The virtual STEM program's students and instructors spent a memorable month engaging in science and technology lessons and hands-on projects.
Students from the 2021 Beaver Works Summer Institute gathered for a virtual group photo.
Students from the 2021 Beaver Works Summer Institute gathered for a virtual group photo.

Building a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, designing a virtual grocery shopping assistant, and using machine learning to detect COVID-19 from the sound of a cough—these are just a few of the projects students worked on during the 2021 Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI). This annual four-week program for rising high school seniors offers hands-on, project-based learning experiences for students to learn about science, technology, and engineering.

“BWSI sparked a passion in me to use engineering to help those in need, and it gave me the confidence and foundation to continue to pursue engineering in college and possibly as a future career,” says BWSI student Daniel Wang, who designed the prosthetic hand for a student with a disability during the “Assistive Technology” course. “I would definitely recommend BWSI to anyone, beginner or advanced, who has an interest in using engineering for the good of others.”

The program was conducted virtually in 2021 but also included in-person programs at Lincoln Laboratory’s field sites in Huntsville, Alabama, and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. More than 350 students from nearly 30 states participated, and the live, webcast final event, which included demonstrations of students’ projects and competitions, drew in more than 8,000 viewers.

“The students have learned a lot, and demonstrated their new skills successfully,” says Sertac Karaman, an academic director of BWSI. “The programs that they are enrolled in are inspired by our courses and our research at MIT; they learn a lot in a short span of time. The subjects are very deep and exciting.”

BWSI started out in 2016 with just one course, and in the program’s sixth year, that selection has expanded to 13: Autonomous RACECAR Grand Prix, Autonomous Cognitive Assistant (Cog*Works), Autonomous Air Vehicle Racing, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles Challenge, Build a CubeSat, Unmanned Air System—Synthetic Aperture Radar, Data Science for Health and Medicine, Remote Sensing for Disaster Response, Serious Game Design and Development with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Assistive Technology, Embedded Security and Hardware Hacking, Cyber Security in Software Intensive Systems (CSIS), and Quantum Software.

One of the newest additions to BWSI was the CSIS course, which taught students the basics of hacking and web security while emphasizing ethics and allowing them to perform hands-on security assessments of web services. Many of the students had never used a terminal prior to the course, but by the end of the month, they had scanned through services hosted in a virtual private cloud on Amazon Web Services and demonstrated their hacking abilities in a capture-the-flag exercise.

“The core takeaway of the course is the idea that all it takes fundamentally to do this kind of work is to have optimism and persistence to try a bunch of stuff and believe that you can read the documentation and figure out what you are supposed to do next,” says CSIS lead instructor Noah Luther.

Optimism and persistence were common themes throughout the overall BWSI program; teaching complex material virtually was no easy task, but in some cases the challenge yielded improvements to the courses. “Originally for the [Autonomous Air Vehicle Racing] course, we had planned to utilize a simulated drone environment, but technical issues midway through led us to send physical drones to the students. We completely rewrote the course content while teaching to reflect the hardware they received, which ultimately resulted in a better, more engaging course,” says lead instructor Kendrick Cancio.

Instructors from other courses related a similar experience: “Running the course remotely during the pandemic was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity to adapt the course material to stand alone and be more accessible to students who are not able to be present in person,” says Robert Seater, the lead instructor of Serious Game Design and Development with AI. “Ultimately, adapting the course for the pandemic setting will help us develop online materials that can serve a much wider student population.”

The students praised BWSI’s handling of the virtual format. Zhenbin Lin was a student of the Medlytics course in which students learned about the intersection between data science and medicine. By using machine learning algorithms and data science principles, they built prognostic models that detected and diagnosed diseases; for the team's capstone project, they built a neural network that used cough audio to classify a COVID-19 positive or negative case with 98.5% accuracy. Of his BWSI experience, Zhenbin says, “From the daily speaker seminars to our individual courses, this summer was one of the most intellectually stimulating summers in my life. Even though the program was virtual, I still felt the effort put into making the program engaging and stimulating, especially for a program that was free.”

One aspect of BWSI that students cited as being helpful during the pandemic and virtual learning was the sense of community. “There were moments where I felt like I needed to have a better grasp of the concepts but the class culture created by our instructors and teacher assistants was impressive despite the commonly known disconnected and online format. I could ask these instructors, TAs, or simply classmates for help when needed,” says Cog*Works student Tobechi Onwuka.

Dharshini Anand, who took the same course as Onwuka, adds, “I met a lot of amazing, like-minded people from all over the country—even though we were only meeting virtually, I still made lasting connections with many people. The daily lunch seminars were quite insightful, and meeting speakers from a multitude of fields opened my eyes to the range of possibilities I have for my future career."

Some students liked their BWSI courses so much that they decided to bring what they learned back to their own communities. During BWSI, student Grace Zheng designed a stool that helped a person with a disability reach the upper shelves in the kitchen; this experience inspired Zheng to plan on establishing an after-school program and online community, based on BWSI’s Assistive Technology course, for her local high school and surrounding schools.

“If we don’t know the answers, then we can all seek help from instructors or people from other schools. I think it would be a more encouraging environment to see ‘Wow, these people are also creating these projects, and these projects could actually be accomplishable,’” Zheng says. “If teams could make just one piece of assistive technology to change one person’s life, then that’s already a really big change. We all live in our own lives a little bit, so it’s good to venture out and see what you can do."

Though the main BWSI event has concluded its four weeks, students and instructors alike say the program was an experience they would remember for a long time. Medlytics lead instructor Christian Cardozo-Aviles says, “I have no doubt that these students are going to do things beyond anything I can imagine; they already did! It's a privilege to work with them. It's a job both fulfilling and humbling, and I would definitely do it again.”