Tapping Communities to Develop Local Engineering Talent

What if you could open the front door through a sensor in your hand? And when guests come to the door, their photo is sent from the doorstep to your phone so you can identify them? These are the kinds of “Internet of Things” (IoT) technologies that students from under-served communities conceived, designed, built and then socialized in a summer program called ASPIRE/INSPIRE, sponsored by Broadcom Foundation.

ASPIRE/INSPIRE (Aspire to Dream, Inspire to Motivate) seeks high-achieving community college and high school students from underserved communities in southern California who demonstrate a passion for engineering and computer science.

Photo Credit: Matt Miller, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
Photo Credit: Matt Miller, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences

The free, two-week project-based engineering and computer science program brought 30 high-achieving high school and community college students from groups underrepresented in engineering and computer science to the University of California, Irvine, in July. With funding from Broadcom Foundation, the program hosted a diverse group. Over 90 percent of the participants were from underrepresented groups and almost 40 percent are among the first in their family to attend college.

“Broadcom is excited to participate in a program that will lead to bringing additional ‘homegrown’ talent to UCI’s Samueli School of Engineering,” said Paula Golden, president and executive director, Broadcom Foundation, and director, Community Affairs, Broadcom. “Companies like Broadcom are eager to encourage young people in the community who are not viewed as traditional candidates for an engineering career and eagerly support programs that expand the pool of untapped talent here in southern California.”

Watch a video about the program here.

The program stems from an initiative spearheaded by Samueli School Dean Gregory Washington, Ph.D., the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and the two schools’ Office of Access and Inclusion with support from the Broadcom Foundation. The goal is to attract and retain women and students of color throughout their education trajectory and provide them with the tools to stick with engineering and computer science through college.

Photo Credit: Matt Miller, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
Photo Credit: Matt Miller, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences

“This program achieves the school of engineering’s long-standing goal to engage local students and provide them with the skill sets and direction needed to succeed in the rigorous training it takes to become an engineer,” Washington said. “By focusing on the Internet of Things, we are giving students a real-world coding and project-design experience that provides them with an important foundation for future careers in engineering and technology.”

Chosen from more than 180 applicants, 30 students were divided into groups comprised of community college and high school students and one mentor (either a UCI undergraduate or graduate student).

During the first week, students were taught how to code using the Raspberry Pi and how to use sensors and other connectivity technologies through hands-on projects. Students then applied this foundational expertise to circuit design, prototyping and fabrication of their own IoT projects.

Program participants worked with faculty and students from UCI’s Information and Computer Science and Engineering schools. Many of the projects focused on the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity, allowing data to transfer over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

The second week was devoted to the development of an individual project by a team of three students. The teams chose from about a dozen IoT projects, including a keyless home entry system and sun-tracking solar panels. They analyzed the consumer need, functions and design limitations of their proposed product. Then, they manufactured a prototype of the product at UCI’s state-of-the-art fabrication and rapid prototyping facility — called FabWORKS – which is home to a laser cutter and 3-D printers.

Next, the teams collaborated to troubleshoot and test their prototypes in order to showcase their final projects. They prepared a three-minute elevator pitch to advertise their products to an audience of over 100 people at the program’s closing symposium.

Recognition is an important component of the INSPIRE/ASPIRE program. Awards were given in the categories of innovation, commercialization and people’s choice. Among the top awards were the SmartVent and Reflection Detectors. The SmartVent was a system designed to compare inside and outside temperatures and make decisions on when to open windows then alert users via the Internet. Reflection Detectors was a smart mirror that provided updates on the time, weather, and upcoming events allowing the user to stay informed without having to continuously check a smartphone.

“ASPIRE/INSPIRE shows students what they are capable of accomplishing in just two weeks and connects them with like-minded individuals, mentors and UCI faculty and staff who build a community of excellence for them. This helps them see that dreams of becoming an engineer or computer scientist can be a reality,” said Sharnnia Artis, Ph.D., assistant dean of Access & Inclusion. “It’s humbling to see these students begin with little experience and knowledge about IoT and walk away with real skills including coding that give them the confidence and capabilities to continue in engineering and computer science.”