High school students engineer autonomous race cars, cognitive assistants at Beaver Works Summer Institute  | MIT J-WEL

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High school students engineer autonomous race cars, cognitive assistants at Beaver Works Summer Institute 

Students with MIT Beaver

A rigorous STEM program

The application process to be accepted into the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI) is daunting to many rising high school seniors—to be accepted into the program, they must write essays, provide proof of extracurricular involvement, and complete a 20-hour-long online engineering course to prepare for the program. But in 2018, 198 students did just that and were accepted into the rigorous four-week engineering program for rising high school seniors from across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The program teaches accepted students STEM skills through project-based, workshop-style courses. 

The Beaver Works Summer Institute began in 2016 with a RACECAR course, in which students programmed small robotic cars to autonomously navigate a racetrack. The 2018 program included seven additional courses, including Autonomous Air Vehicle Racing, in which students worked in teams to design their own autonomous capabilities for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); Hack a 3D Printer, which taught students about the fundamentals of 3D printing, including techniques for tuning hardware and software; and Autonomous Cognitive Assistant, which allowed students to apply the foundational technologies of AI and machine learning for building cognitive assistants.


Race car

Q&A with a Beaver Works Student

J-WEL attended the program’s Final Challenge & Award Ceremony on August 5 at MIT, where we spoke with several of the students who had just completed the program, including rising-senior Hollis Smith. Smith was chosen by her high school, South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Math, as one of four students to attend the Beaver Works Summer Institute. She chose to participate in the Autonomous RACECAR Grand Prix course/project. She describes her experience below: 

Can you describe the Beaver Works Summer Institute? 

Classes are from nine to five. We typically have a lecture in the morning, a guest seminar, which is one of my favorite things about the program, at 11:30, through researchers at MIT or people at companies like JPL or Raytheon. Then in the afternoons, we typically do labs, and that's when you get the hands-on experience that builds up to all this. 


Tell me a bit about the RACECAR program. 

The thing I liked about it is how it built on itself. So, we started very basic, doing a safety controller that basically says, “If you're close to something, don't hit it.” And then we ended up doing the color detection. So, everything kind of built on itself, and this is the culmination of that. And we did all of our work in teams. We've had three different teams over the course of it, so we had a team for Week One, a team for Week Two, and we've been in the same team for the past two weeks so we could get to know each other and be more comfortable with how everyone worked. 


What was the most challenging aspect of the program? 

I think it's the team aspect of it. And while I'm so glad we are in teams because I would never be able to do this on my own, you really have to be honest with yourself about your talents, and that requires everyone else being honest because it's such a difficult problem and it's really difficult to work together on it. Sometimes you find you accidentally overlap and you're overwriting sometimes else's code. So, communication is very important and very difficult. 


Do you think you want to go into engineering in college? 

Absolutely, yes. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but the seminars actually inspired me to do research. I just think it's fascinating that they're always searching for something more. I think that's really interesting, and that's kind of the whole purpose of the summer program for interns where my school is. But, yes, this is definitely encouraging me. 


Smith noted that her only disappointment with the program was that Cambridge was not actually cold during her four-week stay. 


Educators who are interested in adopting this program into their school curriculum should contact bwsi-admin@mit.edu