OSU computer software research recognized


CORVALLIS - Initiatives by engineers at Oregon State University to improve software and ultimately the performance of computers around the world has attracted the support of the Information Technology Research Program of the National Science Foundation.

Two different research programs in the Department of Computer Science at OSU each were chosen as participants in three-year, $450,000 grants. They were among a group of successful projects to be funded from more than 1,400 proposals.

In the announcement this month of these grants, President Clinton said the initiative will help strengthen America's leadership in a sector that has accounted for one-third of U.S. economic growth in recent years.

"High technology is generating jobs that pay 85 percent more than the average private sector wage," Clinton said. "I am pleased that the National Science Foundation is expanding its investment in long-term information technology research."

These highly competitive awards are a reflection of the quality of work being done in computer science and engineering at OSU, university officials said.

"Developing computer systems that work efficiently, accurately and don't break down is critical to our economy and position of world leadership in high technology," said Margaret Burnett, an associate professor of computer science. "Support such as this to help make our computer systems work much more effectively could ultimately have a profound impact on society, much as the Internet already has."

Two areas with significant room for improvement, they say, are "regression testing," or systems to detect mistakes in computer software programs after changes have been made to it; and "end user" software engineering, or ways in which users of software can more effectively interact with it and program or customize it without creating errors.

"Several software disasters in recent history have been traced to inadequate testing of programs," said Gregg Rothermel, an assistant professor of computer science and principal investigator on these projects. "That includes such things as phone company blackouts, medical equipment problems, things that have caused problems for businesses and even deaths."

A primary part of the problem, Rothermel said, is that it's extremely expensive and time consuming to check software for errors and malfunctions after you change it. OSU is trying to develop a new generation of regression testing techniques and make this process more efficient, productive and less costly.

Burnett's research team will be working on ways the computer can automatically interact with end users working with software such as spreadsheets to help them find "formula" errors that exist in their spreadsheets and to help the user avoid entering more formula errors later.

"Especially in some types of software such as spreadsheets, the end users know little about software engineering but may need to make changes in the spreadsheet," Burnett said. "We want to develop ways that a knowledge of software engineering can be imbedded right into the program, so the computer and user can interact more effectively, and the computer will help spot potential errors along the way."

The OSU scientists envision an approach in which the computer will actually remember changes that have been made and the processes that have been used, and combine that with its own knowledge of software engineering principles to help avoid mistakes or provide users an early warning about them. OSU researchers involved with these projects include Burnett; Rothermel; Curtis Cook, a professor of computer science; and several OSU graduate students. The projects are being done in collaboration with Sebastian Elbaum at the University of Nebraska and Alan Blackwell at Cambridge University.

Related work at OSU in recent years has already led to two patent applications that are pending, both of which describe technology that currently is available for licensing by private industry. The new grants will also provide research opportunities for a number of graduate and undergraduate computer science students at OSU, expanding on the university's commitment to provide more of its undergraduate students an opportunity for original scientific research.