July 11, 2017 — On a hot and breezy June day in Austin, parents, friends, brothers and sisters navigated through main campus at The University of Texas at Austin and helped carry luggage for the new arrivals to their dorm rooms. Thirty-four high school students from mostly low-income Title I schools in Central Texas, some from as far away as Houston, said good-bye to their families.
The students came for a different kind of summer camp, where for one week they became part of a science team that used computer programming and internet-connected technologies to solve a real-world problem. They had high hopes to walk away with experiences that would help them become future scientists and engineers.
From June 11 to 16, 2017, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) hosted Code @TACC Robotics, a week-long summer camp funded by the Summer STEM Funders Organization under the supervision of the KDK Harmon Foundation. The 34 students received instruction from five staff scientists at TACC and two guest high school teachers from Dallas and Del Valle, as well as round-the-clock supervision from five undergraduate proctors. Leading the camp was Joonyee Chuah, Outreach Coordinator at the TACC.
“The goal of the camp is to provide these students with their first experiences with programming, to jumpstart them and get them further ahead to things that are current in the computing world,” Chuah said.
The students divided themselves into teams, each with specific roles of principal investigator, validation engineer, software developer, and roboticist. They assembled a robotic car from a kit and learned how to program the software that controls it. The robotic cars had sensors that measured the distance to objects in front, and they could be programmed to respond to that information by stopping or turning or even relaying that information to another car near it. Teams were assigned a final project based on a real-world problem, such as what action to take when cars arrive together at a four-way stop.
The Code @TACC Robotics camp went a step further than the typical introductory Lego-based robotics program by using maker-based electronics that connected to the cloud using the Particle platform. The robots assembled for the camp were three-wheeled cars that communicated via the internet and could relay events and interact with services such as Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook.
“The platform allows these robots to do a lot of communication with each other that facilitates projects that you wouldn’t normally be able to do in a standard high school classroom using off-the-shelf toy robotics,” Chuah said. The robotic cars presented a simplified version of the cutting-edge autonomous vehicles being developed today by leading companies such as Google.
Industry outreach was an important part of the camp, and the students toured the offices of IBM in Austin, where they participated in student activities that explored the IBM Watson supercomputer and robotics connected to it. The students also visited engineering departments and computer science departments at UT Austin, as well as TACC’s world-renowned Visualization Laboratory. “They get a full experience of both college as well as future industry,” Chuah said. “It’s important for students to understand that there are economic and intellectual opportunities out there.”
Source: Jorge Salazar, TACC