New computer scientist at UH Hilo specializes in artificial intelligence

Travis Mandel came to UH Hilo to help design a new data science program. His long term goal is to have UH Hilo stand out on a national level.

By Anne Rivera.

Travis Mandel
Travis Mandel

Travis Mandel, assistant professor of computer science, arrived at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo last summer to work on the university’s role in the ‘Ike Wai Project, a federally funded UH System program to assist in understanding Hawai‘i water resources. The overall goal of the statewide program is to help policymakers make good decisions about long-term water sustainability for the islands.

One major component to the grant is the development of a strong data science program at UH Hilo, and this is Mandel’s current priority. Along with another new faculty hire, Grady Weyenberg, assistant professor of mathematics, Mandel is designing the new data science program including structure, curriculum and so forth. The team will start with a certificate program, expected to begin in fall 2018, as the first step to building a robust baccalaureate data science program.

Data science is a branch of science that deals with studying and analyzing sets of data through statistical measures and applying the process into a variety of fields of study. It is a versatile field because almost every branch of science collects loads of data—big data—and has processes for analyzing all of this information.

“We have designed this to be an interdisciplinary program which attracts not just computer science and math majors, but students interested in a wide variety of scientific disciplines,” says Mandel. “We plan to eventually grow out this program into a full fledged major.”

Originally from Oregon, Mandel comes to UH Hilo from the University of Washington in Seattle. He received his bachelor of science in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, and his master of science in computer science and engineering and his doctor of philosophy in computer science and engineering from UW.

Artificial intelligence

Mandel’s expertise is in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning—more specifically in how these techniques can be applied to difficult and important real world problems. He says he was interested in computers from a very early age and enjoyed playing computer games—he enjoyed them so much he wanted to learn how to make them himself. While earning his doctorate, he worked on developing new data-driven AI techniques and applying them to educational video games to be more engaging and effective.

From his website:

In terms of research, I am interested in the broad question of how autonomous agents should best interact with humans to help improve the lives of people across the world. Most of my research focuses on Reinforcement Learning (RL), a machine learning (ML) subfield of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which has enormous potential to help create systems that learn to near-optimally interact with humans. Although there are many interesting domains in this space (such as personalized healthcare), as a real-world RL testbed I have examined the domain of educational games, launching experiments to thousands of students with the goal of using RL to directly improve student engagement and learning outcomes.

“I’m excited to continue working on designing AI Systems that work effectively with humans in the loop to solve important real world problems,” he says about coming to UH Hilo.

In addition to his research and developing the data science program, Mandel currently teaches two courses at UH Hilo: an introductory course in computer science (CS 150) and a course on artificial intelligence (CS 440). In spring 2018 he’ll teach a data-driven video game design class (CS 494).

Mandel says his main goal has been to create new AI courses that better prepare students to solve modern challenges in the data age and to make courses more practical so students are given the tools to succeed.

“We will be able to offer a unique, relevant, and highly useful major within a student-focused small college atmosphere in a beautiful environment,” he says. “Essentially, attract those [students] interested in data science but provide all the benefits of a small liberal arts college setting.”

Data science

Data science is one of the most in-demand jobs, and with the development of a new program at UH Hilo, students are getting a jump start in the job market. The new program will train local students in the skills needed to tackle realistic challenges in the modern age of data.

“Few schools have strong programs in this area,” explains Mandel. “Those that do are large universities where hundreds of students are in each class and where professors typically are primarily focused on research, not on teaching. This new program gives UH Hilo the chance to stand out on a national level.”

Mandel values UH Hilo’s emphasis on quality teaching and research.

“This allows me to put time and effort into creating quality content, blazing new ground, and providing a lot of individualized help to students,” he says. “It also gives me the opportunity to expose students to what real data science research looks like.”

There is an overwhelming need for passionate experts willing and able to work on improving the quality of artificial intelligence and computer science education.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Mandel says. “I can’t wait to see what students come up with and how I can best help students realize how awesome it is to study data science here at UH Hilo.”


About the author of this story: Anne Rivera (senior, communication) is a public information intern in the Office of the Interim Chancellor.

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