Mechanical Computing Game Teaches Coding Fundamentals

Child playing with Turing Tumble game

Years ago, when Paul Boswell, Ph.D., was teaching at the University of Minnesota, he noticed many students from across the sciences ran up against a common barrier: they didn’t know how to program. Without computer programming skills, some types of research is more difficult to do, while other types are off the table entirely, highlighted in recent articles in Nature and Wired.

Boswell knew it was important for students to understand more about computers at an earlier age, but to him, the multitude of programs, devices, and courses already available to teach coding fundamentals often overlooked a very important component.

Two children playing with Turing Tumble game“The problem is that all of these websites, robots, and other educational materials require a computer or a computer chip,” he said, adding that the actual “thinking” the computer does—its logic—remains hidden to the user. “Kids really don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.”

Boswell, then a research assistant professor of analytical chemistry in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, took up a side project. He began developing a marble game, inspired by the workings of mid-1900s mechanical computers, that would help players learn and practice the basic concepts of programming. This game, which came to be known as the Turing Tumble, is now close to reaching living rooms and classrooms. Last month, the University’s Venture Center helped Boswell launch a startup company (also named Turing Tumble), to manufacture and sell the game.

The game challenges players to solve computational puzzles by attaching game pieces to a grid of plastic pegs that each perform a specific operation when a marble reaches them. When marbles are fed through the top of the board, they follow the logic of the game pieces and, if these pieces are configured correctly, the system sorts the marbles in a way that matches the puzzle’s solution.

Boswell said the game is different from other educational coding activities because it’s more approachable to programming newcomers. The game demonstrates some of the basic concepts of computer logic without getting bogged down by the syntax of coding languages that can confuse or repel new coders. Instead of mulling over the precise use of semicolons, parentheses, and capital letters in lines of code, for example, players can visualize computer logic in action and easily adjust it to perform different operations.

Using just the pieces Boswell created, the Turing Tumble can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and more, using the same type of binary operations at the heart of “normal” computers. If it were large enough, it could perform any function a regular computer could.

Printing Out the Pieces

Turing Tumble game and pieces

Boswell, who now lives in Shoreview, MN, and works for a software firm that uses computational mathematics to develop health care programs, has a long history with the U of M. He began his graduate studies in analytical chemistry at the U in 2003, and later returned as a post-doctoral researcher in 2009.

During Boswell’s five years in CFANS, his research focused on developing a new approach to identifying small molecules—biologically active compounds useful in research and pharmaceuticals. The work was computing-intensive, requiring researchers to write lots of software, and Boswell had a hard time finding students who could program.

“It really limited the types of research that were possible,” he said. “I guess that’s part of what precipitated the Turing Tumble—trying to grow the base of students practiced in computational thinking and interested in learning to code.”

It was at the University that Boswell first used a 3D printer to create the early plastic models of the Turing Tumble’s pieces. He tested many different versions of each piece, reworking each until they all fit together and interacted correctly on the game board.

Around this time, serendipity struck. Boswell noticed an illustration done by Jiaoyang Li, a high school student who had come to work in a University chemistry lab as part of a summer program, and was impressed by her artistic talent. He asked Li if she would help him create a comic that would serve as a storyline for the challenges in the game.

Li agreed and set to work illustrating the adventures of Alia, a space engineer who attempts to escape from a deserted planet. The narrative weaves together the 51 puzzles included in the game’s manual, teaching concepts early on that are necessary to solve increasingly complicated puzzles as the player progresses. Li would later work as part of Boswell’s research group at the U, and she is currently a senior majoring in art and computer science.

Funding to Kick Things Off

After Boswell left the University, he kept developing the Turing Tumble. Eventually, he finished the prototype and turned his sights to launching the game. It would take funding to cover the costs of manufacturing game materials, especially the expensive, customized injection molds needed to mass-produce the game’s 14 types of plastic parts.

On June 1, Boswell launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $48,000 by the end of the month. The campaign quickly amassed ample support. At this point, with only a few days left, funders have already pledged over $285,000—more than 600 percent of Boswell’s goal.

With the funding lined up, he expects to have the game available in stores and online in early 2018. Boswell said he was excited to have the game finished and especially to get it into classrooms. The Turing Tumble can tie into several school subjects, including circuits, computational thinking, and problem solving, and Boswell is also looking at how it can tie into grade-specific standards.

Two nearby schools, Turtle Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, MN, and Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake, MN, will each receive a set of 20 games from donors. Boswell said having the schools nearby will make it easy to support their integration in a hands-on way before working with schools farther away.

“Computers are everywhere now, and kids start using them so young,” Boswell said. “I hope this will help them understand, at a more fundamental level, how computers work.”

Photos provided by Paul Boswell

U-Spatial Prize Highlights Thought-Provoking Data Maps

Digital world map

Crop species diversity map courtesy of Peder Engstrom 

Maps bring information to life, adding dimension to numbers and statistics to draw out the stories contained within them.

A University of Minnesota research center recently recognized undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines for their inventive, thought-provoking maps. U-Spatial, which supports spatial research as part of the Office of the Vice President for Research’s Research Computing unit, selected nine submissions out of 50 as winners of its 2017 Mapping Prize.

“Maps don’t just show us where to go—they have the potential to transform our ways of seeing and understanding our world,” said Len Kne, associate director of U-Spatial. “The annual Mapping Prize encourages students at the University to make provocative and innovative maps about subjects that interest them.”

The maps explore a wide range of subjects both close to home and far away. For example, one pinpoints the locations of beekeepers in the Minneapolis area, while another examines how travelers on the Camino de Santiago trail in northwest Spain affect the economies of the rural communities they pass through.

Peder Engstrom, a student in the Master of Geographic Information Science program and a geographic information scientist with the U’s Institute on the Environment, received this year’s top prize for his map highlighting the level of food calories produced on croplands across the globe. The map was used as part of a larger project to illustrate how good nutrition requires both a sufficient supply of food calories and a variety of different foods, making both small and large farms crucial.

Another winning entry was a collection of maps that show disparities in how pollution levels affect various Minneapolis communities. For this project, a team of 30 undergraduate students in a Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies course on environmental disparities and sustainability collaborated with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to investigate how emissions from various industries in Minneapolis unevenly affect people of specific races, socioeconomic classes, ages and more.

Digital map

As part of an environmental justice course project, Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies students created a series of digital maps to demonstrate how emissions from major industries affect vulnerable Minneapolis communities. Image courtesy Michelle Garvey. 

This year’s submissions come from students in fields ranging from fine arts and landscape architecture to political science and statistics. Overall, Kne said the map submissions demonstrate the widening access to and use of mapmaking technologies across academic disciplines.

“Making maps use to be the domain of geography, requiring complex tools, cartography skills, and lots of time,” he said. “This all changed a few years ago when easy to use, web-based mapping tools were created that allow anyone to tell a story with a map. Yes, geography students account for many of the maps submitted, but students from all over the University are entering maps.”

There are over 4,100 U students, faculty, and staff using University-supported mapmaking tool called ArcGIS Online, he added. In the last 12 months, 1,200 people in the University community have created 15,500 maps and data layers.

See the full list of U-Spatial Mapping Prize winners  from 2017 and previous years.

Cells on the Move Are Fussy About Footing

From embryonic development to wound healing and cancer metastasis, cells move. But like runners on a track, they won’t go very fast on a surface that’s too hard or too soft to get the right amount of grip.

“That was a key realization,” says University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor David Odde.” Cells are very responsive to the mechanical stiffness of their environment. It affects how cells [mature from embryonic to adult form] and migrate within the body, but it was not clear how this happens.”

Odde and his colleagues have built and tested a mathematical model of how cells respond to varying degrees of stiffness in the tissues on and through which they travel. They predicted, and found, that for a given cell there is an optimal stiffness–a sweet spot–for it to move.

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Innovation Fellows Medical Device First to Reach Market

Modern surgery room

In 2012, Dr. Alan Johnson sketched out a number of new and promising concepts for medical devices. At the time, he was only a few days into the Medical Devices Center’s Innovation Fellows Program, based in the University of Minnesota’s Medical Devices Center.

But as Johnson learned more about what it takes to turn a lab invention into a commercial product, he started to see technological, financial, and regulatory hurdles looming. One by one, he crossed ideas off the list. At the end, one promising invention remained: a new, noninvasive method for safely and securely closing the jaw to help it heal after a fracture.

Now, five years later, Johnson’s invention has become the first technology born in the Innovation Fellows Program to finish navigating the complex path from lab to marketplace. Following a licensing deal with St. Paul-based Summit Medical, Inc. and the recent receipt of U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance, the device can now be marketed for use in surgeon’s offices, hospitals, and clinics across the country.

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Study of Distant Galaxies Marks 100th Zooniverse Project

Andromeda galaxy

Ever look up into the sky and wonder what distant worlds are like? Galaxy Nurseries, a new project at the University of Minnesota, invites you to help researchers discover thousands of young galaxies across the universe and, in doing so, learn more about our own.

The project is a sign of just how far research methods have come in the field of citizen science—where volunteers across the world contribute to scientific data collection and analysis. Galaxy Nurseries, which went live on Wednesday, was the 100th project to launch on the Zooniverse, the largest and most widely-used online citizen science platform, which has connected hundreds of thousands of volunteers to active research projects since it formed in 2009.

Lucy Fortson, Ph.D., one of the cofounders of the Zooniverse and the associate head of physics and astronomy in the U’s College of Science and Engineering, said including the public in scientific research opens new opportunities in research across a wide range of disciplines. Continue reading

2017 Minnesota Futures Awards Focus on Science of Prevention

Bees nesting inside hollow wooden tubes

The dwindling population of bees, spread of cancer inside the body, and sexual assault on campus—these typically unrelated subjects have something in common: University of Minnesota researchers are working to find new ways to prevent them.

The Minnesota Futures Grant Program recently awarded a total of $495,281 to support three research proposals focused on improving human and environmental health through prevention. Minnesota Futures is an internal funding opportunity offered by the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research that promotes novel research to advance new ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries.

The three projects, highlighted below and selected from a group of 15 submitted proposals, will bring experts together to explore new ways to tackle challenges in health and the environment. Continue reading

Spring 2017 Grant-in-Aid Recipients Announced

A row of colorful books in front of a green wall

The Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship Program (GIA) provides grants to support scholarly and artistic activities of faculty and their graduate students to foster excellence throughout the University.

This year’s spring competition awarded 53 grants in a range of fields across 16 colleges and 45 departments on the Duluth, Morris and Twin Cities campuses. A total of $1,679,331 was awarded with an average award amount of $31,685.

GIA projects represent the breadth and depth of University research in all disciplines and fields. While any full time tenured or tenure track faculty member can apply, GIA plays an especially important role in providing new assistant professors with seed money for research that will most likely lead to external funding to help jump start their careers.

Grant-in-Aid is one of several internal funding programs administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research. In the past five years, more than $36 million has been awarded through these programs to advance disciplinary and interdisciplinary initiatives and guide research infrastructure planning activities.

U Tech Transfer Ranks Sixth Among Public Universities

A blue light bulb on a black background

The University of Minnesota has one of the leading technology commercialization enterprises among US universities, according to a recent research report.

The Milken Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in California, ranked the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization sixth among US public research institutions and second in the Big Ten in its “Best Universities for Technology Transfer” report, released last month. When including private institutions, the U places 14th, outpacing schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The report focuses on four key indicators of tech transfer success for each institution: how many patents it was granted, how many technology licenses it issued, how much income its licenses brought in, and the number of startup companies it formed. These measurements were averaged over four years, from 2012–2015. Continue reading

F&A funding crucial to success of U research

laboratory with sun shining in through the window

Indirect research costs do more than keep the lights on in labs. These necessary parts of federally funded research projects help maintain high-tech equipment, provide data storage, support administrative staff, and even cover the disposal of hazardous waste.

As noted in a New York Times article, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price recently called into question the value of funding indirect costs on grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research. Price said paring back such funding could bring significant financial savings to the federal government next year.

Federal grants’ support of indirect research costs, often called “F&A” (facilities and administrative), plays an important role in helping universities recover a portion of the administrative and infrastructure expenses that come along with research across all academic fields. F&A helps make research spaces safe, keeps lab equipment running properly, and ensures projects comply with laws and regulations. Continue reading

U startup CEO recognized among “Titans of Technology”

Terri Soutor holding her Titans of Technology award

Photo courtesy of Jen Kelly, KeliComm

Terri Soutor, CEO of University of Minnesota startup FastBridge Learning, received an award last week recognizing her prowess in building a business around emerging technology.

At the 2017 Titans of Technology award ceremony, hosted by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, Soutor received an award for her leadership of FastBridge Learning, which was based on discoveries and innovations by Theodore Christ, Ph.D., educational psychology professor with the College of Education and Human Development. The company was launched with help from the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization in 2015 to provide assessment tools and training for teachers of preschool through 12th-grade students to track and improve their students’ learning. Continue reading

Two U startups named among Best University Startups 2017

U of M flag on a lamppost, surrounded by flowering trees

Two startup companies based on University of Minnesota research discoveries received national recognition today for their potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in human health and the environment.

Photonic Pharma and ThermChem, both launched by the Office for Technology Commercialization’s Venture Center, were named among the 40 “Best University Startups 2017” by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers.

The U of M startups were chosen by representatives of leading technology-oriented businesses from a group of 200 startups launched by universities across the U.S. They are among the more than 110 companies launched by the Venture Center since 2006. The two companies will present as part of NCET2’s University Startups Conference and Demo Day in Washington, DC, on April 18-20. Continue reading

Improving nutrition apps with high-quality research data

A young couple looks at an app on a tablet while preparing food

Suppose a team of software developers wants to make a smartphone app that helps people with high blood pressure track the sodium in their meals. Their expertise in coding and design will guide them in making an app that is reliable and easy-to-use.

But when it comes to understanding how to tap research-grade nutrition data for a wide range of foods and ingredients, the developers may lack crucial knowledge in nutrition sciences.

The University of Minnesota’s Lisa Harnack, DrPH, director of the School of Public Health’s Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC), has an idea that could knock down that barrier. Harnack aims to give app developers packages of code that will help them draw from the NCC’s Food and Nutrient Database, a treasure trove of comprehensive nutrition data, without needing a researcher’s expertise. This resource would bring developers better information to fuel their software—and, in turn, help patients living with nutrition-related chronic diseases. Continue reading