Thumbs Up for New Summer Outreach Programs

Lauren Martini, Cristian Meija and Kaelin Marshall display Jellyfish Jamz, an Internet radio box, at the ASPIRE/INSPIRE final presentation eventAugust 3, 2015 - Two brand new summer programs designed to offer hands-on engineering and computer science experiences to high school and community college students wrapped up last week amid universally glowing reviews.

ASPIRE, geared toward high school students, and INSPIRE, its sister program for community college students, both are two-week, immersive design and programming experiences that leverage the facilities and faculty of UC Irvine’s Samueli School of Engineering and Bren School of ICS in an effort to reach out to students in underserved communities.                     

Thirty students from all over California – including Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire, San Diego and Fresno – worked in teams to design and build projects related to the Internet of Things.

Ten teams, each comprised of one community college student and two high-school students, developed projects that incorporated the Internet of Things. IoT is a term that refers to a network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity, allowing data to transfer over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

ASPIRE and INSPIRE, funded by the Broadcom Foundation through UCI’s Office of Access and Inclusion, combined tours of UCI lab facilities with faculty lectures and laboratory time, allowing students to learn new concepts, as well as design, code and test actual prototypes. Supervised by faculty and taught by experienced staff and student mentors, students experimented with Raspberry Pi, tiny, affordable computers that help teach programming through fun activities.

Students chose from six different “smart-home” IoT projects: solar panel trackers, Internet radio boxes, smart locks, intelligent refrigerators, magic mirrors and natural ventilation systems. Each team demonstrated its proof-of-concept during final presentations held on Friday, July 31, in the Calit2 Auditorium.

The teams were given three minutes each to present their work in an elevator-pitch format to the audience and a panel of judges, who asked questions and offered critiques. Teams also had to prepare posters and demonstrations of their projects, which they displayed afterward in the Calit2 Atrium.

ASPIRE and INSPIRE are anchors of the Office of Access and Inclusion’s Future Innovators Initiative, which seeks to prepare young people for career success in math, engineering and technology fields. According to OAI director Sharnnia Artis, skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, prototyping, communication and creativity are incorporated into the curriculum.

“We try to encourage high school and community college students to pursue engineering and computer science that lead to STEM university studies and future careers. Our goal is to involve exciting, interesting and engaging projects that apply the engineering design process in concert with the scientific method,” she said.

Molly Lasslett, a student at Reedley Community College in California’s Central Valley, plans to major in electrical engineering. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience with new materials that are not available to me at my college,” she said. “We got to do 3-D printing, laser cutting and use the Raspberry Pi boards. It’s so nice that all these resources are available to us.”

For Angel Palma, a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College who plans to major in civil engineering, creating project prototypes was the highlight of the program. “I was excited because this is one of the first programs that gives me hands-on experience,” he said. “I’ve learned about new software coding, Python … things I hadn’t heard of before that are not available in my community.”

Jordan Paige, a student at Morningside High School in Inglewood, plans a career as a neuroscientist, and says he gained valuable skills from ASPIRE. “It was really fun to meet the challenges, then find new challenges and beat those as well," he said. “It’s definitely a great experience.”

Paige also lauded the program’s emphasis on the business aspect. “I love how it teaches you to get all the information you need into the pitch, how to present, and how to get [an effective] PowerPoint done. It’s a great business tool.”

Artis is pleased with the inaugural programs. “This first year exceeded our expectations,” she said. “Having students from all over California come together … to bring their creative IoT ideas to life was remarkable. It was exciting to see the project teams learn by doing while having fun at the same time.

Cristian Meija, a high school student from Anaheim, concurred. “When I first got here I thought, ‘Oh, this is way too difficult,’” he said. “During the first week, I thought, ‘Ok, I’m getting better at this.’ Now, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is just amazing.’ I have learned so much in two weeks.”

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer



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