Megan Nickels, Pamela Wisniewski and Tim Hawthorne were recognized for their highly successful research and creative activity that has led to a national impact.

Reach for the Stars Award Recipients Use Technology to Change Lives

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

Three faculty members who use the power of technology to make the human experience better were recognized today with Reach for the Stars awards during this year’s UCF Founders’ Day Honors Convocation.

The award recognizes early-career professionals with highly successful research and creative activity with a national impact.

This year’s recipients have more than $8 million in sponsored research funding combined from a variety of organizations including NASA, the National Science Foundation and private foundations. But the striking part of their success cannot be measured in terms of dollars alone. The reason they were selected is because of the impact of their work.

  • Megan Nickels uses robotics and immersive virtual reality to develop children’s complex mathematical thinking and to deliver education to critically ill children so they don’t fall behind in school during extended hospital stays.
  • Pamela Wisniewski researches how people use technology to make meaningful connections with one another, as well as ways to mitigate the dangers encountered online, such as sexual predators. She is working to determine the best methods to protect online users, especially teenagers, against such threats.
  • Tim Hawthorne involves everyday citizens in data collection and geographic information systems to deliver insightful information that planners and leaders can use to enhance and protect their communities and their natural resources.
Blonde woman wearing black dress and white pearl necklace leans on stair railing
Megan Nickels (Photo by Nick Leyva ’15)

Megan Nickels

College of Community Innovation and Education
College of Medicine
Assistant Professor of STEM Education
PhD in Mathematics Education

Nickels developed a passion for helping chronically ill children when she volunteered to work with them at a local hospital while she was earning her doctorate in her home state of Illinois. She realized that despite her years of teaching in elementary schools and her studies in college, there was a big need to help this often-forgotten population.

Her experience fueled her passion and eventually led to the launch of UCF PedsAcademy in Orlando. In partnership with Nemours Children’s Hospital, the academy is the world’s first pediatric-school program designed to provide children in hospitals with extraordinary, research-backed educational opportunities specific to their respective disease or condition. The program reflects the culmination of Nickels’ body of research and serves as a vehicle to further examine the nexus of education and medicine.

“I set out to research ways that I could better children’s immediate situations and their future prospects,” Nickels says. “Results from my research so far show significant gains in mathematical content knowledge and motivation to persevere in rigorous mathematical tasks.”

Other funded research has her working with UCF’s planetary science group and the Orlando Science Center to create mobile mathematics and science exhibits and associated curriculum for each of the three Orlando area children’s hospitals.

“Put very simply,” Nickels says, “I hope that my legacy is that I made someone’s life better.”

Woman wearing dark business jacket and maroon shirt leans against wall
Pamela Wisniewski (Photo by Nick Leyva ’15)

Pamela Wisniewski

College of Engineering and Computer Science
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
PhD in Computing and Information Systems
Master’s Degree in Decision and Information Sciences

As a human-computer interaction researcher, Wisniewski studies the interplay between technology and society. Internet-enabled technologies and social media have so much power, she says.

“I want to find ways to leverage technology to truly make a positive impact on the world — not by removing humans from the equation, but by bolstering our personal strengths, helping us connect with one another, and being more empathetic towards our loved ones and strangers,” Wisniewski says. “Technology has the power to divide, but it also has the power to connect us in ways never before possible.”

The Gainesville native has received $2.5 million in external-grant funding to support her research in privacy and online safety, including two prestigious early career awards. Wisniewski is the first computer scientist to become a William T. Grant Scholar and join in the foundation’s mission of reducing inequality in youth outcomes. She is examining the risk and protective factors that contribute to online sexual-risk experiences of at-risk youth, particularly girls ages 12-15 who are of color, socio-economically disadvantaged, and foster youth. The goal is to design socio-technical interventions that can help youth be more resilient to sexual predator risks.

She also recently received an NSF CAREER grant to work closely with teens to co-design online safety interventions that can help them effectively manage online risks.

“The ultimate goal of both of these projects is to leverage resilience-based approaches that protect, teach and empower our youth to use the internet in beneficial ways,” she says.

Man wearing glasses and gray suit with yellow tie stands in front of brick flower bed
Tim Hawthorne (Photo by Austin Warren)

Tim Hawthorne

College of Sciences
Assistant Professor of Geographic Information Systems
PhD in Geography

Hawthorne combines his academic expertise about geography and geographic information systems (the technology on cell phones that helps you find things when you get lost) to bring information together in a new way. By using GIS and other technologies to collect and assess information, patterns not easily seen become apparent and can be used to make decisions that impact communities.

Including the community is what sets Hawthorne’s work apart. In 2015, Hawthorne established a now internationally recognized and award-winning research organization called Citizen Science GIS.

The group of UCF and international collaborators brings together undergraduate and graduate students, everyday folks and scientists with tech including GIS and drones to collect data for a variety of projects. For example, the group spent 20 days in Belize mapping nearly 150 of its islands, which are home to one of the largest reef systems in the world. The goal was to provide information to Belize that the country could use to protect and conserve one of the world’s most vulnerable island environments. The organization’s success led to NSF funding and this summer Hawthorne’s team is again offering NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program based at UCF and with fieldwork in Belize.

Hawthorne understands that getting people passionate about science starts early, so he’s also embarked on another project —in support of his role as Florida State Geography Steward with National Geographic. As steward he works with National Geographic staff, government staff, teachers, parents, business leaders and other stakeholders to enhance K-12 geography education and research in Florida and the United States.

Hawthorne will soon be rolling out the nation’s first GeoBus. The 40-foot bus will include a mobile citizen science laboratory focused on maps, apps and drones that will visit K-12 schools in Florida.

“In today’s challenging times, science is more important than ever,” Hawthorne says. “Yet, members of the general public are rightfully skeptical that science is too often disconnected from society. As scientists, we have a responsibility to make our work more accessible and understandable to society. Our work demonstrates the possibilities of what can happen when a large, diverse team of people work together focused on public scholarship that is inclusive of and responsive to community members.”

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