Summer robotics program for high school students is first of its kind

MIT and Lincoln Laboratory collaborate on four-week engineering course

by Elizabeth Sheeley | Communications and Community Outreach Office

Crowds surrounding the racetrack cheered and applauded as the cars made their turns, avoided walls, and sped along the floor. The cars drove themselves along the track; they were autonomous cars programmed by high school seniors at a four-week intensive robotics course known as the Mini Grand Prix Challenge.

Robert Shin, head of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance and Tactical Systems Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory created the program that was held on MIT campus and featured MIT, Lincoln Laboratory, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory instructors. During the four weeks, 46 high school students (mostly rising seniors) from 12 different states learned about engineering from professors, industry engineers, and graduate students. Friday, 5 August, was the final day when the instructors, parents, siblings, and MIT community members watched the students compete in their final race.

"The goal of the Beaver Works Summer Institute is to offer a truly challenging learning experience to exceptional high school students with an interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]," said Shin, who also serves as the director of Beaver Works, a joint research and educational venture between Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT School of Engineering. "In keeping with the Beaver Works philosophy, the experience is project-based, allows hands-on experimentation, and has real-world relevance. Many MIT students have described their experience with Beaver Works capstone projects as transformational. They feel they can do anything afterwards, and they can. We wanted to provide a similar experience to exceptional high school students."

Bhavik Nagda (left) shows a parent his RACECAR while teammate William Patsios gets ready for the next race.


Beaver Works promotes undergraduate research and innovation. The primary mechanism for this goal is the capstone course, a two-semester design and build project. Beaver Works operates a center in Cambridge, Massachusetts that provides facilities for educational activities like collaborative brainstorming and prototype building. This summer's program was co-sponsored by MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics department, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, as well as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

For the Beaver Works Summer Institute, each week's instruction focused on a different aspect of autonomous vehicle control: motion control, vision-based detection systems, mapping, and autonomous navigation. The students were tested on how well they implemented each module's lessons to make the car follow a wall, turn, and follow commands that are indicated by colored lights and paper signs that the car can "see" while driving. During the final race, each team's car was given the chance to follow a shortcut that was indicated by a green marker instead of a red one. The students needed to write an algorithm to have the car recognize that the shortcut was open and make the decision to drive straight instead of turning to drive onto the longer course.

The students were taught the highlights of the undergraduate MIT robotics course as well as the four-week RACECAR (Rapid Autonomous Complex-Environment Competing Ackermann-steering Robot) Independent Activities Course taught at MIT. Michael Boulet, Owen Guldner and Ken Gregson from Lincoln Laboratory developed the RACECAR course with Professor Sertac Karaman and helped translate it to the summer program format. The MIT professors who instruct the undergraduates taught these materials to the highs schoolers, and the high school students also heard talks from working engineers and learned hands-on how to program these RACECARs and to work effectively as a team.

To participate in the Summer Institute, the students needed to be familiar with the programming language Python, the Robot Operating System software, and machine learning. Although they all needed this base knowledge, the students came in with different levels of experience with programming and robotics and had varied motivations to participate in the program.

Sertac Karaman, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT, who teaches the undergraduate robotics course, was one of the lead instructors of the program. The other lead instructor was Kenneth Gregson from the Advanced Capabilities and Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Joining them from MIT as the lead associate instructor was Ariel Anders, a doctorate student in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Lisa Kelley from the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance and Tactical Systems Division of Lincoln Laboratory served as assistant director of the Beaver Works Summer Program.

"There is an opportunity to teach a complex understanding of engineering and computer science to high school students, with the help of a number of innovative 21st-century tools like video lectures, online forums, automated instructive feedback systems, engineering simulation systems, and general-purpose robotics hardware," said Karaman. "These tools did not exist just 10 years ago, and with the right approach, they hold the potential to transform high school education, which has been the same for centuries."

The course did not just focus on engineering and programming; Jane Connor, a professor of rhetoric and communications in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department at MIT, taught the students how to work in teams and communicate effectively. Connor instructs MIT students in the introductory robotics course, teaching them how to be successful collaborators, to be self-aware, and to create teams on which everybody contributes to produce results.

"They're not just being taught that they should ask for help when they need it, but how to ask for help, how to speak up more, and how to work in a collaborative environment," said Connor. "We're giving them tools to use throughout their careers."

"I'm on my FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] robotics team at school and I have a lot of experience working with hardware, but almost none with software," said Aman Jha from Needham High School in Massachusetts. "We need to understand how the robot works to control it more and to be able to win our competitions." FIRST is a nonprofit organization that holds competitions and educational programs focused on youth involvement in robotics and STEM.

Bhavik Nagda from Newton South High School in Massachusetts knew he was interested in engineering but wanted exposure to different fields to help him decide what to study in college. He said the daily talks by Lincoln Laboratory staff, MIT professors, and industry engineers helped him understand what engineers in various disciplines do on a daily basis. The program was designed to teach, mentor, and foster promising high school students from across the country and to have those students spread interest to their classmates once they return. Shin aims to create a platform for the students to share their experiences and hopes that the high school teachers back in the students' hometowns will want to get involved as well. The next step for the Beaver Works Summer Institute is to make all of the materials available online for anyone who wants to develop a similar program and to build a global network of courses.

Shin's vision for the Institute is to build a world-class program that offers a diverse range of courses each year for high school students with a passion for engineering. "The Summer Institute addresses an educational gap," he said. "There’s a shortage of engineering-focused, high-level, challenging programs for advanced high school students."

David Song sets up his team’s car for the next race while family members and Navid Shahrestani, MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff member, watch.

The program culminated in a final challenge that tested all of the students' knowledge from the previous weeks. At the Walker Memorial on MIT's campus, a racetrack was set up that spanned the atrium of the building. The cars successfully maneuvered the track, and each one crossed the finish line.

"We had an incredibly passionate and dedicated team which made this program possible, said Shin. "We want to thank all our sponsors for their generous contributions, without them this program would not have been so successful. We are also all grateful for having this opportunity to make an impact on the next generation of highly talented engineers. This year’s Mini Grand Prix Challenge was a hugely successful pilot program. It validated our belief that top high school students not only can do college-level work but also will achieve remarkable results."

The Beaver Works Summer Institute was co-sponsored by MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory. The program was also supported by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Top Flight Technologies, MITRE, Bechtel, Scientific Systems, EO Vista, NVIDIA, Continental, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and dozens of individual sponsors.

Posted October 2016

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