Alabama HS Seniors Broaden Tech Skills at MIT Camp

Students from Limestone County spent their summer exploring AI, AV and computer hacking in Cambridge.

by Sarah Pavlik-Hernandez, The News Courier / August 22, 2018

(TNS) — Three Limestone County high school seniors spent the better part of their summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they explored advancements in artificial intelligence, programmed an autonomous race car and tried their hands at computer hacking.

Part of the Limestone County school system's gifted program, Bernard Alottey, Andrew Farmer and Marcus Handy were selected for the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI) program at MIT earlier this year.

BWSI is an initiative of Beaver Works, a research and education center jointly operated by Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT School of Engineering.

Started in 2016, the first BWSI summer camp included 46 students. This year's enrollment numbers have more than quadrupled, drawing students from 105 schools across the United States.

The MIT-based summer camp is a rigorous, world-class Science Technology Engineering and Math program open to the nation's sharpest high school students. Lasting four weeks, students who attend get a glimpse of college by living on campus in the dorms while working on one of eight STEM-oriented tracks they choose beforehand.

Farmer and Handy, both East Limestone High students, selected the Autonomous RACECAR (Rapid Autonomous Complex-Environment Competing Ackerman-steering Robot) option. Farmer broke the project down into layman's terms, explaining they used robotics and computer programming to run ultra high-tech, model-sized race cars on a complex track with obstacles.

The experience, Farmer said, really brought him out of his shell.

“Before I went, I had some hesitation about interacting with people, but through programming the car I realized that when I'm passionate about something, I'm not afraid to speak my mind,” he said. “I learned that I could really be a leader, draw everyone in and get things going.”

At the close of the camp, student teams showed off their newly learned skills by competing against one another. Farmer's team won first place in the RACECAR event by successfully programming their vehicle with LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging), cameras and motion sensors to navigate a track fraught with obstacles such as windmills and bowling pins.

Although Allotey's team placed third, he was thrilled with his performance. Allotey said his time at MIT changed him for the better. He was more focused on what he learned during the four weeks leading up to the final event than the results of the competition.

“Just working on the race car, being able to come up with the concept and then program it and actually see it happen on the track was amazing,” Allotey said. “I realized that I really have some skills.”

Attending Beaver Works also helped the ambitious teen solidify his plan to become a software engineer or computer scientist. He hopes to find an acceptance letter in his mailbox from Carnegie Mellon University soon.

Farmer, who wanted to become an aerospace engineer before attending the MIT camp, may have had a change of heart after helping program the winning car at the final competition.

“My time there really opened my eyes up to another opportunity in computer science,” Farmer said. “There is a big push right now for AI (artificial intelligence) and computer science. I am looking at the market and the availability of jobs after I graduate.”

Although his major may be in flux, Farmer still has his sights set on the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Taking a completely different track at the camp, West Limestone senior Marcus Hardy was immediately attracted to the Embedded Security and Hardware Hacking option.

“The word hacking is what really caught my attention,” Hardy said. “But when we started really getting into it, I found that embedded security is all around us, it is within everything I do and everything you do. It is there when you send a text or even search the internet.”

His team successfully proved their cybersecurity skills by creating a secure protocol for interactions between a bank server, ATM and credit card. He also got to do some hacking by breaking into a server to gain certain codes in a capture-the-flag-like scenario.

In addition to gaining some mad computer skills, the camp boosted Hardy's confidence.

“I went into camp this shy, depressed kid,” Hardy said. “But the entire camp kind of motivated me to drive for more. I came out of there more courageous and definitely much happier.”

Once considering enlisting in the Marines, Hardy plans to try and get into MIT's engineering program, with the University of Alabama in Huntsville being his second choice.

©2018 The News Courier (Athens, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.