Today, on February 18, 2021 at around the 1500 hour (EST) Perseverance proved that perseverance should never be underestimated.
Perseverance “Percy” is the name for the Mars rover that launched in July 2020 and landed with much fanfare approximately six months later. That trip was over 300 million miles if I remember correctly and it strikes me again that no matter how lofty or far away our goals are they are attainable with enough grit, drive, support, and of course – perseverance.
I recently responded to a request for proposal from Paragon TEC and NASA Glenn Research Center Innovative Student Programming for funding to help support a collaboration between Hocking College’s Computer Science program and a local high school to explore and experiment with our own mini Rover Races. My proposal included request for funding to complete our own little mini rover race exploring problem solving as NASA engineers do. To help make things especially interesting I also included a component to include AWS DeepRacer where students can learn about artificial intelligence and machine learning, reinforcement learning, and even robotic operating systems. Ultimately, the proposal was not selected and while a little disheartening I appreciate the opportunity to discover this NASA sponsored curriculum because it’s created some great ideas that I could incorporate into other opportunities working with middle school and high schools in the area.
So even though my proposal was not selected, I’d like to go ahead and share what the resources and activities I had in mind.
Full information can be found at https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/392975main_Rover_Races_Activity.pdf but this lesson consisted of students experiencing the processes involved in engineering communication protocol. Students work to reach their goal by creating a calibrated solution within the constraints and parameters of communicating with a rover on Mars. The activity is aimed to help build students’ understanding of engineering design in pursuit of scientific objectives.
The AWS DeepRacer activity would allow students to get hands on with machine learning through a cloud based 3D racing simulator, fully autonomous 1/18th scale race car driven by reinforcement learning. In addition to this hands on activity with this race car students would also have the opportunity to explore AWS cloud computing services to develop and train their models utilizing reinforcement learning to help the car adjust as needed to meet it’s goal (reach the finish line without crashing).
Students (14 and over) and any partner educators could gain access to the AWS tools and services by utilizing the AWS Educate portal. AWS Educate students and educators have access to content and programs developed to skill up for cloud careers in growing fields. AWS Educate also connects companies hiring for cloud skills to qualified student job seekers with the AWS Educate Job Board which could be an added benefit for the students who are looking to see what career opportunities and options are available.
AWS Educate has a variety of pathways that students can explore and further incentivizes it for students (and adults) by awarding digital badges at the completion of 10-15 hour course. There are multiple digital badges available but our focus for this program would have been on the following:
- AWS DeepRacer Badge
- RoboMaker Course 0: Robotic Fundamentals
Within these two pathways students would be able to learn more about the AWS DeepRacer car and take an exploratory dive into deep learning and reinforcement learning while training their model car. They would also have had the opportunity to learn the basics of robotics – learning about a robot’s components, modeling, and main problems to solve to achieve a fully autonomous system.
Additional badges that students could then further explore include
- RoboMaker Course 1a: Getting Started with Ubuntu
- RoboMaker Course 1b: Getting Started with AWS
- RoboMaker Course 2: ROS2 and ROS
All in all, it would have been nice to have received the funding to purchase the model cars (they are around $400 each) but it’s not really necessary. Students can also learn about the same types of technologies by utilizing the virtual racecar and racetrack to train their models to win the race (to the moon, to Mars, to places we haven’t thought possible yet).
While I may not have been selected to receive the funding, I’d like to take cue from Perseverance and persevere to see where the opportunities are available to take the curriculum I found and put these pieces together and take the steps to see where our own little launch pad can take them. Will it be a career for the likes of Toyota, NASA, Virgin Galactic…who knows? But my hope is that exposure to these activities could help students shoot for the moon and if nothing else they’ll land among the stars.
Tasha Penwell is the Computer Science Program Manager at Hocking College. She’s also an AWS Educate Cloud Ambassador and AWS Academy Accredited Educator.
She holds a MISM from Keller Graduate School of Management and is a Certified AWS Cloud Practitioner.
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