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Junior computer science majors Matthew Patton of Los Alamos, N.M., a graduate of Los Alamos High School, and Dan Huber of Morrisville, Pa., a graduate of Pennsbury High School, are teaming up to learn how to simulate real-world systems on a computer.

As a case study, working under the direction of Chun Wai Liew, assistant professor of computer science, they are applying the principles they are learning by creating a simulation of a traffic intersection.

Patton says, “This project has many inherent difficulties. One is simulating a continuous world on a discrete machine. Also, a lot of simulations involve random events, but it is difficult to generate truly random numbers on a computer. Another major difficulty involves the massive number of objects that need to be kept track of in the simulation.”

In addition, he says, creating a working simulation doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the results will be correct.

“Often the hardest challenge is determining ‘how do I accomplish this,’ or how do I take the input and produce some sort of output that will be meaningful,” says Huber, who minors in mathematics. “Overcoming these obstacles are the greatest rewards in working on this project.”

Liew says Patton and Huber are well-suited to meeting the high intellectual demands of the project.

“They are excellent students and bring slightly different perspectives to the project. They are really in their own league,” he says.

For that reason, they are afforded the freedom to pursue a problem that extends beyond the normal classroom experience.

“I highly respect Dan and I am glad to have this chance to work with him,” says Patton, who is one of only five computer science majors in the nation to receive a Goldwater Scholarship for the 2000-01 academic year. The scholarship is the premier undergraduate award of its type in the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering.

“Simulation is a large field, and I like how Professor Liew gives us the liberty to explore whatever aspects of this area of computer science catch Dan’s and my interest,” Patton continues. “We have a good deal of autonomy, so we can explore what interests us and learn on our own.”

As a participant in Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, in which students collaborate closely with faculty members on research projects while earning a stipend, Huber worked with Liew and Bruce A. Young, assistant professor of biology, to develop a computer model of a snake’s jaw.

“Professor Liew guides us along to make sure that we keep on track and are learning what we should be learning in a course on computer simulation,” he says. “He’s very supportive and makes sure that we don’t go in over our heads and try to accomplish something that we don’t have time to do.”

Patton who did research as a first-year student and a sophomore, feels Lafayette provides a rich environment for pursuing creative projects.

“I think Lafayette is extremely conducive to projects like this,” he says. “If you have a thirst for learning, the professors will notice and give you lots of attention. If Lafayette had a graduate program, the professors would be distracted with the graduate students and wouldn’t be nearly as interested in doing cool projects like this with undergraduates, especially not with underclassmen.”

Both Patton and Huber have an interest in pursuing a path in computer science and feel their project prepares them for what lies ahead.

“I am not sure what my future career plans are, but one consideration is research. If I choose to pursue this path, the ability to simulate real-world systems should prove useful. In any case, knowing how to write a big program and coordinate my work with other programmers should be extremely valuable,” says Patton.

“I plan on pursuing a career in the computer science field, probably dealing with computer graphics. The aspect of the computer simulation that I’m working on deals with displaying a graphical output of the results we get, so this is helping me prepare and sharpen my skills for later,” says Huber.

Categorized in: Academic News