especially in the COBA Atrium. “I went into this project with almost no knowledge of textures,” he said. For example, when Matthew first attempted to import his models, the entire COBA Atrium came out white. “I was able to learn quickly and am sure that if I continued looking up tutorials, I could get even better.” This project also taught Matthew to not spend too much time working on little details that could lead to running out of time. “Being the perfectionist I am, it was difficult to not do everything and the way the project worked made it hard to see the progress of my other team members but ultimately it came together nicely.”Even though working on a team-based project like this one can be difficult, the students learned a lot. Nevan Simone, a senior computer science major, said: “I saw once again how valuable it is to have diverse skill-sets within a single team”.
The DET program is teaching students how to create virtual reality spaces because the technical skills learned fundamental for finishing the program and prepares them for the future. You can learn more about this project by watching this video. SteamVR allows students learn to create a large virtual reality project in a hands-on way. The work that ACU students have done has been viewed hundreds of times on the platform and the spaces they have created can be seen by clicking here. We encourage you to check out the awesome things our talented students are working so hard to create.
“What is a capstone class?” you may ask. “In addition to other discipline-related course goals, the senior-year integrative capstone experience will challenge the student to critically analyze, reflect, and write about the major discipline from the perspective of Christian Worldview.” (Liberal Arts Core Curriculum at ACU, p. 6). In other words, it is the culmination of a student’s classroom and experiential learning experiences during their time in college. James Prather, instructor of Computer Science, created the new capstone class CS 480: Capstone Reflections on Faith and Work, for the School of Information Technology and Computing, joining the two worlds of technology and Christianity together.
Prather holds degrees not only in Computer Science but has also earned masters degrees in Divinity and the Old Testament. The class was created to help students bridge the gap between leaving college and starting the rest of their lives. Many issues are tackled in this class such as faith and vocation, asking students questions such as, “What does it mean to be a Christian in the workplace?”. Other topics dealing with post-college life are also covered in the class such as workplace culture, church, friends, dealing with a toxic workplace and/or toxic coworkers, when to make a job change, relationships, budgeting, procrastination, grad school, and more. Prather leads these discussions with the students and also guides them through a book about spiritual disciplines, asking the students to practice a spiritual discipline each week and then write a short reflection on that experience. Prather says this is an attempt to hand students the practical tools to practice their faith not only at church but anywhere they may be: in a cubicle, on their daily commute, during their lunch break, at the gym, at home in the evening, etc.
Cole Spears with Dr. Brent Reeves
Students are asked to write two case studies that consider the ethical implications of technology on humans created in the image of God. To wrap up the course, students are asked to write a personal theology of work, helping them to synthesize the entire semester into a personal statement of what it means to be a Christian in the technology workplace. Students are also asked to make a personal portfolio which helps them look back on the past four years and see what they have done, where they have been and who they have met along the way. Cole Spears, Computer Science major from Abilene, said this has helped him realize “While it may not seem that a career as a Software Developer intersects with the life of a ministry for Jesus, there are in fact many ways I can lead a life for Christ. Simply, in my everyday interactions, I can have the peace, joy, and love of Christ throughout all of my interactions with coworkers, management, and clients. Through just being an extension of Christ, a branch from the vine, to others, I will be able to share the love of Jesus with us.”
In an effort to look at continuous improvement in offering students hands on, real-world experience in the classroom, the SITC faculty brainstormed a way to better integrate the experience of the freshman ITC 110 class (Introduction to Information, Technology, and Computing) with teaching upperclassmen how to manage and mentor in a group setting. They had success in the previous ITC 110 class with upperclassmen volunteering to help manage the freshmen app groups. The goal for the fall 2017 class was to continue the mentoring experience but to bring in more upperclassmen to manage the projects and give not only the freshmen helpful and practical advice but to develop the management skills of the older students.
Students share their creativity during the App Showcase.
They looked to a class called IT 460 (Managing Technical Projects), a senior capstone course in which students learn organization and leadership techniques and are given an individual management assignment. This seemed like the perfect solution so the faculty decided to move forward with the idea of using these students to mentor and manage the freshmen projects.
Mid semester app projects were proposed by the students within the ITC 110 class and teams were created. Each team consisted of two or three managers and six ITC 110 students (two Computer Science majors, two DET majors and two IS/IT majors). Every Tuesday, the ITC 110 class would begin with a visit from the project managers to their respective group where they would spend about 15 minutes to talk about progress of the app, goals for the week, and to answer any questions their ITC 110 team had about the process. At the end of the semester, it was each team’s turn to present their app at the ITC 110 App Showcase. Click on the link below to enjoy a short video clip of Dr. Ray Pettit interviewing student app developers and managers, talking about what they learned in this unique process.
ITC 110 App Showcase
Global Game Jam is a 48 hour game development challenge that happens all around the world during the last weekend of January (January 26-28, 2018). The GGJ is a unique opportunity where students are challenged to do things they might normally not be doing in the classroom. As the GGJ website states, “Think of it as a hackathon focused on game development”. Students are learning skills that are pushing them to be their best and fulfill the vision for the game as well as challenging their time management and work ethic. The goal is to create a prototype of a game that the students can continue working on and improving after the two day event is over. Many of the games created in the previous Global Game Jam events have gone on to become fully realized games.
Global Game Jam was created to help people of all backgrounds around the globe come together to create a video game or non-digital game, like a board game or card game. The event also helps bolster the creativity and artistic expression in the gaming industry with more ideas and prototypes not yet introduced. Despite having only 48 hours to create and collaborate, this brief amount of time is meant to assist students in creative thinking and problem solving skills, ultimately resulting in what may be small but innovative and experimental games.
DET Professors Rich Tanner and Brian Burton are an invaluable resource to students learning gaming development.
This is ACU’s 8th year to participate in the GGJ event. The concept for this event is simple – on Friday evening participants gather at approved Jam sites around the globe and are welcomed with a brief introduction and information from the international coordinators. The theme, which has been kept a secret, is announced and then teams form, ideas are shared, and everyone works to try and create a prototype of their game, based on the theme, by Sunday afternoon. Last year, Global Game Jam had 700 locations in 95 countries where over 7000 games were created in one weekend!
DET students creating virtual reality experiences
Global Game Jam prides itself on helping to encourage new friendships through collaboration, as well as increasing confidence and opportunities within the gaming development community. The goal of GGJ is to stimulate teamwork with others and is not a competition.
This incredible learning experience is not limited to those in the technology department/major but is open to anyone who has interest in creating a game. Register for the Global Game Jam at https://globalgamejam.org/2016/jam-sites/abilene-christian-university.
Technology faculty continually look for ways to combine coursework with real world applications. For example, at the end of the semester of Scripting II (CS 115), students are tasked with creating a program that solves, or can be applied, to a real world problem. SITC students Matthew Middlebrook and Brighton Mica decided to create a program that could beat the game Minesweeper. Minesweeper is a single-player puzzle video game where the objective of the game is to clear a rectangular board containing hidden mines or bombs without detonating any of them. Players receive help from clues about the number of neighboring mines in each field.
As you can imagine, this was no easy task as they set out to beat a computer at a game that is difficult for most people to win. Middlebrook and Mica had some doubt at the beginning of their endeavor, due to the sheer amount of work involved and wondering if it could even be done in the scripting language. However, using the tools they hadlearned from Scripting such as lists to store the game board, complex functions, and if statements they were able to start planning out a program.
After making the decision to go forward with the Minesweeper program as their final project they each began to brainstorm on possible ways to accomplish this task. Both students came up with ideas on how to solve the problem in different ways, based on ways they thought the game could be beat. Mica’s solution was to try and find the location of the items (numbers, blank spaces, and bombs) on the board by using r
eference images. While the solution did work correctly and was very accurate, it turned out to be a very slow method. Middlebrook’s solution was to get the coordinates of the game window and use some math to try and figure out where the spaces on the board were located. It took a long time to compile and figure out the correct positioning of everything, but this method turned out to be the fastest. Even though this idea was much more prone to error, especially if the window moved or resized, the pair decided to go the route of the most efficient method. Because this was such a complex program, the students also had to teach themselves some things that had not yet been covered in classes, such as opening a program. Through this research they learned enough to be able to write a working code.
Mica and Middlebrook were able to write the program and win the game a majority of the time in around 2-3 seconds. Writing such a complex program was well beyond what was expected but the pair says they were inspired by the difficulty of the game and wanted to find a way to beat Minesweeper, achieving their goal and presenting an excellent final project for Scripting.