Soltanaghai's Course, 'Smart Cities, Homes and Beyond,' Leads to a Smart Classroom

Introduced in the fall semester and taught by Illinois CS professor Elahe Soltanaghai, this class provides an opportunity for students to gain experience working with hardware related to wireless sensing and networking. Soon supported by a new, dedicated makerspace the course will expand to include more undergraduate students. 

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

Illinois Computer Science professor Elahe Soltanaghai came here in 2021 with a driven research purpose focused on wireless sensing and networking that leads to hands-on experimental work connected to Internet of Things (IoT) devices and cyber-physical systems. 

Illinois CS professor Elahe Soltanaghai headshot outside on campus with trees and a building in the background.
Elahe Soltanaghai

Many of the amazing undergraduate students she works with have a deep computer science background, she said, but they have not been as exposed to work with hardware.

The professor noted that it’s not like these same students don’t interact with smart devices or wireless technologies consistently. In fact, everyday life now surrounds them with it.

One solution she could offer, to help bridge this gap, was an outlet for better fundamental understanding of smart physical places and things.

Soltanaghai introduced that outlet this past fall semester as a course entitled, “Smart Cities, Homes, and Beyond.” Its first iteration included mostly graduate students – only one of the 36 students was an undergraduate – but will change soon to teach primarily undergraduate students.

“This is a newly designed class that explores the principles and practice of smart physical places and things. We offered significant hands-on experience through a semester-long project, paper critiques, lab sessions, and discussions on commercial landscapes of the topics covered in class,” Soltanaghai said. “Last semester, I decided to add some in-class ‘making’ activities in the form of lab sessions that students used to design and implement a smart security camera, demonstrate how it can be easily converted to spying cameras – for example, in hotel rooms – and then how to use smart wireless technologies in mobile phones to find these potentially hidden spy cameras.”

Many of last semester’s students were still hesitant and quite open at the beginning of the course about not having much familiarity with hardware.

By understanding the students’ early uncertainty, Soltanaghai said she took as compassionate of an approach as she could with their project progression.

Illinois CS students lined up in the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science Atrium viewing their other student projects and posters.

Illinois CS students in the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science Atrium presenting their student projects and posters.

The entirety of the course and her teaching methods were effective enough to contribute to Soltanaghai's recognition through the University of Illinois’ List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students.

This recognition, her overall approach to teaching, and the effectiveness of the subject matter came as no surprise to those that understand the professor’s ability.

“By connecting her exciting research with impactful teaching, Professor Soltanaghai does an amazing job of inspiring student interest in the cutting-edge technologies of wireless sensing and networking,” said Nancy M. Amato, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering and CS Department Head. “This course is a perfect example of how our outstanding faculty are expanding our curriculum to ensure it includes the many different and expanding facets of computing.”

By the end of the class, a few short months later, students presented and demoed their 13 different projects over the course of two days in the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science Atrium.

The best demo award went to a group of three students – Tiansu Chen, Rohan Nedungadi, and Chenyang Zhang – for a project entitled “Gaze Interaction for (Extended Reality) XR.” The development, according to their report, proposed “a gaze-based interaction solution in the XR space, aim(ed) at providing a more natural and straightforward interactive experience for XR users. We design a systematic pipeline with three main modules to map the user’s gaze to the XR system response.”


Tiansu Chen

MCS student and Gaze Interaction team member

“I heard about the course through some of my friends, who explained that the topic was interesting, and that the professor was nice. It provided an opportunity for me to learn something I wasn’t previously familiar with since it focused so much on hardware. As professor Soltanaghai says, a lot of CS students only have a little experience with hardware, and this course informed me really well about different sensors, actuators, and various techniques regarding ‘smart things.’”


Rohan Nedungadi

MCS student and Gaze Interaction team member

“Professor Soltanaghai pushed us to pick topics for our class project that interested us even if they were not part of our core strength. I was excited about smart eye wear but had no experience in using or building anything like it. Chenyang and Tiansu were in a similar boat, which is why we decided to explore this area. The entire process of building an idea from scratch, testing your hypothesis, and validating it made me feel like a true researcher. The entire experience was absolutely amazing.”


Chenyang Zhang

MCS student and Gaze Interaction team member 

“This IoT-related course introduced many concepts and challenges in hardware programming, and I think it's inspiring for me to understand how to think about hardware devices. It is amazing to find yourself able to incorporate your research interest (HCI) into a course that is from another domain (IoT) and create something cool. This is also the strength of Illinois CS, since we have so many research teams that provide so many opportunities to do interdisciplinary research.”

Other student groups presented on topics such as:

“We are supporting this effort by constructing a makerspace on the first floor of the Siebel Center, which will include the necessary space to properly conduct the lab sessions for this course. It will feature the advanced technology support needed to allow student creativity through this hands-on learning environment." 

Paris Smaragdis, fellow CS professor and Associate Head for Infrastructure and Operations

The department will continue to support the growth of this course as it expands its student involvement.

"Growing this course and focusing it on an undergraduate base is a worthy endeavor that professor Soltanaghai will surely conduct extremely well moving forward," Smaragdis said.

Soltanaghai will continue to format the course around two primary components: the end-to-end application drivers that result in technology that impacts the concepts of smart cities, industry, the metaverse, autonomous vehicles, wearable devices, etc.; and a deep dive into technologies like sensing and actuation, real-time systems, novel wireless technologies, location and context awareness, energy harvesting and more.

“Perhaps the most important part of teaching this topic for me is to provide a holistic view of what it takes to build smart things – the technical, engineering, and even business-related challenges and trade-offs that we have to deal with to make it work in practice. That is only possible by connecting multiple disciplines together,” Soltanaghai said. “In fact, we had a mix of students from Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, and even Civil Engineering in the course. Hopefully, we can extend it to include more disciplines in the future.

“At the end of the day, I hope the students found value in that like I did. I hope they left the course believing in their newfound capabilities within a field they were unfamiliar with going into the experience.”

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This story was published February 23, 2023.