Hands-on activities stimulate interest in STEM
|If the end goal is to develop a flourishing community of STEM workers and academics, then it is important to excite children about embarking on the path that leads in that direction. We must strive not only to educate those already on the path on how to use tools available to them via XSEDE, but also ensure that there is a steady stream of new minds lined up to enter STEM fields of study. At Indiana University’s Pervasive Technology Institute (PTI) we work in partnership with the Minority Engineering Advancement Program, which “provides an opportunity for students that are interested in math and science to explore educational and career paths for engineering and technology fields. Students have fun while being introduced to many university and industry areas and participating in hands-on projects and activities.” In 2011, we worked with three different age groups and offered three unique technology-related workshops. The Purdue School of Engineering coordinates MEAP, and IU’s technology workshops nicely complement the engineering focus. In fact, when supercomputers are discussed in the workshops, engineering computations can be presented as an example of the types of problems that can be solved using XSEDE resources. We value this partnership. We’ve participated since 2007, not only because it gives us the opportunity to influence young minds and encourage inquisitiveness, but also to develop awareness of the possibilities and resources that are available to those who ultimately do pursue a career in STEM.|
Session 1 – Networking
The first week of MEAP is for the oldest students, who will be entering 10th, 11th or 12th grade in the fall. For this group, we introduced a three-part networking session.
First, leaders talked briefly about network layers and IP routing. This was followed by a paper packet-passing activity where students role-played network components (computer, firewall, router, server) and used IP routing methods to send and receive IP packets. This workshop builds students’ comfort and familiarity with networking concepts.
Second, we led a fiber optics and laser light activity, where the goal is to provide a basic understanding of the way light travels along fiber optic cables and how light can be used to transmit data. Students were asked to experiment with what happens when the light from a laser pointer encounters a transparent half-moon of plastic, and then guided to achieve different combinations of refraction and reflection. Next, a yard-long polycarbonate tube was used to demonstrate how total internal reflection keeps light within the tube, even if the tube is bent. In the third experiment, students learned how light will follow the path of a curved stream of water. We filled a 2-litre bottle with water, punctured it midway down, and let a stream flow into a catch tray beneath. When the students shone the laser beam through the bottle and out through the puncture, they saw that the beam follows the curved path of the water. Lastly, we transmitted data via laser light using a modified version of a Make Magazine project . A sound source was used to vary the power sent to a laser diode. This transmitted light was received across the room by a receiver connected to a speaker. The end result was sound transmission via laser light. While this is not an example of how actual data is transferred via fiber optics, it is useful for opening a discussion about how actual data transmission does occur. It also encourages the students to think about how the device works, what happens if the beam is interrupted or if an additional beam is introduced, etc., leading to a lively discussion about science and technology.
Third, students worked in a computer classroom where topics such as IP-routing and DNS were discussed while students experimented with tools such as ifconfig (what’s my own IP address), nslookup (what’s the relationship between DNS names and IP addresses), ping (can I reach that host?) and traceroute (how am I reaching that host?) to better understand what happens in a web browser. Additionally, students were given the opportunity to explore real-time network visualization with a World View multi-touch screen.
Session 2 – Lego Mindstorms
The second week of MEAP is for students who will be entering 8th or 9th grade. An IUPUI School of Engineering graduate student led these sessions, while PTI staff provided guidance as the students programmed Lego Mindstorm® robots. This year the challenge was maze navigation, where the students must program the robot to autonomously navigate a maze of wooden walls. The goal is for students to develop the skills to break a large task (navigate the maze) into smaller, solvable tasks (move forward until I approach an obstacle). They must understand the capabilities of the robot and its sensors so they can program the robot effectively. This is an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, navigate human group dynamics, and learn how to use successes and failures as input data for the next attempt at solving the problem.
Session 3 – No Guts, No Glory
The final week of the MEAP program is for the youngest students, who will enter 7th or 8th grade in the fall. This session is referred to as No Guts, No Glory because it started with a talk about computer components (guts), followed by an activity where the students built a computer from components (see Figure 5). They then used a Bootable Cluster CD to see if the machine would boot and load an operating system. The assembled computers were then connected to a switch to dynamically build a cluster. From a head node we ran in parallel a password cracking utility  so the students could see even these several year old computers can work together to crack a short password quickly. The discussion transitioned easily to supercomputers (what they are, how they work, and examples of research that is performed using them), followed by a hands-on exercise where students worked together to solve a 500+ piece jigsaw puzzle in about 30 minutes. Small groups of students used information on the back of each puzzle piece to sort and solve sections of the puzzle. Some of the same issues that are encountered during real parallel programming efforts (contention, load balancing) arose, and a discussion about this followed. Lastly, a session was presented on cloud computing, storage, and virtual machines. This year the students reconstructed images from pieces in an activity simulating replicated distributed storage on a Flickr-type image storage system.
NSF GSS Codes:
Primary Field: Multidisciplinary Studies (980) - Science, Technology, and Society
Secondary Field: Computer Science (401) - Information Science/Studies