At any time, you might find Assistant Professor Joe LaViola playing video games, or zipping around the UCF campus on his GoPed. A graduate of Brown University, he received a Master's and Ph.D. in computer science, with the latter coming in 2005. His instructors said he didn't have enough math to do graduate work. With that gauntlet thrown, LaViola answered by also getting a Master's in Applied Math. “The best way to get a guy to do something is to tell him he can't,” says LaViola.
It seems that LaViola was destined to bounce between Rhode Island and Florida. He was born in Rhode Island and his family moved to Florida when he was six. He returned to Rhode Island (Brown University) for his education. LaViola also conducted a one-year post-doctoral project at Brown. He remains adjunct faculty at Brown. After ten years in Rhode Island, he once again came to Florida to his position as Assistant Professor in Computer Science at UCF, which began in 2007.
Why UCF? He felt the faculty here were very collegial. “I thought there were good opportunities to collaborate with professors here. My family is here in Florida, so that worked out well,” says LaViola.
“The name of my lab explains my research,” he offers. LaViola's computer lab, entitled Interactive Systems and User Experience, enables students to conduct research on highly interactive computer systems and their applications. He adds, ”It's about understanding how people use computers, their overall experiences with them, and how to improve them.”
Education and entertainment are the two main thrusts; specifically, education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). His work is also bringing new techniques to the video game domain. Why? “Mainly, because of virtual reality and the fact that increasingly interesting peripherals are becoming more a part of mainstream culture. I would like my work to make an impact ultimately with a large part of the population.”
Part of LaViola's research led to software enabling students to “sketch” their mathematics. For example, one can draw a car on a pad and assign an equation to the speed of the car. The software will then automate the motion of the car according to the assigned equation. This can be done with two cars and corresponding equations, which enables students to compare the equations and their respective impacts. LaViola has cofounded a company to commercialize the software from his research. It is currently used in ten states as a part of the beta program.
Despite beginning his UCF career only in 2007, he has already garnered over $2Million in research grants. In addition, he mentors one post-doctoral associate, two research assistants, eight-and-a-half Ph.D. candidates (“I split duty on one of them”), two masters students, and four undergraduates. LaViola wrote a book on 3D user interfaces while he was working on his Ph.D. “That book took me five years to complete,” he adds. In addition, LaViola has one patent pending.
The award that makes him most proud is the National Science Foundation Career award. “I'm most proud of it - it puts me on the map of people who have achieved certain results.”
In addition to his other activities, LaViola works in the EXCEL program. EXCEL is UCF's innovative program to boost the success rate of students in STEM disciplines. In EXCEL, he teaches Applications in Calculus I & II. Specifically, he gives lectures on topics that demonstrate how calculus may be applied in the real world. “I show some animations that were solved with calculus. In calculus II, I show parametric equations, which can be used in art – mathematically based artwork. They are also required for gesture recognition.”
Why EXCEL? “I build tools for people to help learn math and physics, so here was a chance to apply what I'm interested in and to help people at the same time,” says LaViola. He has been teaching in the EXCEL program for over two years and shows no sign of letting up.
“Students seem to really like the EXCEL program. Looking at the numbers, we are getting much better retention rates in the STEM disciplines, with the EXCEL program, than without it. Student interest (and applications) seems very high. It's becoming competitive to get in. I think that's an indicator of the program's success.”