Skip to main content

Allen School celebrates “Inspirational Teachers”

Every year, we in the Paul G. Allen School invite our new majors to identify their most inspirational high school or community college teacher – the teacher (each of us had one!) who changed their perception of what they should aspire to. We host these teachers, their partners, and the students who nominated them for dinner in the Allen Center (plus a bit of propaganda designed to encourage the teachers to send us more great students!).

Congratulations and thanks to the Paul G. Allen School’s 2017-18 Inspirational Teachers – nominated by our students for the difference you’ve made in their lives. The wordcloud from the nomination statements submitted by our students says it all: inspirational, approachable, passionate, supportive, encouraging, helpful, empowering …

And special congratulations to Sam Procopio, the inaugural recipient of the Paul G. Allen School’s Award for Broadening Participation in Computing. Sam – regularly recognized as an Inspirational Teacher – sent 34 young women to our program during his 9 years of teaching computer science (and coaching soccer) at Holy Names Academy. This year he began a new phase of his career as Principal at Bishop Blanchet High School, from which he graduated in the previous century.

From early learning through graduate school, all educators are in the same business. Parents entrust us with their most precious asset – their children. We do our best to help these young people achieve their potential. When they excel – which is almost always, given the amazing raw material with which we are entrusted – we take pleasure in the fact that we’ve played at least some small role in that success.

Sam Procopio flanked by Holy Names alums Erin Ripple, Claire Beard, Laura DeBoldt, and Mallory Johnson

May 24, 2018

The Allen School’s annual ACM Spring BBQ

OK, so it wasn’t exactly balmy spring weather, and there was the usual 45-minute line for burgers, but a good time was had by all at the 2018 Allen School ACM Spring BBQ!

May 18, 2018

The Allen School and the Microsoft CEO Summit

On Wednesday, ten of Shwetak Patel’s students – undergraduate and graduate, from the Paul G. Allen School and the Department of Electrical Engineering – demonstrated smartphone apps for health screening/diagnosis as part of the Microsoft CEO Summit partner’s program.

Slides from presentations by Ed Lazowska and Shwetak Patel – on the general theme of “Tech to Serve” – here.

May 18, 2018

UW’s RoboFly, the world’s first wireless insect-sized drone, takes flight

A team of University of Washington researchers has achieved liftoff of the world’s lightest wireless flying insect, RoboFly. Developed by members of the Allen School’s Networks & Mobile Systems Lab and the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Autonomous Insect Robotics Lab, RoboFly represents a milestone in autonomous flight that could launch a new wave of innovation in aerial robotics.

Insect-scale robots tend to rely on wire tethers for power and control, as existing systems for supplying the energy required for flight exceed their tiny load capacity. The wired approach may keep the load light, but it limits the robots’ range and mobility. In order to cut the cord, UW researchers would have to devise a system that could power their robot insect without weighing it down.

In order to find a solution, the interdisciplinary team led by Allen School professor Shyam Gollakota and Mechanical Engineering professor Sawyer Fuller took its inspiration from nature. RoboFly’s biologically inspired design features dual flapping wings driven by a pair of piezoelectric actuators. A lightweight microcontroller directs the wings’ action by issuing a series of pulses mimicking that of a biological fly’s wings.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” explained Vikram Iyer, a Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering who works with Gollakota.

To power their novel system in the absence of cords or clunky batteries, Iyer and his colleagues direct a laser beam at a tiny photovoltaic cell mounted onto RoboFly. The cell converts the beam’s light into electricity that can be used by the onboard components. Those components include the first sub-100 milligram boost converter and piezo driver, which the researchers integrated into their flight control system to amplify the voltage generated by the cell from seven to more than 200 volts — the amount of energy required to power the flapping of RoboFly’s wings during takeoff.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said Gollakota, who believes future designs could potentially rely on power harvested from ambient radiofrequency signals or even miniature batteries to augment lasers.

Team photo

The UW team that gave RoboFly its wings. Front row: Vikram Iyer (left) and Johannes James; back row (from left): Yogesh Chukewad, Sawyer Fuller, and Shyam Gollakota.

When fully assembled, RoboFly is slightly larger than an actual fly and weighs in at just 190 mg — making it the lightest aerial robot to have achieved wireless flight. Currently, RoboFly can take off and land but cannot venture further afield without losing the required line of sight with its laser power source. However, with additional research and refinement, the team envisions a day when RoboFly and its ilk will put their small and nimble form factor to work for a variety of applications — from detecting environmental hazards, to aiding search and rescue, to surveying agricultural crops.

“Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction,” said Fuller, who contributed to the design of the wired RoboBee. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

The team — which also includes ME Ph.D. student and lead author Johannes James, and ME Ph.D. student Yogesh Chukewad — will present its findings at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2018) in Brisbane, Australia next week.

Read the UW News release here, and the research paper here. Check out coverage in WIRED, The Economist, IEEE Spectrum, MIT Tech Review, TechCrunch, Discover MagazineGeekWire, Popular Mechanics, Engadget, CNET, Digital TrendsSiliconrepublic, and SlashGear.

May 16, 2018

Allen School Ph.D. alumna Cynthia Matuszek named one of AI’s 10 to Watch

Cynthia MatuszekAllen School alumna Cynthia Matuszek has been named one of “AI’s 10 to Watch,” a list of rising stars in artificial intelligence published by IEEE Intelligent Systems. Matuszek, who earned her Ph.D. in 2014 working with Allen School professors Dieter Fox of the Robotics and State Estimation Lab and Luke Zettlemoyer of the Natural Language Processing group, is a professor in the Interactive Robotics and Language Lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“AI’s 10 to Watch” celebrates early-career researchers who have demonstrated outstanding achievements in the field within five years of earning their Ph.D. The publishers singled out Matuszek for her work at the intersection of robotics, natural language processing, and machine learning to address a long-standing problem for AI researchers: how to get robots to understand human needs and human communication.

The goal of Matuszek’s research is to enable robots to interact naturally and intuitively with humans in a variety of settings, from hospitals to people’s homes. To that end, she and her team focus on grounded language acquisition — an approach that is designed to help robots gain an understanding of language related to objects and tasks while simultaneously learning about the world around them through their interactions with users. By uniting the different fields of AI research, Matuszek aims to enable robots to learn, adapt, and follow instructions in such a way that they can integrate seamlessly into dynamic, unpredictable environments.

“Intuitively, learning language is easier in the physical context of the world it describes,” the article notes. “And robots are more useful and helpful if people can talk naturally to them and teach them about the world.”

“Cynthia’s research is at the forefront of making robots understand verbal human commands,” said Fox. “What has always impressed me is her ability to work on both conceptual AI problems and real robotic tasks.”

IEEE Intelligent Systems accepts nominations for “AI’s 10 to Watch” from around the globe. Members of the publication’s editorial and advisory boards evaluate nominees based on reputation, impact, expert endorsement, and diversity. The list is published on a biennial basis; previous honorees include Allen School professor Yejin Choi, who was recognized in 2016 for her work in natural language processing.

Read more about Matuszek and her fellow honorees in the 2018 “AI’s 10 to Watch” here.

Congratulations, Cynthia!


May 11, 2018

Allen School and HCDE senior Kaitlyn Zhou awarded College of Engineering Dean’s Medal

Kaitlyn Zhou, 2018 College of Engineering Dean's MedalistKaitlyn Zhou, a senior who will graduate from the University of Washington this spring with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and human centered design and engineering, has been awarded the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence. Each year, the college selects two students to receive this award recognition of their academic achievement, leadership, and engagement in research and extra-curricular activities. During her time at UW, Zhou has ticked all of these boxes and then some.

“Kaitlyn is an outstanding student, researcher, and leader,” said Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the Allen School. “She has contagious energy. She cares deeply about her community, and about all aspects of diversity. She is enormously effective. And she is a joy to be around.”

As an undergraduate, Zhou has pursued a demanding program of study that spans data science, data visualization, machine learning, algorithms, and software design while earning a place on the Dean’s List for 10 academic quarters. She supplemented this ambitious course load by studying abroad at the Aquincum Institute of Technology in Budapest, Hungary — where she maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average — and completing a software engineering internship at Bloomberg.

While her commitment to academic rigor is impressive, Zhou has earned the appreciation of her professors and peers in particular for her active and insightful contributions to in-class discussions, online forums, and group projects. As a student in the Allen School’s first-ever undergraduate data visualization course, CSE 442, last spring, Zhou teamed up with classmates to produce “On the Other Side of the Canal,” an interactive article that guides readers through Seattle’s historical struggle with race and inequity through the lens of housing discrimination and school segregation. The result was, in professor Jeffrey Heer’s words, “a tour-de-force, exhibiting technical proficiency, effective design, scholarly depth, and social consciousness.” Zhou would go on to serve as a teaching assistant for CSE 442 the following fall, and for the Allen School’s Foundations of Computing II course this past winter.

Zhou carried over her commitment to excellence into the research lab, where she worked with Allen School professor Linda Shapiro on expression recognition for character animation using deep learning and with Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering professor Kate Starbird on research into the spread of online rumors during crisis events. For the latter, Zhou co-authored two papers that appeared at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI): Could This Be True? I Think So! Expressed Uncertainty in Online Rumoring (CHI 2016), and Centralized, Parallel, and Distributed Information Processing during Collective Sensemaking (CHI 2017).

Outside of her studies, Zhou has demonstrated her leadership abilities through a variety of extracurricular activities in service to her fellow students. She is the founding chair of the Allen School’s Student Advisory Council (SAC), which was established to better understand students’ needs and concerns, facilitate discussion, and produce educational — and impactful — programming geared toward undergraduates, including forums on issues such as accessibility and diversity in engineering. From June 2016 to June 2017, Zhou served as the Director of University Affairs for the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), representing the student body in discussions with faculty and administrative leaders on decisions related to academics, admissions, and tuition. In this role, she oversaw an organization with 60 employees, hundreds of volunteers, and an operating budget in excess of $1 million. She also was co-curator of the TEDxUofW conference that same year — an event that attracted eight speakers, $10,000 in sponsorships, and more than 700 attendees.

According to Allen School Director Hank Levy, Zhou is sure to make significant contributions, regardless of what career path she chooses.

“Kaitlyn is an exceptional scholar and an enthusiastic mentor to other students,” observed Levy, who also holds the Wissner-Slivka Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. “We expect to see remarkable achievements from her in the future.”

Heer, who got to know Zhou as both a student and a teaching assistant in his data visualization course, described her as “an example of the best that UW has to offer.” Fortunately for all of us here at UW, she plans to stick around campus a little while longer as a student in the Allen School’s fifth-year master’s program.

Learn more about the Dean’s Medal here, and check out HCDE’s article recognizing Zhou here.

Congratulations, Kaitlyn, and thank you for your many contributions to the Allen School, the College of Engineering, and the entire UW community!


April 24, 2018

Undergrad Harrison Kwik aims to transfer his knowledge and enthusiasm to a new class of Allen School students

Harrison KwikAllen School senior Harrison Kwik will graduate with his bachelor’s in computer science this spring. He has spent the past year and a half as an undergraduate researcher in the Code & Cognition Lab directed by Andrew Ko, professor in the Information School and adjunct professor in the Allen School. Kwik also took on the role of teaching assistant for the Allen School’s transfer student seminar, which helps new arrivals from campuses around the state to settle into the major and make the most of their Husky Experience. He knows firsthand what these students are going through, having arrived at the University of Washington as a transfer student from Bellevue College in fall 2016.

In the latest installment of the Allen School’s Undergraduate Spotlight, we talk to Kwik about finding his place on campus, his efforts to smooth the way for his fellow transfer students, and what he will take away from his own Husky Experience as he looks forward to pursuing his Ph.D.

Allen School: Congratulations on your impending graduation! What has made your time as an Allen School student meaningful and memorable?

Harrison Kwik: All of the professors and graduate students here in the school are working on very interesting problems, and I am constantly in awe of the research that is being done here. Additionally, I am very pleased with the quality of instruction in all of my CSE courses. Faculty members are always engaged with their teaching and really express a genuine passion for both the content that they’re teaching, as well as for the learning process of students. It has been a great privilege to study surrounded by so many amazing researchers and educators.

Allen School: What makes you so passionate about the transfer student experience?

HK: I really enjoy helping others make progress towards accomplishing their goals. As I learned firsthand, the transfer process introduces many unique challenges for students which can end up compounding the challenge of succeeding in the difficult (but rewarding) coursework. Despite these challenges, transfer students generally do not have the same opportunities to adapt to UW as our peers who entered as freshmen. They have usually had at least one or two years to learn the culture of the campus and make friends. Transfer students at UW and within the Allen School all come from different backgrounds and bring new perspectives. For this reason, I think that it is important to ensure that all transfer students have the resources they need to successfully transition into this wonderful community!

Allen School: What do you like best about being a TA for the transfer seminar?

HK: I like that I am able to meet many students from diverse backgrounds. The experiences that transfer students bring into UW are always intriguing and interesting, and I appreciate that I get to talk with students about both how they are doing now, as well as what they have done in the past. I also think that it’s great that the transfer seminar serves as an opportunity for students to build a community and friendships. Many students have told me that the transfer seminar helped them find peers to study with and hang out with outside of class, and I’m glad that I can help make that happen.

Allen School: You have carried over that passion from the classroom to the lab. Tell us about your research and what you are learning as a result.

HK: Since the beginning of my junior year, I have been working as a research assistant in Andy Ko’s Code & Cognition Lab. Andy and his students research questions and problems regarding computing education and human-computer interaction. Initially, I helped his graduate students work on their research projects, which gave me a lot of fantastic hands-on experience. Last summer, I began conducting my own independent research on the CS student experience, focusing specifically on the experiences of transfer students. While there is some research on transfer students in academia generally, there is little information about transfer students in STEM, particularly within computer science. My goal is to develop a strong understanding of what the CS student experience looks like, so that we can have the knowledge needed to properly accommodate students in what is one of the largest growing disciplines right now.

Allen School: Who or what has inspired you the most during your time as an Allen School student?

HK: I already mentioned faculty members at UW, but I would like to re-emphasize how great I think both the teaching and research is on campus. In particular, having Adam Blank and Ruth Anderson as instructors for my first few classes in the major was very influential in helping me develop a strong excitement and passion for computer science. For research, my advisor Andy Ko has been an excellent mentor and guide, providing me with constant feedback, opportunities, and resources to help me develop as a researcher. Overall, however, I find constant motivation in seeing all the great work that is achieved here!

Allen School: What advice would you give to new students following in your footsteps?

HK: It’s not the most unique advice, but I truly believe that it is critical for students to work together and socialize as much as possible. The courses that the school offers are extremely enriching, but they can also be very tough. Oftentimes, course content might require thinking about things in new ways, and being able to discuss concepts with other students is a useful way to quickly develop new perspectives and approaches to complex ideas. Having friends who you can work with helps ensure that you have a support group when things are especially challenging. The Allen School community is very welcoming and students are always willing to work with each other, so I encourage new students to get to know their peers and make new friends as soon as they can! Also, make sure to get a healthy amount of sleep every night!

Allen School: Is there anything else you want to share?

HK: I am so glad that I decided to transfer here! Although I may have arrived “late,” I feel like I still have had many opportunities to engage with campus and my school, and to make new friends. Attending UW has been hugely impactful on both my academic career and my future aspirations, and I am thankful for everyone who has helped me reach where I am now.


We appreciate Harrison’s commitment to making sure the Allen School is a truly welcoming community for all students, no matter what path they took to get here. Thanks for being a model transfer student, Harrison, and good luck in graduate school!


April 20, 2018

UW researchers develop a way to stream high-def video from low-power devices

Prototype video camera mounted on eyeglasses

Photo credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Video streaming technologies have traditionally had to make trade-offs between portability and power, with high-definition streaming heavily reliant on the latter. Now, thanks to a team of researchers in the University of Washington’s Allen School and Department of Electrical Engineering, the ability to stream high-definition video wirelessly and on the go — without the need for bulky batteries — is in sight. Using a technique called analog video backscatter, the researchers have developed a way to bypass the power-hungry hardware and computational requirements of typical HD video streaming. Their approach reduces the power required to stream HD video by up to 10,000x compared to existing technologies.

Not only does the team’s work create new opportunities for HD video streaming from low-power devices, but as professor Shyam Gollakota, director of the Allen School’s Networks & Mobile Systems Lab, notes, it also defies the prevailing wisdom on the limitations of backscatter technology.

“The fundamental assumption people have made so far is that backscatter can be used only for low-data rate sensors such as temperature sensors,” Gollakota explains in a UW News release. “This work breaks that assumption and shows that backscatter can indeed support even full HD video.”

Typical digital streaming cameras rely on heavy batteries and hardware components for processing and compressing HD video. Devices designed to lighten the load and make streaming more mobile, such as Snap Spectacles, have had to sacrifice quality to achieve the desired portability. Gollakota and his colleagues — Allen School Ph.D. student Mehrdad Hessar, EE Ph.D. alumni Saman Naderiparizi and Vamsi Talla, and Joshua Smith, director of the Sensor Systems Laboratory and Milton and Delia Zeutschel Professor in the Allen School and Electrical Engineering — get around having to make the same compromise by diverting the power-hungry functions from the camera to another device, such as a mobile phone.

Analog video backscatter works by feeding analog pixels directly from the camera’s photodiodes to the backscatter hardware. The system relies on a process called pulse width modulation to convert the pixel information in each frame from analog to digital, generating a series of pulses that vary in duration according to the brightness of each pixel — a concept reminiscent of how the cells of the brain communicate.

Left to right: Shyam Gollakota, Saman Naderiparizi, Mehrdad Hessar, and Joshua Smith

Left to right: Shyam Gollakota, Saman Naderiparizi, Mehrdad Hessar, and Joshua Smith. Not pictured: Vamsi Talla. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

“Neurons are either signaling or they’re not,” says Smith, “so the information is encoded in the timing of their action potentials.”

Smith and his colleagues devised novel compression techniques to reduce the bandwidth and power required to transmit the analog video signal. For intra-frame compression, they employed a method they refer to as zig-zag pixel scanning. Unlike analog television broadcasts that transmit each row of pixels from left to right — a process known as raster scanning — the team’s approach involves scanning pixels from left to right and right to left in alternating rows. This method, which takes advantage of the inherent redundancy in pixel values while decreasing discontinuity, effectively reduces the bandwidth required for wireless transmission.

To achieve greater inter-frame efficiency, the researchers employ a form of distributed compression in which the power-hungry computation is delegated to the reader device. The camera transmits an averaged set of adjacent pixel values — collectively known as a super-pixel — to the reader, which compares the values of the incoming frame with those of the previous frame. If the difference in value of an incoming super-pixel exceeds a predetermined threshold, the reader requests all of the corresponding pixel information. By once again leveraging redundancy, the team’s approach reduces the amount of analog pixel data transmitted between camera and reader.

Using a combination of analog video backscatter and new compression techniques, the team was able to simulate HD streaming at 720p and 1080p while consuming between 1,000 and 10,000x less power than existing systems. In addition to their HD prototype, the researchers built a low-resolution wireless camera system to demonstrate analog video backscatter’s potential for security, smart home systems, and other applications for which operating distance — rather than HD quality — is of paramount importance.

Having proved their concept, the researchers envision a time when cameras will no longer be constrained by their power needs. They provided a sneak preview of this battery-free future by demonstrating how to stream HD video using power harvested from ambient radio frequency signals at distances up to eight feet. The team is working with Jeeva Wireless, a UW spinout that was co-founded by Gollakota, Smith and Talla, to commercialize the technology.

The researchers presented their paper describing analog video backscatter at the 15th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI 2018) earlier this month in Renton, Washington.

Read the UW News release here, and visit the project website here. Check out related coverage in Gizmodo, TechCrunchSilicon RepublicEngadget, Digital Trends, and


April 19, 2018

Allen School and CMU researchers introduce SPRITEs for nonvisual access to graphical website content

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff

Many web users have become accustomed to navigating page content with the help of spatial and visual cues such as navigation bars, tabs, and icons. But for those who are blind or low-vision, the proliferation of visually rich, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) make it challenging to locate and consume information online — even with the help of a screen reader or braille display. Now, thanks to Allen School professor Jennifer Mankoff and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, help is literally at hand with new Spatial Region Interaction Techniques (SPRITEs) that leverage a standard piece of equipment – the keyboard – to access interactive elements onscreen.

SPRITEs is a set of tools that to enable non-sighted users to access web content that may be implicitly conveyed to sighted users but is integral to browsing and navigation for all users. Whereas most most websites tend to organize content in accordance with Gestalt psychology principles — for example, grouping similar items in close proximity to each other, or the consistent placement of items in familiar locations — most commercially available screen readers are set up to access only simple page elements such as headers, links, and lists. By combining a screen reader with SPRITEs, however, non-sighted users can quickly and easily access more robust content contained in elements such as menus, tables, and maps.

As Mankoff explains, SPRITEs is designed to supplement, not supplant, screen readers to enhance the user experience and keep up with current trends in website design.

“We’re not trying to replace screen readers, or the things that they do really well,” Mankoff says in a UW News release. “This study demonstrates that we can use the keyboard to bring tangible, structured information back, and the benefits are enormous.”

The aforementioned benefits include a significant improvement in users’ ability to complete online tasks thanks to the way SPRITEs maps the keyboard to various elements of a site. The researchers focused on the corners and edges of the keyboard — with the exception of the function keys, which are reserved for browser-level controls — to make it easy for the user to find the keys that they need. In keeping with their user-centric approach, the team assigned the scrolling function to the right-most column of keys, thus enabling the user to hold onto the edge of the keyboard and easily keep track of which key they pressed last. Once a user finds what they are looking for as the screen reader speaks each object, the user interacts with their target by double-pressing a key.

Certain categories of content — for example, grouped content such as menus and search results, or elements such as tables and maps — are assigned to the numerical row of keys, with those at either end reserved for scrolling. This functionality enables non-sighted users to engage with information that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, for them to access using existing accessibility tools alone.

SPRITEs keyboard illustration

The SPRITEs keyboard layout

The researchers evaluated SPRITEs in a user study involving 10 blind or low-vision individuals experienced with accessibility tools for the web. Participants were asked to complete a set of tasks using their preferred screen reader, and then asked to complete a similar task using SPRITEs. Use of the latter produced a three-fold improvement in task completion rates in five of eight tasks, including those related to navigation, menu interaction, and tables. There was also evidence that, even in this limited study, participants began to develop a mental model of the spatial or hierarchical structure of a page as it related to the keyboard.

With SPRITEs, the researchers have found a way to extend the advantages of Gestalt-driven web design — which sighted individuals tend to take for granted — to an entirely new population of users.

“Rather than having to browse linearly through all the options, our tool lets people learn the structure of the site and then go right there,” Mankoff notes.

Mankoff and her co-authors at CMU — Ph.D. students Rushil Khurana and Elliot Lockerman and recent bachelor’s alumnus Duncan McIsaac — are presenting their paper on SPRITEs at the CHI 2018 conference in Montreal, Canada next week. Mankoff plans to continue refining SPRITEs and building in robust functionality before making it available to the public as part of WebAnywhere, a web-based screen reader developed by Allen School Ph.D. alumnus Jeffrey Bigham, now a faculty member at CMU, and Allen School professor emeritus Richard Ladner.

Read the UW News release here, visit the project web page here.


April 18, 2018

Making your college choice?

Here’s a lovely video created by a University of Washington senior to encourage his kid sister to choose UW over other schools …

April 12, 2018

Older Posts »