This summer, the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis hosted the Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Drones (AIR-D) Summer Science Camp, a weeklong program where high school students got hands-on experience in computer programming, discussed ethics surrounding artificial intelligence and learned about possible career paths in medicine, aeronautics, engineering and entrepreneurship.

The week culminated with a demonstration of the students’ programming skills as they flew drones through an obstacle course, as well as an awards ceremony celebrating their accomplishments.

“Through this summer camp, we wanted to inspire curiosity and create new directions for the campers,” said Alvitta Ottley, assistant professor of computer science & engineering. “Campers loved coding their drone missions because they got immediate feedback when their programs didn't do what they expected and fixed it quickly.”

Ottley is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award and an award from the NSF’s Institute for Data-Driven Dynamical Design (ID4), which funded the program.

“Outreach and broadening participation are core to both grants,” Ottley said. “The ID4 aims to increase representation in STEM through early exposure through summer camps. My CAREER award will use the summer camp and other initiatives like Girls Who Code WashU to expose high school students to computer science research.”

Ottley also partnered with BrightPath STEAM Academy to develop the curriculum. BrightPath, a program designed to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics fields, was founded by Marcia Brown-Rayford, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from WashU in 1991.

“Growing up, I didn't think of computer science as a possible career path simply because I didn't know any computer scientists,” Ottley said. “I was excited to partner with the BrightPath STEAM Academy, which recognizes this problem and is passionate about increasing representation and exposure to STEM.”

AIR-D Summer Science Camp is the continuation of a pilot program launched in the summer of 2021. Last year’s camp was funded through a grant received by Yevgeniy Vorobeychik, associate professor of computer science & engineering, and organized by William Yeoh, associate professor of computer science & engineering. Ottley said she hopes to offer the camp again next summer and expand it to other ID4-affiliated universities.


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