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Helping communities utilize sustainable development strategies, creating a statewide pipeline to train computer science teachers, and integrating people with autism spectrum disorders into the technology and innovation workforce are among the projects funded in the Discovery Partners Institute’s (DPI) first round of seed grants.

As part of establishing its academic and research activities, DPI announced nine recipients of its first round of seed funding awards. These projects represent the types of work that DPI will undertake, seeking solutions to grand challenges that produce real-world impact. All of the projects will receive funding, staff support and use of the DPI facility in Chicago — intended to fuel development of these early-stage initiatives into full-scale research and education programs.

DPI is a pioneering new research institute led by the University of Illinois System that will create breakthrough discoveries to drive economic growth and prosperity in Chicago, the state of Illinois and beyond. Currently operating in downtown Chicago, DPI plans to construct a facility in the South Loop that will be home to thousands of students and more than 100 top researchers who will work alongside academic, business and tech partners in the city and around the world.

The funded projects were selected from 46 submissions and feature topics central to DPI’s academic and research mission, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, educational pathways, urban resilience, and environmental determinants of health. All proposals were reviewed by leaders from across the U of I System, DPI leadership and members of working groups that are developing DPI themes and cross-cutting areas.

The selected proposals were among those that best supported DPI’s mission and guiding principles of collaborative work that addresses 21st century grand challenges to produce real-world impact. The nine projects that received funding include faculty from 10 different colleges, three institutes and one library across the system’s three universities.

Below is a list of the nine funded projects, investigators and universities:

The Autism and Innovation Initiative
Maureen Dunne (Chicago), Tamar Heller (Chicago), Daria Tsoupikova-Preuss (Chicago)
The Autism and Innovation Initiative will seek to bolster the technology and innovation talent pipeline in Illinois by including people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The program will take a strength-based approach to training, entrepreneurship and workforce development to help individuals with ASD identify and land relevant jobs in this market sector. The initiative will include a “Code for Autism” training boot camp and hackathon; a workshop for University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) faculty on teaching students with ASD; a bridge pilot program for College of DuPage students with ASD who plan to transfer to UIC; and a research group, course and seminar series on autism and technology.

Benefits of Social Engagement Using Video Technology for Economically Disadvantaged Older Adults
Raksha Anand Mudar (Urbana-Champaign), Wendy Rogers (Urbana-Champaign)
Is there a way to utilize technology to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation among older adults, especially low-income individuals? A pilot program will be developed establishing a university-community-industry partnership to examine technology-based social engagement opportunities for economically disadvantaged older adults. By providing free access to technological tools, researchers will assess the benefits of social interactions through these tools by identifying the facilitators and barriers to older adults adopting these strategies. Technology-based social interactions will then be adapted to their preferences.

The 2019 Illinois Quantum Computing Summer School (IQCSS)
Eric Chitambar (Urbana-Champaign), Paul Kwiat (Urbana-Champaign)
IQCSS will be a weeklong program this summer to provide basic training for faculty and students interested in pursuing research and entrepreneurship in quantum computing. Quantum computing is the next wave of tech innovation and the U of I System is uniquely positioned to lead it. The summer school program will offer an immersive experience for students, post-doctoral students and faculty to learn the basics and current applications for quantum computing.

Pathways for K-12 Computer Science Education in Illinois (CSEd Pathways)
Luc Paquette (Urbana-Champaign), Craig Zilles (Urbana-Champaign), Raya Hegeman-Davis (Urbana-Champaign)
Although some schools in Illinois are beginning to require that their students take some form of computer science coursework, there currently is no path for teachers to become certified as computer science instructors at the high school level. The Pathways program seeks to change that by building on the Illinois Secondary Teacher Education and Computer Science (I-STECS) initiative, which was selected as one of Urbana-Champaign’s 2019 Investment for Growth programs. I-STECS aims to develop the curriculum for an undergraduate program in computer science education that leads to certification as a secondary teacher of computer science, as well as an online or hybrid endorsement in computer science education for active secondary teachers.

Air Quality in the Home: From Smart Sensing to Action
Richard Sowers (Urbana-Champaign), Paul Francisco (Urbana-Champaign), Charles Catlett (University of Chicago)
This proposal aims to develop the technology for real-time monitoring of indoor air quality, building on a collaboration with the Indoor Climate Research & Training group at Urbana-Champaign’s Applied Research Institute and the Chicago Array of Things team. The project will produce a proof of concept, a data stream and prototype dashboard, an understanding of data analytics and a literature review, and a workshop discussing the findings.

Developing “Scholarly Gaming Environments” Via Digital Conservation of African Cultural Heritage
Teresa Barnes (Urbana-Champaign), Mauro Nobil (Urbana-Champaign), Laila Hussein Mustafa (Urbana-Champaign)
This group seeks to create innovative educational materials in gaming and/or virtual reality formats as vehicles for research, teaching and engagement, while conserving digital versions of vulnerable African sites and materials. Funding will provide for two workshops to gather interested faculty and industry partners who will discuss the direction of the project.

Building the Experiential Learning Infrastructure for the Food Innovation Center at the Discovery Partners Institute
Shelly Nickols-Richardson (Urbana-Champaign), Zachary Grant (Urbana-Champaign)
Last year, Urbana-Champaign funded the creation of a new undergraduate major in metropolitan food and environmental systems (MetroFESt) as one of its Investments for Growth initiatives, helping students learn how to feed a growing world population in sustainable and healthy ways. This proposal will develop experiential learning activities within the Food Innovation Center for MetroFESt, which is proposed as a unique education and training facility within the DPI. The grant will allow for development of 10 to 15 agreements for up to 30 internships and/or experiential learning activities for undergraduate students, two undergraduate courses and an extension educator position located at DPI to support experiential learning initiatives.

Activating the Center for Urban Resilience and Environmental Sustainability (CURES)
Donald Wuebbles (Urbana-Champaign), Amy Ando (Urbana-Champaign), Anne-Marie Hanson (Springfield), Elizabeth Kocs (Chicago), Timothy Lindsey (Urbana-Champaign), Thomas Theis (Chicago)
CURES aims to develop sustainable solutions for cities to improve community-wide health and prosperity. It will focus on strategies and policy tools to build resilience to climate change, promote human welfare and address the interdependence of urban water, food and energy. CURES will utilize DPI seed funding to establish core infrastructure, including its initial leadership team, website and communication capabilities. Funding also will be used to curate CURES’ analytical capacity, carry out an initial pilot study with MMC, and host meetings with potential partners, research stakeholders and funding sources.

Artificial Intelligence and Environment
Tanya Berger-Wolf (Chicago), Thomas Theis (Chicago), Jeffrey Brawn (Urbana-Champaign), Eric Schauber (Urbana-Champaign)
This project seeks to develop artificial intelligence approaches to address pressing environmental issues by bringing together researchers and stakeholders from industry, non-profit and government sectors to develop artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to address pressing environmental issues. The seed grant will fund two workshops to identify challenges, questions, problems and need gaps from the perspective of the community of environmental researchers, and then present AI approaches to those items.