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TDLC and the Reach for Tomorrow (RFT) Program

Since TDLC's beginnings in 2006, the Center has looked forward to every July when it hosts 50-75 at-risk middle school students from Reach for Tomorrow (RFT) for a day of lab tours and research demonstrations at the University of California, San Diego. RFT (http://www.reachfortomorrow.org/) is an organization that works in partnership with private, corporate and governmental sponsors to motivate and inspire struggling secondary-school students from inner city and rural communities to pursue a college education. This is mainly achieved by providing the students with first-hand experiences in which they get to observe science and engineering in action, whether it is co-piloting a small plane, snorkeling in an undersea park, or visiting state-of-the-art research laboratories at a research institution. The latter is where TDLC comes in.

This past July, four of our labs opened their doors to the RFT students and specifically tailored interactive experiences that allowed the students to intimately observe real science in action.

RTF group MP Lab

The Machine Perception Lab, directed by TDLC's Drs. Javier Movellan and Marian Bartlett, organized the students into small teams and provided them with hand-sized wheeled robots and large two-dimensional, maze-like race tracks on which they were tasked with programming the steering action and speed of the robot vehicles by applying different colors of paper to the track (each color represented a unique action) that the robots were programmed to respond to. Dave Deriso, a TDLC trainee and an MP Lab member who helped organize the demonstration, explains,

"In short, we wanted to give the visiting students a feel for problem solving using robotics and programming, without needing to teach them either. The idea was to replace programming with tangible objects that represented code for controlling the robot. To that effect, we replaced code with color, and created a 'visual programming' language. For example, if the robot ran over a red piece of paper it would turn right, blue would turn left, green would speed up, yellow would slow down, etc. This encompassed the basic concept of representing physical changes as discrete commands that could be arranged to solve problems. We then introduced obstacles that they were asked to navigate around, which introduced the notion of using programming to overcome environmental constraints." RTF

As a further incentive, a competition between the teams was held to determine which team could program its robot to successfully navigate three laps of the course quickest. After the competition, the students were awarded place ribbons based on their finishing order. The TDLC trainees who helped organize and execute the demo were Dave Deriso, Josh Susskind, Nick Butko, Paul Ruvolo, Tingfan Wu, Walter Talbott, and Jacob Whitehill.

Dr. Andrea Chiba's lab brought UCSD Neuroscience Outreach Program modules to give students hands-on experience with brain anatomy. In one module, students were able to observe and handle both sliced and fully intact preserved sheep brain samples. Students learned about the organization of the nervous system, how sensory information gets to the brain from the body, and how motor commands go from the brain to the body. Students also learned how certain diseases affect proper brain function. The RFT students were also given an opportunity to handle and examine the brains from a variety of animals in a comparative anatomy across species module. In this module, students were able to examine preserved brain samples from a wide variety of animal species: from small birds, fish, and mammals to an actual human brain. Students discussed differences in brain structure among species that allow specific animals to perform specialized tasks. For example, it was discussed why an animal would have a disproportionately large olfactory bulb (as compared to that of a human brain), and thus a keen sense of smell. After their brief neuroanatomy tutorial, the students were able to apply their skills to determine which types of organisms were likely to have a particular brain based on its anatomical characteristics. The TDLC trainees who helped organize and execute the demo were Lara Rangel, Dr. Victor Minces, and Stephanie Alfonso.

GamelanDr. Alexander Khalil, whose training is in ethnomusicology, is a TDLC trainee who is conducting research on the relationship between rhythmically synchronous activity and temporal perception. Dr. Khalil is also a music teacher specializing in the Balinese gamelan, which is a type of musical ensemble that uses metallophones. These are played percussively, using wooden hammers to strike the metal bars on the instrument and require very precise synchrony between the players to execute complex melodic patterns. Dr. Khalil has built his own gamelan instruments that are designed to capture and record the strikes to the instrument in order to compare each player's synchrony with the rest of the ensemble. Over the course of his 10-year career as a gamelan instructor, Dr. Khalil had casually observed a correlation between an individual's ability to synchronize with an ensemble and their attentional performance in class (i.e., students that synchronize well are more capable of focusing their attention in general, while those that do not synchronize well have difficulty focusing). Drs. Andrea Chiba, Victor Minces, and Khalil had teamed up to conduct a study whose results conclude that Dr. Khalil's observations were correct. Because musical synchrony can be learned, the research team is now investigating whether practical training in music might translate to improvements in attentional performance.

For his demonstration to the RFT students, Dr. Khalil set up his homemade gamelan instruments (the ones he uses in his experiments) and the kids received a crash-course in playing Balinese gamelan, learning simple interlocking melodic patterns and making music! Dr. Khalil adds,

"While music making in this way might seem rather distant from more technological aspects of science, I feel that it can make an important connection between the experiential and the theoretical. By learning to play this music and coordinate rhythmically as a group, students could feel what it was like to try and co-process time. In this way, not only did they have some fun playing music, but they also had a taste of how a scientific question might arise out of a real-world activity."

The Motion-Capture Lab, headed by TDLC's Dr. Howard Poizner, showcased their exciting research tools, which include sophisticated motion-capture equipment, virtual reality technology, and Electroencephalography (EEG). The virtual reality setup includes a head mounted display, motion capture markers and EEG, which allowed the students to explore a virtual world. Markus Plank, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab who was the lead organizer of their demonstration, shares,

"They were quite fascinated by the technology which most of them associated with science fiction. I showed them how to apply an EEG cap with 64 channels to monitor brain activity while study participants performed tasks in our experimental setups, and they were eager to learn more about how our brain puts together the sensory inputs and mental images to allow for flexible and adaptive behavior. We even discussed how brains and machines can be combined by means of brain-computer-interfaces that for example allow people with disabilities to walk or talk again. We also showed the students the haptic robots that we use for touch interactions with virtual objects, and I was pretty impressed how natural their interaction with the device looked like, and how many creative ideas they came up with for actual applications of the research in 'real life', e.g., steering robots, accessing areas that are difficult to reach, even keeping up social contact and 'shaking hands' with friends that live far away!"

The TDLC trainees who helped organize and execute the demo were Drs. Markus Plank and Jamie Lukos.
In addition to the participation of TDLC's labs, The Preuss School (http://preuss.ucsd.edu/), a charter school located on the campus of UCSD and an educational partner of TDLC, had their FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition robotics club demonstrate their robot under the guidance of Preuss teacher and club coach Dan Rupert. The robot was designed to perform pre-designated tasks as part of the FIRST competition, both autonomously and under user control. Mr. Rupert and his students explained the engineering process behind the development of various mechanical and software designs that allowed the robot to perform the required tasks. After learning about how the problems of robot design had been tackled by the Preuss team, the RFT students were given an opportunity to pilot the robot and see it in action. Having observed what their peers were capable of creating, many of the RFT students expressed that they were inspired to do something similar when they returned to school.

After a full day of informative, hands-on demonstrations and encouragement from TDLC's scientists and trainees, the RFT students took away a broad range of experiences and perhaps some inspiration to further explore the possibilities of science and engineering.


Video: Young Students 'Reach for Tomorrow' With Science, Engineering Demos (Calit2ube video)


Additional photos of Reach for Tomorrow at UC San Diego: