High School Students Race Toward ECE


August 2, 2004

"It's the little engine that could," joked Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Lecturer Tom Sullivan as the circular robot sputtered across the z-shaped plywood maze, its young programmers by its side, urging it toward the finish line. The contestants cheering on their inventions, Advanced Placement Early Admission (APEA) high school juniors and seniors, were racing their final projects in the last class of 18-100: Introduction to ECE. 18-100 is normally offered during the 15-week semester with lectures twice a week and a lab once a week, but the course is also usually one of two taken in the summer for college credit by approximately 50-60 honor students from across the U.S. Each participant completes six weeks of daily lectures and biweekly labs while staying in the dormitories to experience living on campus.

"It was one of the most fun things I've done in my life!" exclaimed Jonathan Pullano. "I learned a lot, met a lot of new people, and learned what college was like." Pullano will be a senior at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York and is interested in electronics, but until now has not had much exposure to the field. For many of those attending, the sessions are their first introduction to engineering.

Conal Sathi, whose father is a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, will be junior at Cherry Creek High School in the Denver area. He came to the university to learn about ECE and computer science (CS) so he will be ready to choose a college major. Sathi found the workload challenging: "It prepares you to work harder and study because high school is a lot easier than college," he discovered.

"They learn everything about building robots — at the end, when you have a full working robot, you know what every little piece of it does," said ECE junior Raz Tirosh, one of the teaching assistants (TAs). Before soldering each component to the robot's printed circuit board, the classmates first had to assemble the circuit on a prototyping board (protoboard) and perform experiments to understand the theory, Tirosh explained. These exercises stepped them through analyzing electronic circuitry and showed them how smaller circuits and systems can combine to form larger, more complex systems.

Each scholar can program the robot to move forward, turn right and left, flash a small light and beep. The machine's instructions are fed through a keypad that is disconnected before the race. They are constructed with educational kits produced by Graymark.

Besides Tirosh, Sullivan's other TAs this summer were ECE graduate students Matt Moneck, Thiago Hersan, Jessica Hess, and Winnie Yu and junior Bowei Gai. A TA must watch the robot navigate to the end of the track to qualify an entry in the 18-100 competitions. Each player then enters a single elimination tournament and vies for the best of three races in the final round. The department's electronics supply store, Tech Electronics, offers prizes for the top three places.

While on campus, the high school students can sign up for an admission interview. Generally, three or four members of the APEA group become ECE majors at Carnegie Mellon each year; APEA is in its eighth season.

Another educational series connected to ECE also runs concurrently with the APEA — the Carnegie Mellon Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS) program. Coordinated by the Carnegie Mellon Action Project (CMAP), SAMS encourages high school juniors and seniors with diverse backgrounds to apply for college and consider Carnegie Mellon. Thirty students with strengths in physics and calculus enroll in two three-week periods with two hours of lab work per day; through science and engineering labs they encounter ECE as a potential major. The project course has been offered for four years and covers electronics and basic lab skills; although it does not count for college credit or incorporate a lecture portion, pupils construct and race the same Graymark robot kit.

Students preparing their robots for racing.