Rich Miner's $5 Million Donation Intended to Meet Growing Demand and Foster Diversity in Computer Science
By Brooke Coupal
Do you have a question that needs an immediate answer?
Turn to Google.
Are you looking to clean your floors with minimal effort?
Invest in a robotic vacuum.
Are you concerned cybercriminals may hack into your computer?
Download antivirus software.
In a world that runs on technology, the need for highly skilled computer science professionals remains strong, despite the recent tech sector layoffs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be nearly 683,000 new computer and information technology jobs between 2021 and 2031.
“There’s a huge demand for talent in STEM, and we all see the impact of computer science on our lives,” Chancellor Julie Chen says. “It’s important to us that our students are part of this revolution.”
From the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2021, UMass Lowell’s undergraduate enrollment in computer science increased by more than 50%. Currently, about 1,600 undergraduates and 300 graduate students major in computer science, making it the largest academic program at UML.
“The computer science program has been growing tremendously, and we want to keep growing it,” he says.
Thanks to a $5 million donation from triple River Hawk and Android co-founder Rich Miner ’86, ’89, ’97 as well as a $2 million matching grant from the state, the Department of Computer Science was elevated to become the Richard A. Miner School of Computer and Information Sciences in the fall of 2022.
“I have a lot that I owe to this university, especially the computer science department,” Miner said during a dedication ceremony for the new school. “I’m very happy and thrilled that my family and I could step up in this way.”
The Miner School, housed within KCS, is spearheaded by Holly Yanco, a computer science professor at UML for the past 22 years and director of the university's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center.
“She’s a natural leader who can take this school to the next level,” Melikechi says.
A Vision for the Miner School
As the head of the Miner School, Yanco has big plans for the future of computer science at UMass Lowell.
The Miner School offers bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and graduate certificate programs that blend applied and theoretical studies. Concentrations in cybersecurity, data science and bio-cheminformatics are available, along with a minor in robotics. Yanco intends to build those into their own departments within the school, giving students the option to strengthen their expertise in those areas.
She also wants to make computer science more accessible to students majoring in other disciplines.
“No matter what major you are, having some knowledge of computer science is beneficial,” she says.
Yanco plans to explore partnering with other UML departments to look at different ways of offering computer science to nonscience students. The interdisciplinary work could result in computer science minors for specific majors such as business administration and studio art.
Diversifying the Candidate Pool
Women make up less than 30% of those in computer and mathematical occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 9% of computer and mathematical professionals are Black or African American, and about 8.5% are Hispanic or Latino.
Yanco is passionate about increasing diversity in the field.
As a female undergraduate studying computer science at Wellesley College in the late 1980s, she became empowered by the school’s then-president, Nannerl Overholser Keohane.
“The president at the time would say it’s not equal opportunity, but every opportunity,” says Yanco, who went on to get her master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It got me in the mindset that my question is just as good as everybody else’s question.”
Yanco hopes to instill that mindset in every student in the Miner School, making it a welcoming environment for all.
She plans on developing cohorts within the school upon which diverse student populations can rely for support.
“If you are the only woman in a class and you are having problems, it can make you start to think, ‘Do I belong here? There’s nobody else that looks like me,’” Yanco says. “That’s why we need to ensure that we have strong cohorts, so that there are people like you.”
Along with gender and racial diversity, incoming students are also diverse in their background knowledge of computer science. Yanco encourages all interested students to apply to the Miner School, even if they’ve never programmed before.
“Some people have this preconceived notion that you’re either good enough when you start a computer science program or you’re not, but people can learn,” she says. “Through the courses that the Miner School offers, students learn how to break down problems, write code, debug programming and much more.”
Tutors and advisors are on hand to provide additional academic support to students. Incoming first-year students can also participate in the summer program, SoarCS, in which they learn coding skills and meet faculty and other students in preparation for their first semester of classes.
An Abundance of Research Opportunities
Computer science faculty are engaged in research in more than a dozen labs and facilities housed within the Miner School.
Prof. Xinwen Fu runs UML’s cybersecurity research facility, the Cyber Range. The facility doubled its workstations from 20 to 40 in the summer of 2022, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National Security Agency, providing more space for research teams to conduct studies.
Fred Martin, professor and associate dean for teaching, learning and undergraduate studies, is the lab director of the Engaging Computing Group, which develops novel technologies for K-12 computer science education.
Yanco, an expert in robotics, launched the Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) Lab when she joined UMass Lowell in 2001. Under grants from organizations including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Yanco has led the development and testing of different robot systems used for assistive and urban search and rescue tasks.
“Part of being a human-robot interaction researcher is thinking about how you evaluate the systems that you design,” she says. “If you’re designing something to work with a person, you have to actually test it with a person, so we did a lot of our initial testing in the hallways of Olsen Hall.”
As the HRI Lab grew, eventually moving to a bigger space in Dandeneau Hall, Yanco started to think of ways she could provide robot evaluation services to others looking to test their own robot system designs. With the support of UML, the NERVE Center was born.
The core research facility, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in February, develops test methods and metrics for measuring robot capabilities, human performance and human-robot interaction.
The U.S. Army and Navy and NIST are just some of the institutions that have turned to the NERVE Center at 110 Canal St. in downtown Lowell for testing of robot systems. A mobile NERVE Center is also available for off-site testing.
The center is home to several robots, including Spot, a doglike robot developed by Boston Dynamics; Fetch, a robot featuring a gripper developed by Fetch Robotics; and Digit, a humanoid robot developed by Agility Robotics. An interdisciplinary group of faculty members from computer science, mechanical engineering, physical therapy and biomedical engineering uses the robots in its research.
Labs and facilities throughout the Miner School invite students to assist with research projects, giving them hands-on experience that they can eventually take to the workforce.
“Each summer, between the HRI Lab and NERVE, we probably hire at least 20 undergraduates,” Yanco says. “Many of them stay on for the school year.”
She plans to increase those opportunities for students as the school hires more faculty.
“Every time we hire, it gives us the chance to either strengthen one of our core research areas or add a new one,” she says. “This gives students the opportunity to work on a variety of groundbreaking research projects.”
Yanco’s Robotic Advancements
Yanco is continuing to pave the way for the future of robotics.
She received a $300,000, one-year NSF grant in September 2022 to establish an open-source ecosystem that would make it easier for experts to add manipulation functions, like grasping, to robots.
“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to do robotics, you had to build everything from scratch. Now, there are open-source software packages that allow you to start from a higher level,” says Yanco, the grant’s principal investigator. “The proposal looks at how we can pull together the robotics manipulation community to provide their resources to allow research to move more quickly.”
Yanco is collaborating with Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Yale University on the project.
We live in such a fantastic area to be doing robotics. There are all these companies that we can work with. -Prof. Holly YankoShe is also the principal investigator of two more NSF-funded projects that look at the use of robotic exoskeletons to provide people with movement assistance when they become fatigued. Researchers are using exoskeletons created by Dephy, a Maynard, Massachusetts-based company, and Myomo, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, to conduct their studies.
“We live in such a fantastic area to be doing robotics,” Yanco says. “There are all these companies that we can work with.”
Among other research ventures, Yanco is the co-principal investigator in the AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Intervention for Networked Groups (AI-CARING), which launched in October 2021 thanks to a $20 million NSF grant (see page 9). Yanco and more than 40 other researchers are developing artificial intelligence systems that work with caretakers and people with minor cognitive impairments to manage medication schedules, prepare meals and perform other daily tasks.
“This huge project across several institutions looks at how you can improve people’s lives with artificial intelligence,” she says.