For college student Benjamin Knutson, math is a powerful thing. So powerful, it might stop bullets.
For more than two years — ever since the January 2011 shooting at Millard South High School that killed Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar and wounded Principal Curtis Chase — the young mathematician has been working to devise equations to instruct a computer to recognize a hidden weapon.
Though a solution may be years away, the 20-year-old college junior has mobilized a team of University of Nebraska at Omaha professors to help his Systems for Public Safeguard endeavor.
He obtained a $2,500 undergraduate research grant to pursue his studies during summer break. He and UNO physics professor Renat Sabirianov co-wrote a scholarly paper about the project that has been submitted to an academic journal.
Knutson's work is part of a national trend toward involving more undergraduates in serious research — not just term papers and class projects, but creating knowledge, Sabirianov said.
“This is a scholarly project,” he said. “It eventually will come to reality, but I cannot say when the day will be right now.”
Knutson was a senior at Millard North when the shooting happened at Millard South. He had already outpaced his high school's advanced math curriculum and was taking college-level classes taught by Sabirianov.
Though he knew none of the people involved, the Millard South incident stirred something in him.
“He came to me that night and said 'I have all these feelings, and I don't know what to do with them,' ” recalled Knutson's mother, Pam, a certified public accountant. “I told him since he was good at music, math and science, maybe he could use those tools in some way. He thought about it, and he decided he wanted to create a weapons-detection system that schools would actually use.”
The trouble with today's detection systems — metal detectors, X-ray machines and body scanners used in courthouses and airports — is that they rely on humans to identify the images produced by the machines.
That raises concerns about privacy and personnel costs. Many people don't like security guards patting them down or looking at images of their bodies. And the cost of hiring personnel to run the machines prevents many schools from buying security equipment.
Knutson's idea is to develop a computer program that would recognize shapes detected by scanners. Eventually it could incorporate techniques to identify materials as well as shapes.
“We're designing this so it works in real time, so you can walk straight through (a scanner) without noticing it,” Knutson said. “You don't have to stand still, you're not being searched and you're not being viewed by anybody.''
Knutson, however, wants his project to extend beyond math and science. He's developing a companion public relations effort to remember those killed in public shootings and to prevent violence in the future. He favors a “crowd-sourcing” approach in hopes of encouraging other mathematicians and computer scientists to tackle the problem.
He has enlisted web designer Tom Fisher of Hatchbox Creative to create a website highlighting the project. Graduate teaching assistant Destini Burns serves as his communications trainer, helping him prepare talking points and presentations.
Sabirianov and Victor Winter, an associate professor of computer science, said both the project and Knutson are young, and it's too soon to tell whether Knutson will be able to solve the puzzle.
“The problem with shape recognition and this sort of thing is fundamental to computer science and technology as a whole,” Winter said. “He could very well get a Ph.D. in this kind of stuff and do it the rest of his life. From my point of view, I would encourage that.”
Knutson is a Goodrich scholar, a UNO program that provides full tuition scholarships based on students' academic abilities and financial need. About 70 students per year are chosen for the competitive program, which establishes a support network among its students by requiring them to take Goodrich classes and work with Goodrich professors during their first two years of college.
Knutson was a student in Goodrich professor Pamela Smith's beginning English composition class. She required Knutson to articulate his goals in language non-mathematicians could understand.
He ended up researching the history of public shootings for that class. He also reached out to victims' relatives, making contact with the families of Rachel Scott, a teen who was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado; Christina-Taylor Green, 9, the youngest victim of the shooting rampage that injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 in Tucson, Ariz.; and Beth Schou of Omaha, Kaspar's former daughter-in-law.
He even has named some of his math equations after them: Rachel's Rose, Christina's Rain and Kaspar's Spiral.
Schou was skeptical at first.
“Until he got the support of the team at UNO, I did think it was a pie-in-the-sky idea,” she said. “After he got the support, I was much more confident that it might amount to something.”
She said it's been discouraging that schools have not been able to install security systems and that public discussion turns to ideas like arming teachers.
“Something like this, you could get into a school without having to hire more support staff and more security — that's exciting and it's quite feasible,” Schou said.
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