Young Students \'Reach for Tomorrow\' With Science, Engineering Demos
San Diego, Calif., July 25, 2011— High school senior Harun Hussein of Kansas City, Kan., spent part of the morning last Thursday crawling around the floor of the lobby at UC San Diego’s California Insitute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), trying to figure out how to get a Roomba-like robot to make a sharp left.
Using colored post-it notes, Hussein and about 70 middle and high school students in the nationwide Reach for Tomorrow (RFT) program attempted to ‘program’ color-sensitive robots to navigate circuits around a maze designed by researchers at UCSD’s Machine Perception (MP) Laboratory. Although Hussein says he intends to follow in his father’s footsteps and eventually become an auto mechanic, computer programming isn’t so far removed from his career goal when one considers that most modern automobiles are heavily computerized.
“The idea here is to teach these students that programming a robot or computer is simply a matter of giving it a set of instructions,” says MP Lab Co-Director Javier Movellan. “This is something that’s not magical to do. Although we’re using color to program these robots, at a higher level a programmer would type commands into a computer. But it’s essentially the same thing.”
Drawing connections between science, technology and “the real world” is the goal of RFT, a non-profit organization that motivates teens and pre-teens in grades 6 through 10 in selected public and charter schools to perform to their highest potential. RFT\'s strategy stems from the notion that pre-high school years are critical years in a young person\'s life and frequently determine their subsequent academic and career opportunities.
Since its inception in 1993, RFT has partnered with numerous foundations, corporations, universities and other institutions to sponsor its Summer Program, a week-long excursion that exposes students to state-of-the-art technology and scientific innovation at no cost to the student. The RFT program at UCSD is sponsored by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation\'s Science of Learning Centers. The MP Lab began participating in the RFT Summer Program curriculum about a decade ago at the invitation of TDLC Director Gary Cottrell.
Verneta White, project coordinator for the University of Kansas Academic Programs for Excellence Gear Up program, was one of the chaperones for this year’s RFT excursion to San Diego. She says that some of the students from her program spent the past academic year using an online tutoring component provided by RFT, which focuses on the STEM academic disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As a reward for completing the tutoring program and showing academic progress, RFT offered participating students the chance to visit UCSD and the larger San Diego community
“Reach for Tomorrow is a way for these students to gain more awareness and hands-on experiences with the STEM fields,” says White. “It also gives them the hands-on experience that traditional high schools do not offer to them and gets them working with professionals that are experts in the field, which is always a great opportunity.”
One of those professionals is Marian Bartlett, an associate research professor at UCSD’s Institute for Neural Computation and co-director of the MP Lab. In addition to leading the students in the robot maze competition, Bartlett and her colleagues shared with this year’s RFT students their research into computer vision and automatic facial expression recognition. They also demonstrated the famed Einstein Robot’s ability to ‘read’ human facial expressions and even reciprocate.
Bartlett says that she and colleagues spend a lot of time brainstorming each year about how to explain their research to the students in a way they will understand while still ensuring “they learn something really meaningful about what we are doing or what we are trying to do and what our goals are.”
“Our lab is involved in this kind of outreach activity because we think its important to give back to the community and also to bring new people into science -- people who could find it very interesting, who could contribute a lot but who might not have considered it,” she explains. “This group is an important group to draw in and so we felt that this was something we could and should do. It’s a challenge every year and it’s very rewarding."
In addition to visiting Calit2’s facility at Atkinson Hall, the RFT students participated in hands-on demos held in laboratories at the UCSD Departments of Physics and Neuroscience, took part in aviation training and ground school with the American Flyers program and did firefighter training with the U.S. Naval Academy. But even aspiring engineers and scientists need to blow off some steam, so the schedule also included a San Diego Padres baseball game, snorkeling, rock climbing and a round of pick-up basketball.