A little science went a long way on Ebeye Aug. 2, as high school students from Ebeye and Kwajalein showcased their technological teamwork during the grand finale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lincoln Laboratory Beaver Works Summer Institute: Autonomous RACECAR Grand Prix.
The evening event at the Ebeye Jabro Sports Complex was the culmination of a multi-week, intensive summer institute. Five teams of Ebeye and Kwajalein high school students demonstrated their new array of skills. Utilizing practical technical knowledge in a team-based environment, they had learned to build, program and drive small remote-controlled vehicles on a pint-sized challenge course.
As they worked, students had built technological know-how and confidence as they refined and applied their computer coding skills to teach their vehicles to respond to specific directives: to move, avoid obstacles, navigate using a visual sensor, detect objects and travel through different environments.
The students were joined by MIT LL program instructors Dr. Sarah Willis, Jon Schoenenberger, Dr. Karyn Lundberg, Dr. Tommy Sebastian and Ranny Ranis and teachers, parents, leadership from the Marshall Islands, U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. Before the night was through, some students would win bragging rights and program honors.
With Ranis translating her remarks into Marshallese, Willis explained the program outcomes and course technology: The cars follow directives with the help of sensors, including color and depth cameras and a laser radar that operate on top of the remote-control car base.
During the program, all of the students grew more confident in their digital literacy skills and acquired practical technical knowledge that will enrich any computer or science-based project they undertake.
RACECAR is easily adapted to different grade levels and was an ideal program for Kwajalein, said Willis. It provided numerous opportunities for students to develop team communication and prototyping skills while exploring autonomous machine-learning. Plus, it’s just generally fun driving mini cars around.
The MIT LL BWSI RACECAR 2021 also achieved numerous milestones. It is the first BWSI outreach initiative to include students from Kwajalein and Ebeye in a live, synchronous learning environment.
What was the best part about participating in the program?
“Teamwork,” responded Aiti Drebon, a rising senior at Kwajalein Atoll High School on Guegeegue. “It was so fun.”
Teamwork came in handy before and during the event, as several teams discovered their cars’ sensors responded differently to daylight on the racetrack. BWSI foregrounds the testing process as part of its challenge, and soon teammates were scrambling to reprogram their cars.
Looking on as students quickly reprogrammed their cars, Sebastian discussed the issue: “The students knew if they need to adjust some things in their code, they should have a plan to do that.”
As he spoke, one team, testing its settings, knocked several plastic road markers off the course.
“I think some teams took that to heart,” he said.
The teammates exhibited something more during their trials: camaraderie. They cheered on their teammates’ weeks of hard work, even as some cars went off-course. By the end of the course trials, all traveled refined routes and responded more accurately to their programmers. Where results were on-target, advisors awarded superlative honors for the top coding and leadership skills that got them there.
Who knew that a mini racetrack would be the ideal place to perform science?
Now, as the program advisors look to BWSI 2022, Sebastian is proud of the skills the students have learned in their respective teams.
“We’ve helped them find opportunities to share the load and responsibility,” Sebastian said.
Now in its sixth program year, MIT LL BWSI RACECAR 2021 is the second iteration of BWSI on USAG-KA. It follows closely on the heels of the 2020 software-focused pilot program, in which students coded and operated a game-based environment using artificial intelligence.
The overwhelming success of the pilot forged a collaboration between MIT LL and U.S. Army Child and Youth Services, Installation Management Command-Pacific Region and secured support for this year’s endeavor.
Recent additional community enrichment activities include community astronomy nights on Kwajalein which included a guest speaker and celestial viewing through a high-resolution telescope.