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Alum designs FDA-authorized app to treat fibromyalgia symptoms

Nelson Mitchell developed his design mind as a graduate student at SF State 

Learning to design furniture at San Francisco State University can lead to more careers than one may expect. For Nelson Mitchell, his master’s degree was the pathway to creating an innovative mobile app to treat fibromyalgia. 

Mitchell, a user-experience designer, is head of design and co-founder of Swing Therapeutics. Earlier this year the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized its app, Stanza, to be marketed to treat symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects 10 million Americans. It is the first fibromyalgia digital therapeutic approved by the FDA. Available only by prescription, Stanza employs a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. It has proven effective in extensive randomized controlled trials and real-world studies, with 73% of patients demonstrating improvement in symptoms. 

Stanza provides patients with a customized schedule of treatment, incorporating practices such as mindfulness and self-reflection throughout their daily routine. “It’s the therapist in your pocket,” Mitchell said.  

Nelson Mitchell smiles while standing in front of a brick wall on a foggy day

Mitchell (M.A., ’10) entered San Francisco State as smartphones started to become a near necessity for daily life. Faculty and students already knew that enduring product design concepts would be key to success in the mobile software space. 

“I was designing chairs and lamps and stuff like that, but SF State’s program was really great at teaching me the design process and how to think like a designer — how to come up with a hypothesis, test, iterate and refine the idea,” Mitchell said. “I took that and applied it to software and interface design.” 

School of Design faculty such as Ricardo Gomes, Shirl Buss, Hsiao-Yun Chu and Nancy Noble gave Mitchell the tools and the freedom to explore his interests in depth. 

“I felt like I had a new kernel, a new framework,” he said. “SF State gave me the chance to build it — and really build it in a way that I understood it. It’s like the difference between owning a bike and having someone else fix it versus being able to take it apart and put it back together.” 

At his company, Mitchell is spreading the word about the Gator work ethic: “Nobody is going to work as hard for you as graduates from SF State,” he told his team. “These are people that we need to create opportunities for.” 

One of Swing Therapeutics’ first in-house software engineers, Mantasha Khan, joined the company after completing her Computer Science degree from SF State. Khan (B.S., ’21) has a passion for creating technology solutions for health. She notes that Lecturer Jose Ortiz-Costa’s “Introduction to Database Systems” course provided her with an invaluable foundation of skills. 

“I’ve been meaning to reach out to [Ortiz-Costa], just throw it out there, [to say that] you have helped me so much,’” said Khan, who attended SF State as an international student from India. “Everything you have taught has been helping me every single day in my work, so I’m very grateful.”  

Learn more about the SF State School of Design and Computer Science Department

In-person hackathon makes triumphant return to campus

SF Hacks was a nonstop weekend filled with ‘hacking,’ friendly competition, networking, karaoke and Bob Ross

What is a hackathon? The word might conjure an image of people with their heads down furiously clacking away at a computer in silence. But that is not what happened at this year’s student-run SF Hacks event — especially now that the annual hackathon is back in person.

After being virtual for the past few years, SF Hacks returned to San Francisco State University’s Annex 1 April 5 – 7 for the first time since 2019. There were more than 200 participants, with students coming from 33 different schools and six states.

During hackathons — sometimes also called codefests — participants design projects to solve various problems. The hard part: They only have 72 hours to work on the project, write the code and troubleshoot before presenting to judges. But the competition is just one part of SF Hacks.

“Most of the time you’re staying up because you have to get homework done. But this time we’re staying up [because this hackathon] is like a huge sleepover,” said SF Hacks Co-President Arianna Yuan, a Computer Science senior.

The multi-day event is really a community celebration packed with networking, games and activities like karaoke, a Bob Ross painting workshop and a K-Pop club event. Beginners are more than welcome.

“With online hackathons, there’s a lot less room for randomly meeting a teammate and going out to do painting. [You can’t] see a bug on someone’s screen and then run across the room to communicate that to someone else,” said SF Hacks Co-President Odera Nwosu, explaining the spirit that was lost on Zoom.

This year’s challenge theme was city life. Nwosu, a Computer Science sophomore, points out it’s a very San Francisco-driven theme. Projects could address transportation, food, housing and other topics affecting students. There were also several tracks like artificial intelligence and sustainability that were set by SF Hacks and various sponsors.

“Our tracks are essentially specializations that participants can choose to try to refine and push their projects,” said SF Hacks Vice President Marco Garcia, a Computer Science sophomore. While participants might get points or prizes for following the theme or tracks, it’s not essential. The organizers knew participants have a wide array of potential projects.

Some of the project submissions that caused a stir tackled city litter and emergency response. Clean ASF gamified the act of picking up litter — a task that can often feel futile in a city like San Francisco — to encourage more folks to engage. Taking a different approach, CleanMars used a 3D-printed robot that could discover, collect and classify trash. Another popular project was SOS Hub, an AI-powered emergency response platform that can analyzed user-submitted photographs of a scene to identify and recommend the appropriate first responders. Some of the winning projects — spread across different categories — are publicly shared in a Devpost gallery.

The student organizers recruited more than 30 sponsors ranging from SF State’s colleges, departments and student organizations to industry giants like OpenAI, CISCO and Kaiser Permanente. Many sponsors participated in the live event.

“Hackers will make some awesome, insightful and creative projects. It’s a great way for [students] to show off what they can do to people who might be noticing,” said SF Hacks Marketing Director Ria Thakker, Computer Science sophomore.

The event was organized by over 20 SF State students. Nwosu says they received a lot of support from alumni, emphasizing that community is at the core of SF Hacks. While some of this year’s student organizers have attended hackathons, many were new to hackathons or it was their first time with SF Hacks.

“I’ve met incredible people and I love the team,” said Yuan, one of the few long-term SF Hack organizers. She originally joined after participating in hackathons in high school. Now she’s about to graduate college and gets sentimental thinking about leaving SF Hacks. “It is kind of sad to see this little baby go, but I trust that it’s in good hands. It’s just very lovely to have an incredible team that you can work with and trust and get stuff done. It’s just a gigantic project.”

Learn more about SF Hacks and SF State’s Computer Science Department.

SF State program prepares participants to view AI through an ethical lens

The Ethical AI certificate provides a foundation in the computer science, philosophy and business of ethical AI

U.S. President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order on managing the risks of artificial intelligence (AI), and the European Union is discussing AI laws abroad. While the news has been flooded with stories of self-driving cars, Chat GPT and how AI will affect jobs, a group of San Francisco State University faculty has been concerned by the ethical implications of AI for years.

That’s why they developed San Francisco State’s Graduate Certificate in Ethical Artificial Intelligence in 2019. The program was created by Computer Science Professor Dragutin Petkovic, Lam Family College of Business Professor Denise Kleinrichert, and Philosophy Professor Carlos Montemayor. They’ve seen the impact of this program on students and think this type of education is as important as ever. Any SF State graduate student and anyone with a bachelor’s degree (non-matriculated post-baccalaureates) can apply for the program.

“People don’t understand the issues of AI and its impact to society. It can create problems because now it’s everywhere,” Petkovic explained, noting that the potential problems are not just limited to a single industry. “In my opinion, [ethical AI education is the] most consequential project I’ve been working on by far.”

AI technologies continue to grow and impact everything from health care, defense, media, education and more. Despite advances, AI systems can still produce errors, demonstrate biases and lack transparency in decision making. The faculty knew that everyone — AI users, educators, politicians, lawyers, auditors and others — would need access to ethical AI education to make informed decisions.

“The professors are not talking to you as though you’re already an expert in the subdomains,” said Rafael Ayala (M.A., ’22), who works at the software corporation Autodesk in third-party risk management. “They are making sure we have access to broad scopes of knowledge and bringing people together.”

Ayala came to SF State with a background in philosophy and education. As a first-generation student and the first in his family to go to college, it wasn’t easy for him to tell his family he was leaving his paid job to pursue a master’s degree in Philosophy. Though he partly chose SF State because of the Ethical AI program — he could see its growing prominence in everyday life — he had no aspirations for a career in tech.

“The program did a great job of helping me build up that technical prowess and having the vocabulary I needed,” he explained, crediting the certificate for building his confidence to work at Autodesk. “I am working in tech, and … artificial intelligence is huge and we need to constantly evaluate [it].”

As part of Adobe’s legal team, attorney Ted McCullough became more interested in AI two years ago. He enrolled in the certificate program because he wanted to know about the ethical dimensions of the technology, but also had technical computer science questions. He was recently promoted to a director role on the legal team at Adobe, in part due to the AI expertise he gained from the certificate program.

“[SF State’s program] seemed like a really good fit because it had everything that I was looking for in terms of a computer science curriculum, a philosophy curriculum and a business curriculum all with a practical bent,” he said.

Coming in with an academic background in computer science and philosophy, McCullough feels there’s often a curriculum gap between the math and science of AI and the policy issues, but that this certificate helps begin filling that gap.

The certificate was designed to be accessible for any non-expert, Petkovic said. He hopes more students, working professionals, and employers take advantage of the University program. Though the certificate requires a bachelor’s degree for enrollment, he encourages undergraduates and anyone else interested to reach out to the him and his faculty colleagues about possible options.

“We need to educate people, but then there has to be some level of regulation … ,” Petkovic said, emphasizing why everyone from computer scientists to government officials should receive a holistic education on AI. “We are one part of the puzzle.”

Learn more about the Graduate Certificate in Ethical Artificial Intelligence.

$2 million grant supports expansion of SF State Computer Science for All program

Collaborating with other CSUs, the University will help bring more high school computer science education to Northern California

In 2016, President Barack Obama made a national call for more hands-on computer science and math classes to prepare all students for the evolving workforce. San Francisco State University Computer Science faculty took the call to heart and started the University’s Computer Science for All (CSforAll) program in partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). A new $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation will expand the successful program to other California State University (CSU) campuses to bring computer science to more Northern California high schools (CS4NorthCal).

San Francisco State plans to establish a consortium with San Jose State University, Sonoma State University and Sacramento State University. The four CSUs will join forces with WestEd and more than 20 school districts with a goal of preparing and supporting 200 teachers and more than 25,000 high school students.

“Females and people from traditionally underrepresented groups are not well represented in the computing industry. The same pattern actually plays out in high school classrooms,” said Director of SF State’s CSforAll Hao Yue, a professor and associate chair of Computer Science. He explained that part of the issue is the lack of teachers who are specifically trained to provide rigorous computer science instruction and create an inclusive learning environment that can engage all students, particularly female students and students from underrepresented groups.

As part of the original CSforAll initiative, SF State was the first CSU to offer a computer science supplementary authorization. This allowed K – 12 SFUSD teachers to take a handful of classes and earn computer science teaching credentials. Many local participants were from high-need schools and were the first authorized computer science teachers at their schools, Yue said. Since 2018, the program has trained more than 100 K – 12 teachers, 61% female and 36% from underrepresented groups.

“The best way we can support teachers in a lot of areas in Northern California — from urban, suburban and even rural areas — is by supporting the CSU campuses to replicate and scale our successful program to their regions,” Yue said.

Roy King, a teacher at Raoul Wallenberg High School in San Francisco, participated in CSforAll a few years ago. He’s been a teacher for more than 20 years and has been at this school for five. CSforAll helped him shift from teaching math to computer science.

“Demystifying the code behind what the students are doing, like the technologies in their everyday life, and just to be able to open it up — I think that can give kids a lot of confidence,” he said. He’s also noticed that computer science is helping students get more interested in math.

“As a Black man, I’m trying to get as many underrepresented people into the tech world as possible. So women, our special education students, people of color … ,” he said. “I think [CSforAll] was just fantastic. I recommend it to everybody. It would have taken me on my own five times as long to learn all the material I learned in the program.”

Over the years, King has started to see a shift, with more girls starting to take high school’s computer science classes. More girls and students of color are sharing with him that they can see themselves in this space as a career.

In addition to the supplementary authorization, SF State’s CSforAll provides teachers with a professional teaching community. The program also trains SF State Computer Science undergraduates to be in-class teaching assistants. Working with University students, King gleaned a lot of insight about the tech industry and college that he could relay back to his students. 

Kami Sawekchim (B.S., ’22), a former CSforAll teaching assistant, taught at a high school in the Potrero district in a class that combined computer science and art. The school had a high population of students with learning disabilities.

“I think I was able to help give some inspiration into [why] computer science may be a really good career choice. A lot of these kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coming from a similar background, I really related to them,” she said. She recalls that students were very curious about the job market, salaries, college applications, an internship she had at Genentech and more.

“I would say that I maybe don’t fit into the standard perspective of what a computer scientist is,” she said. “But that’s the point of why I chose computer science. I want to change the image of what people think [computer science] is.” Thanks to CSforAll, Sawekchim managed to land a full-time Genentech job and has already volunteered to tutor a local high school student.

Yue hopes that the new CS4NorthCal will continue this trend of expanding inclusive computer science learning environments. Addressing the lack of qualified teachers, he hopes the effects will trickle down to fixing the workforce pipeline problem by getting more underrepresented populations and women into the workforce.