U-M ME Alum Spearheads Project, Inspires High School Students to Learn to Love Engineering

MEZ Students

Autonomous vehicles may be the way of the future and what better approach to get high school students interested in pursuing careers in engineering than creating a two-part workshop focused on learning more about them.

That’s exactly what University of Michigan (U-M) Mechanical Engineering (ME) alumna Katherine Avery (MSE '11, PhD '16) hoped to do when she developed Exploring Autonomous Vehicles in a Connected Infrastructure (EAVICI), a two-part workshop designed to introduce high school students from the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics teams in Detroit to engineering concepts involving autonomous vehicles, connected infrastructure and the interaction between the two, all with the purpose of exciting and engaging them in engineering as a potential career.

According to Avery, who is currently a research scientist at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, MI, the idea struck her after meeting with Jeanne Murabito of the Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ). The MEZ is a safe and supportive forum where Detroit students acquire the knowledge and tools they need to propel themselves to higher education and careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Outfitted with computer labs complete with CAD software, a machine shop, robot testing area, and collaborative workstations, Detroit’s engineers and U-M faculty, staff, students, and alumni provide training and mentoring within an environment of learning, leadership, teamwork and fun. In MEZ’s flagship program, more thank a dozen Detroit high schools and 230 students work to design, build, and test their robots for the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“I reached out to Jeanne to offer to host a workshop for the FIRST teams on a vehicle technology, and autonomous vehicles seemed like the natural option, given how much they’re in the news lately,” said Avery. “I thought this workshop series would give us a great opportunity to deconstruct a very relevant and uniquely-challenging engineering problem.”

Avery then got to work, owning the project from inception through execution. She worked on all the aspects of the event from grant writing and lesson planning to project management and platform development.

The first part of the two-part workshop at the MEZ took place in early May and students were able to gain hands-on experience designing, programming and evaluating algorithms that could make autonomous vehicles safer and more effective. All of the programming was designed to be done at a very student- appropriate level through a custom-designed web interface. U-M ME alumnus and current research fellow Steve Vozar (BSE '08, MSE '09, PhD '13) was involved with the initiative and couldn’t have been more thrilled with the outcome.

“We were very impressed with the students’ desires to learn and participate. They tackled every programming challenge with creativity and focus, but never forgot to have fun and collaborate,” said Vozar. “At the end of the day, we came up with a really hard bonus challenge for them since they had been doing so well with the previous exercises. This one required some pretty extreme creative thinking, and each group had its own strategy to try and solve the problem. Although only one team was able to complete the challenge, the whole room erupted in cheers. The camaraderie that we saw from the MEZ teams was really inspiring,” he added.

The second part of the workshop took place a few weeks later where the MEZ students were given a tour of U-M’s North Campus led by Avery, followed by lunch with a panel of experts including the director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) Jim Sayer. The group then headed to the U-M Mobility Transformation Center’s (MTC) Mcity, a unique test facility for evaluating the capabilities of connected and automated vehicles and systems, where they were given rides on the U-M SmartCart, U-M APRIL Robotics Laboratory’s autonomous 3D printed gold cart platform, learned about how the robots make and use maps to navigate and were able to see Ford’s autonomous hybrid vehicle firsthand.

“Overall, I think this was a really unique experience for these students to get to work with and hear from world-class researchers in the fields of autonomous vehicles and connected infrastructure,” said Vozar. “Plus, Mcity is not usually open to the public, so this was really special for them to get the opportunity to tour it and see live demos there. I like to think that this workshop will get these students thinking about the issues the researchers in these fields are tackling, and inspire them to pursue similar tasks in their careers.”

The workshop and all of the equipment used, including a small-scale connected city and a fleet of miniature autonomous vehicles, were developed from the ground up by U-M volunteers.

“I had about 25 volunteers working on this project, all of whom are current students or post-docs from U-M ME, Computer Science Engineering (CSE) and Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (NAME). The platform on which we built up our vehicles is the Finch robot. The Finches were donated to the MEZ by U- M CSE professor Jeff Ringenberg,” said Avery.

The workshop also wouldn’t have been possible without the generous grants funded from the Ford Motor Company's STEM Program Office as well as Detroit and Downriver Area Robotics Alliance.

Avery’s initiative was also well received by MEZ Senior Mentor Bob Koehl.

“Katherine and her term are very talented and exceeded my expectations,” said Koehl. “The adaption of inexpensive robots to wire communications and interfacing them to a custom created MEZ city was well done. And, the initial workshop introduced the students to some of the programming problems and methods in guiding autonomous vehicles and did it in a way that all could understand.”

Avery said she hopes to hold this two-part event annually for the high school students and teachers at the MEZ and is currently looking for opportunities to use the classroom and programming portions in other settings.

“We've adapted it for Xplore Engineering this year to include an abbreviated, 20 minute lesson on autonomy and decision-making for kids as young as fourth grade and, we added an age-appropriate programming challenge. We would also love to implement the full day activity for other groups or classrooms,” said Avery. “As a part of that goal, we're planning to provide an open source license for the custom software we developed during this project before the end of the year. We're also working on a second, customized version of the vehicles to make them more inexpensive and easier to use out-of-the-box.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the EAVICI program, or using it in their classroom, is encouraged to contact eavici@trendingup.org.