Elevating the Role of Undergraduates
Adaobi Nebuwa ’24, a computer science neophyte when she got to Colby, now plays a pivotal role in one CS professor’s lab
A lot has changed since Adaobi Nebuwa ’24 was a new Colby student who didn’t have any experience with computer science or virtual reality.
These days, the computer science major with a concentration in artificial intelligence is the manager of the Immersive Navigation Systems and Inclusive Technology Ethics (INSITE) lab for Stacy Doore, the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science. Nebuwa is also in charge of her own research project creating a “digital twin,” or dynamic virtual model, of Allen Island, part of Colby’s Island Campus.
The digital-twin framework will use extended-reality technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, to provide access to people who might have trouble going to the island in person because of physical or geographic limitations.
“How can we still allow students to have that experience without actually going there?” Nebuwa, of London, England, said.
At a larger research university, a role with this much research and managerial responsibility likely would be held by a graduate student. But at Colby, undergraduates are encouraged to assist professors and help make advancements in their chosen fields of study, something that will allow them to talk about their research experience solving real-world problems during interviews for jobs or graduate school.
That is one way that the College stands out, Doore said.
More opportunities can help students figure out their next steps, she said. For example, computer science undergraduates can follow many different pathways, but initially might not know what those are or what possibilities are available to them.
“Students need the chance to explore interesting questions, be curious, take on leadership roles, and to work on real-world problems that will help them figure out what they enjoy and could see themselves pursuing when they leave Colby,” Doore said.
Getting hands-on experience
Nebuwa is doing that through her work at the INSITE lab and her own research project. As the manager of the lively, crowded space on the ground floor of Miller Library, she logs regular hours and checks in with the student leaders of each of the dozen or so research projects currently underway. She coordinates with Doore, students, and other faculty members to keep the lab organized and on track.
Last summer, she worked as one of Doore’s six research assistants and loved going on the INSITE lab’s three-day trip to Allen Island to gather data for the digital-twin project. This included taking photos, recording audio files using acoustic sensors and hydrophones, plotting trail data to use in a geographic information system, collecting light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data of objects on the island, and taking underwater video of intertidal species such as green crabs.
Nebuwa learned how to program and use all of the different types of sensor equipment and taught other students how to collect the various types of data.
“It just helped me develop my confidence in what I was doing, and build so many skills,” she said.
Doing meaningful work
At the INSITE lab, much of the work has to do with spatial information access. This often means creating accessible navigation systems or devices and studying how people think and communicate about indoor and outdoor spaces in both the real world and in virtual spaces.
The lab is also centered on the principles of advancing ethical emerging technologies and broadening participation in computing to diversify the tech workforce, Doore said. As well, it’s home to Spot, the Boston Dynamics agile robot, which is helping students ask important questions about the ethical role agile robots can play in society. It’s also giving them the chance to learn how responsible assistive technologies can help people with disabilities navigate and interact with objects in space around them.
Doore’s lab collaborates both with other researchers and members of the disability community to assure the work done there reflects real-world needs and experiences, which means a lot to Nebuwa.
“I think the accessibility aspect of it is really key for me. I’ve always been someone who wants to help others, and if I’m not doing that, I kind of feel like what’s the point?” the student said. “I’m definitely going into something that works with accessibility, whether that’s robotics, artificial intelligence, or virtual reality. I feel like I’ve never seen the kind of good it can do until I’ve been part of this lab working to develop solutions for people with disabilities.”
Navigating a learning curve
Before she came to Colby, Nebuwa didn’t know much about this field. She did have a knack for technology and gadgets, but she had a big learning curve to navigate when she enrolled in Doore’s Introduction to Computer Science course her first semester.
“I was struggling,” the student said. “I didn’t do computers. I’ve never coded before in my whole entire life. And coming into a class where there were a lot of people that had coded in high school, I just didn’t really fit into that kind of class environment.”
Doore disagreed. Nebuwa definitely fits into computer science, according to the professor, who is committed to correcting misconceptions around the field and encouraging more students to feel that they belong there.
Her support has meant everything to the student, who also excels on the basketball court.
“Professor Doore made me feel welcome and empowered, and especially as a woman in STEM, this is huge,” Nebuwa said. “She really inspired me to keep pushing through, and that made me eager to want to learn so much more.”
Doore said that in order to have a world where more computer scientists are working for the public good, there needs to be a more diverse pool of graduate students. To do that, more undergraduate students like Nebuwa need to have the kinds of research experiences in computer science that can lead them toward graduate school or industry.
“Otherwise, I think we’re losing out on the full diversity of the kinds of students that could wind up pursuing and making significant contributions to the field and to society,” Doore said.
Resilience and leadership
Nebuwa stood out from the beginning, despite her lack of computer programming experience, Doore said.
“I think she is incredibly talented, intuitive, and enthusiastic, which is really all you need to be successful in our introductory course,” Doore said. “And she’s determined. One of the key things that students have to learn is that this takes time. It’s not something that happens overnight. If you don’t know how to do it, time will help you, but you have to be persistent and be willing to ask for help.”
A lot of that comes from other students who work as teaching assistants for the intro course. The assistants, many of whom recently took the class themselves, assist with coursework and also serve as mentors and cheerleaders.
“They often were in the same spot,” Doore said. “They didn’t start to program until they started the class, and then they discovered that, ‘I’m actually kind of good at this, and I like this, and I didn’t think I was going to become a computer science major, and now I am.’”
That’s how it happened with Nebuwa, who now also works as a teaching assistant for the class. Like many Colby students, she’s curious, willing to say “yes” to hard things, and eager to learn something new, Doore said.
“If I offered her opportunities, and she was interested and it was good for her, she would rise to the challenges that I was presenting and not be afraid of failure,” the professor said. “We can’t be afraid to fail because we’re going to learn something so important about whatever didn’t work, and then we’re going to do it differently next time.”
That’s science, but it’s a life skill, too. When undergraduates have more chances to practice resiliency and leadership through opportunities such as leading research projects and serving as lab managers, they’ll be better prepared for wherever they go after Colby.
“Being able to have that kind of research experience that many other liberal arts colleges do not have is amazing because I get that experience of being at a big school, but I’m not,” Nebuwa said. “I love the tight-knit community here. I definitely like the whole aspect of Colby still being a small school but still having all these life-changing opportunities.”
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