Students + Campus

Students team up with Chancellor Block to create an app

They’ll use data to improve productivity and participation at meetings

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Chancellors app team
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Adam Garcia, Will Gu, Chancellor Gene Block and Tanuj Lalwani

Sadly, we’ve all been there. A meeting of 15 people is basically hijacked by a few who drone on and on, dominating the discussion, sucking the air out of the room and taking up more than their fair share of “word space.”

“I call it an unhealthy meeting,” said Chancellor Gene Block. And even if someone points out the misbehaviors to these individuals, they will deny doing it. “People really have no perception or self-realization that this is what they are doing.”

But what if they could see irrefutable data that verified this? Such a technological challenge has been accepted by three UCLA students who are going to try and turn the chancellor’s idea for a phone app to improve productivity by tracking participants’ input at meetings — or even class seminars — into reality by Aug. 31.

The challenge is part of the 3rd Annual Code for the Mission, which is asking students to use their skills to create an app that uses voice and speech recognition to analyze and improve the dynamics of group interactions. The applicants who were selected to develop this app for Team Up with the Chancellor are Will Gu, third-year undeclared major; Adam Garcia, fourth-year mechanical engineering; and Tanuj Lalwani, first-year computer science.

“When I found out about it, I thought it was a great opportunity,” Lalwani said. “I’m staying here for the summer, and I thought it sounded like a fun thing to do on the side, especially if it’s for the chancellor. This is a new area of computer science that I wanted to explore.”

“This just sounded cool — so I said, ‘Why not give it a shot?’” said Gu, who said he doesn’t feel at all intimidated by the task or the deadline. In his free time, Gu creates phone apps. “I’m used to tight deadlines and things that require you to move quickly.”

Garcia said he decided to apply to build his skillset. “This is a great opportunity to bridge the gap between what I know and what I don’t know.” While he doesn’t know the specifics of how to develop voice recognition software, he said, “I do have a broad sense of how to do it, so it will be really cool to see what’s possible.”

During the morning of May 19, the students had their first project meeting  with Block and staff members from the two sponsoring groups — the Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research (OIP-ISR) and the Office of Information Technology — as well as leaders of Startup UCLA and Blackstone LaunchPad.  The student app developers asked detailed questions to understand the chancellor’s vision for the app, their mission in developing the app, the scope of the project, and the technological challenges as well as issues concerning security and privacy that they will need to address.

Students will be working with Keith Gibson, assistant director for Startup UCLA and Blackstone LaunchPad, as the work proceeds. In addition, they will be matched with mentors who will assist them, said Emily Loughran, senior director of licensing in OIP-ISR.

“We’re very excited about the project,” she said.

Block said he saw how such an app might serve as a valuable research tool, for example, for social scientists studying the dynamics of implicit bias by analyzing whether a speaker’s gender or ethnicity could sway the level of responses to their ideas at meetings. Or faculty might be interested in using the app to track the level of engagement during class discussions.

This will be a lot of work, Block acknowledged as he and the students wound up an hour-long discussion. “This is just proof of concept,” he said. What may result is more of a prototype than a finished product, he said.

But the chancellor noted, “This will be fun. I’m really intrigued with this. … I really think if you can make this work, I bet we’ll be able to implement this. And I think we’ll get the faculty interested in testing this this fall.”

After the meeting, Garcia said of the task, “It is scary — I’m not going to lie to you. But it’s a nice, fun challenge. And that’s what engineers love — a challenge.”

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