By Tiffany Fox
San Diego, Calif., Aug. 5, 2014 — What have you accomplished over the past four weeks?
Created a robot for the blind or an app for the color-blind? Built a robot that can digitally map tunnels using LEDs and light sensors?
No? Then you’re probably not in the COSMOS program.
The California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS) is a 4-week residential summer program designed for talented and motivated high school students – students so motivated they’re not afraid to dream big, technologically speaking, to take on some of the world’s most difficult problems.
Hosted on four University of California campuses (Davis, Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz), COSMOS provides students the opportunity to work side-by-side with university faculty and researchers, covering topics that extend well beyond the typical high school curriculum. COSMOS at UC San Diego places a strong emphasis on technology and engineering in addition to other sciences, and is administered through the Jacobs School of Engineering.
Nineteen students from the “Computers in Everyday Life” cluster, which explores concepts in computer science and electrical engineering, introduced their ideas to other COSMOS students last week – some of whom asked probing questions about the apps and devices with the aplomb of academics twice their age.
The students even know how to joke like academics: A team who built a video game app to help teach the general public about number bases (a fundamental of computer science) was asked if the game keeps score via binary numbers. When someone suggested they add such capability to version 2.0, a student from the audience cracked a classic computer science joke: “You mean version 10.0!”
The Computers in Everyday Life course focuses on the fundamentals of programming via a programming language called AppInventor, which allows students to create mobile phone applications. Students also learn to develop the artificial intelligence that will enable the Scribbler robot to perform tasks like finding objects and avoiding obstacles. They also perform experiments using Arduino microcontrollers along with touch, temperature, motion and other sensors.
"In four short weeks, these high school students were exposed to a variety of programming environments and concepts ranging from mobile phone apps to robotics, sensors and actuators,” says COSMOS instructor and Computer Science and Engineering Professor Ryan Kastner, who is an affiliate of the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. Kastner co-teaches the COSMOS students with QI Principal Development Engineer Curt Schurgers, COSMOS Teacher Fellow Shirley Miranda and teaching assistants Kristoffer Wilkerson and Riley Yeakle.
Adds Kastner: “The students conceptualized and developed their final projects in less than four days, combining the ideas that they learned in the previous weeks with their own ingenuity and a lot of hard work. The end results were outstanding."
UC San Diego’s Gordon Award went to COSMOS students Rachel Hong and Tiffany Chen for their project "Mobile Application for Color Vision Deficiency and Betterment of Object Distinction (LUMOS).” The mobile app has three components: 10 Ishihara tests for determining red-green color-blindness, a filter for helping those with such color-blindness better see the distinctions between colors and a ‘color identifier’ that recognizes colors in an image taken with a smartphone’s camera.
The award for "Most innovative use of Cluster 1 technology" went to Colby Hester, Yannan Tuo and Elaine Chien for the project "Navigational Automated Assistance for the Visually Impaired (NAAVI),” which is essentially a robotic dog for the blind. Noting that it costs between $20,000 and $40,000 to provide one person with a guide dog for one year, the students demonstrated that their Arduino-controlled Scribbler robot could be used to detect and alert a user to obstacles in his or her path for a fraction of the cost of a guide dog.
Other projects included an algorithm for autonomous image tracking that can detect features and colors, a robotic arm, an autonomous watering system for gardens and a robot that can navigate and map tunnels.
Given the students only had about four days to design and build their projects, the results were more proof-of-concept than ‘ready-for-primetime.’ But the true value of the program’s approach to empowering students can perhaps be summed up in one students’ remarks during his presentation: “You can plan as much as you want but until you build it, it doesn’t mean anything.”