Tufts Faculty Research Big Data Visualization, Computer Science Education Thanks to Prestigious NSF Awards

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. – Two Tufts faculty members are continuing groundbreaking research in computer science thanks to their $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Remco Chang, PhD, and R. Benjamin Shapiro, PhD, both assistant professors of computer science at Tufts School of Engineering, are attempting to answer questions in data visualization and computer education, respectively.

Chang (left), who is also director of the Visual Analytics Lab at Tufts, is exploring whether computers can be programmed to anticipate data needs and facilitate data analysis. “Can we understand the patterns of interaction, and is there logic in it, and do those patterns represent successful analysis behaviors?” he asked.

Chang explained his research has two aspects. One is learning which data are most essential to user decision-making. For example which data would a broker use to determine whether or not a stock is a good buy? In fact, much of the time the broker will not be able to tell you what factors were involved in the decision because of what Chang described as a largely unconscious “mental model.”

By asking users to group similar items (such as stocks) on a computer, however, Chang and his team of eight believe they can uncover this model for any given decision. In the background, the computer knows which data are similar and different for each item. It can thus weed the mounds of data until only the essential remains. In the case of the stocks, successful stocks could be similar in their price to earning ratio, so that would be the essential data.

A second aspect of the research is a continuation of earlier work to identify patterns in successful data analysis. In one experiment, Chang’s team observed users performing a “Where’s Waldo” exercise (Finding Waldo: Learning about Users from their Interactions) on computers. “I can look at the interaction,” Chang said, “and within the first minute or two predict whether the user will find Waldo. The patterns that they use are an indication of their success.”  

Chang asks whether there will come a day when developers will write code and generate algorithms based on user interaction with the data. Data visualizations could be adaptive to the user’s needs and decision processes in the same way as a mapping app preloads information not only for a requested location, but also for contiguous areas.

“The potential application of this research is so wide,” Chang said. “On the server side, if computers understand more and more about what users are doing, what kind of support can they give you?”

Educating the Next Generation of Computer Scientists

Ben Shapiro, who is the McDonnell Family Professor of Engineering Education, will focus his research on investigating new ways to educate the next generation of computer scientists in networked communication and parallel, concurrent and distributed computing. 

By working with local middle- and high-school students, he hopes to discover what projects will motivate youngsters to learn about this field and how these projects enable learning of relevant computer science topics. He is also examining how student thinking about these computer science ideas develops over time and how new programmable technologies for learning can support students' participation and conceptual development. 

Shapiro said there are two reasons to focus on networked communication and parallel, concurrent or distributed computing. “One is that many of these technologies are the technologies that young people use every day,” he said. “The other is that right now in industry, there is a shortage of people with these specific computing skills.”

“It’s an area that is becoming more and more important,” he explained.  “Currently there is almost no research on learning that could guide the design of better courses and tools for concurrency and distributed computing.” He hopes to bridge that gap.

Shapiro (left) and his team of two graduate students and five undergraduates are working with local partners, including community centers and schools, to build engineering projects, curriculum and tools. Participants come from under-represented populations in computer science, including girls, African-Americans and Latinos.

Already Shapiro’s team is working at Malden High School.  “Part of the work,” he said, “is trying to do basic research to learn what they want to make.”

Some possibilities, he added, are toys, games, community sensors or devices to interact with pets. (His students have already built a remote-control cat feeder.)

The NSF’s CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.


Located on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, the School of Engineering offers a rigorous engineering education in a unique environment that blends the intellectual and technological resources of a world-class research university with the strengths of a top-ranked liberal arts college. Close partnerships with Tufts' excellent undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, coupled with a long tradition of collaboration, provide a strong platform for interdisciplinary education and scholarship. The School of Engineering’s mission is to educate engineers committed to the innovative and ethical application of science and technology in addressing the most pressing societal needs, to develop and nurture twenty-first century leadership qualities in its students, faculty, and alumni, and to create and disseminate transformational new knowledge and technologies that further the well-being and sustainability of society in such cross-cutting areas as human health, environmental sustainability, alternative energy, and the human-technology interface.


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