WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — A middling student in high school, Gregory C. Ditzler believes “the light” went on for him at Pennsylvania College of Technology. Today, he helps “flip the switch” for the next generation of students, an effort recognized by the National Science Foundation.
The NSF recently honored Ditzler with a Faculty Early Career Development Award, the agency’s most prestigious grant to faculty in their first academic assignment. Ditzler — an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona — received $500,000 in funding for the next five years to support his academic and research endeavors in and out of the classroom.
“The award is about more than setting you up for five years of funding,” said Ditzler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology from Penn College in 2008. “It’s about how it sets you up for the next 10 or 15 years of your career and where your research leads.”
Machine learning is the focus of Ditzler’s research. He defines it as “the process of building mathematical models that can learn from data without being explicitly programmed, so the model will be able to make inferences when presented with new input.”
Examples of machine learning include a smartphone automatically displaying words as the user composes a text and an autonomous vehicle stopping when the car’s computer identifies a red stop sign.
“At the end of the day, the number of applications for machine learning is very, very large,” Ditzler said.
An assignment during his engineering internship at Qortek, an electronics manufacturer in Williamsport, started Ditzler down the “rabbit hole” of discovering machine learning. Reading and writing about machine learning algorithms piqued his interest in solving complex problems. He did that at Rowan University, where he earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. Ditzler’s mentor at the New Jersey school, professor Robi Polikar, specialized in machine learning.
“From there, it just kind of took off,” he said. “I started out thinking I was going to get my master’s and then go into industry. I got exposed to research and really liked that. I mentioned to my mentor that I wanted to become a professor, and he helped groom me to be able to do that.”
Ditzler served as an adjunct instructor at Rowan while pursuing his doctorate in electrical engineering at Drexel University. The University of Arizona hired Ditzler shortly after he completed his graduate work in 2015.
“I love being in the classroom and teaching,” he said. “I love working with students and mentoring them the same way that I was mentored.”
Ditzler’s mentor at Penn College was Richard J. Calvert, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology.
“Greg was curious and wanted to be an educated person,” Calvert recalled. “He was very interested in the theory and technology side of things, and he was able to solve difficult technical problems. I’m sure his students are impressed by him. He is not pompous or overbearing. He wants to help people, and that carries over to his teaching responsibilities.”
The Lebanon native chose Penn College after meeting Calvert during a campus visit and learning about the hands-on nature of the electronics and computer engineering technology program and possible career paths.
The college lived up to his expectations.
“I wasn’t known as a great high school student by any measure, but once I got to Penn College, it was like a light turned on and everything switched,” Ditzler said. “I was really into all the classes and enjoying all of my professors and the challenging problems in labs. The fundamental skills of breaking down problems and trying to solve them started at Penn College.”
He credits the Penn College faculty for pushing him to excel. The former “average” high school student became a mainstay on the Penn College dean’s list and graduated with a 3.82 grade point average.
Today, Ditzler models Calvert and another one of his favorite Penn College teachers — William C. West, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology — in his own classroom and lab at the University of Arizona.
“They were fantastic,” he said. “They made class exciting and challenging.”
The NSF award allows Ditzler to enhance his classes with additional research and collaborative learning opportunities. Advocated by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, collaborative learning replaces the traditional college lecture with active educational opportunities. Rather than passively listen to a lecture, students problem-solve in small groups.
Ditzler’s Machine Learning and Data Analytics Group — a mix of select undergraduate and graduate students — also is funded by the award. The group focuses on adversarial machine learning and its applications. False data introduced to an environment to trick an established computer model is an “adversary.” For example, adding a judiciously placed sticker to a stop sign can confuse an autonomous vehicle and lead it to incorrectly predict the sign’s message.
The group hopes to devise methods to shield computer models from adversaries and apply them to cybersecurity data.
Next summer, middle school students in the Tucson area will benefit from the award, as well. Ditzler is devising a workshop that will expose students to artificial intelligence through robots.
“We’re going to buy a whole bunch of robots and Chromebooks,” Ditzler said. “We’re targeting middle school because that’s the time when you start thinking about what you’re going to do for college. My goal is to introduce them to engineering and hopefully woo them over enough to go toward engineering and STEM.”
In other words, turn the light on long before college.
Penn College offers three baccalaureate degrees and two associate degrees in electronics, as well as a nanofabrication technology competency credential. For information about those programs and other majors from the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520 or visit www.pct.edu/et.