A man standing next to a student who is holding an object made of LEGOs. There are trays of LEGO pieces and part of a computer screen in front of them. There are students working on computers behind them.

PartnershipsforChange: Building Capacity / Data Science

SACS Summer Data Science Academy: Promoting Data Science with Robotics and NASA Geospatial and Extraterrestrial Big Data for Grades 9-12

by David Lockett

Key Ideas

  • Diverse partners bring unique perspectives and resources that expand what is possible and what can be learned by everyone involved.
  • For historically marginalized youth to imagine themselves on STEM pathways, they need to experience how those pathways relate to their communities, and they need to see themselves represented in that workforce.
  • Creating real-world scenarios with emerging technologies requires high-tech partners to collaborate with those who understand the lived experiences of the youth who will participate.
  • Background

    SACS Summer Data Science Academy: Promoting Data Science with Robotics and NASA Geospatial and Extraterrestrial Big Data for Grades 9-12, 22-MUREPPSI-0002, combines robotics and data science, as well as broadening participation in STEM. Meharry Medical College School of Applied Computational Sciences (SACS), an HBCU, developed a free summer program for underrepresented high school students (young women, students of color, and students experiencing poverty) to learn about NASA research and data science tools at our Nashville campus. The key objective of the program was to stimulate curiosity in the cross-cutting field of data science through hands-on STEM activities, deploying real-life application scenarios and industrial-grade robotic systems. Program activities aimed to build statistical and critical thinking skills while inspiring and diversifying the next generation of explorers, researchers, and data scientists.

    The partnership for this two-week summer academy included academic, research, community and industry partners. The research partner, the NASA Glenn Research Center, designs and develops innovative technology to advance NASA’s missions in aeronautics and space exploration. Our community partner was the Nashville Technology Council, which is responsible for providing workforce training for individuals in the community. We also brought in Stokes Robotics and a geospatial technology firm to introduce high school students to innovative technological tools. The lead partner, the Meharry Medical College School of Applied Computational Sciences (SACS), was the lead who brought all of these diverse partners together to create a program that encourages high school students to understand how data science, computer science, and geospatial technology are relevant to their communities, to experience how to use these technologies to solve problems, and to see themselves represented in the space science and high-tech industries.

    Students completed a variety of Spike Prime tasks learning robot design skills and the engineering design method.

    Building on Diverse Partner Strengths

    Our partnership integrated the strengths of each member. Glenn Research Center, Stokes Robotics, and geospatial industries provided access to advanced technologies for the summer program. To make these technologies meaningful to students, Nashville Technology Council helped us design activities that used those technologies to study our local community together. For example, we collected data on pollution patterns around parts of Nashville using geospatial technology, drones, and Stokes Robotics. We were able to see how certain areas around the interstate had higher levels of pollution than areas that were further away. This helped students get a better understanding of what robotics and big data can contribute to solving problems. While pollution may commonly be seen as an environmental science topic not necessarily related to robotics, this experience enabled the students to draw connections between engineering, data science, computer science, and environmental science and root them in the community.

    Students built programmable AI cars.

    Building on the initial activities that demonstrated how advanced technologies can address local issues, our partners designed activities that challenged students to imagine how they could use robotics and data science to solve problems beyond their community. One activity had students design a path for a robot on Mars to repair a propeller blade on the NASA Ingenuity helicopter. Students also explored GIS patterns, participated in technology-enhanced escape room activities, and produced 3D models that bridged the connection between the virtual and physical worlds using smartphone data and quadcopter-obtained imagery. These experiences introduced concepts such as computer vision, image processing, spatial positioning, and autonomous navigation, and gave students the chance to apply those to solve real-world problems.

    Combining programming and instruction to acquire essential STEM skills.

    In addition to providing opportunities for the youth to participate in high-tech workforce scenarios, we also hosted special sessions featuring Black professionals in data science and robotics so that the students could see people of color represented in those careers. Kenneth Harris, the deputy lead integration engineer for the NASA James Webb Telescope’s Integrated Science Instrument Module Electronic Components was one visitor. Another was Dr. Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. These two offered their insights and expertise about career opportunities in science and technology, inspiring the students to build on the strengths that exist in their communities and develop a mindset that they can ultimately do anything.

    SACS graduate students mentored high school students wanting to pursue a career in computer and data science.

    SACS graduate students mentored high school students wanting to pursue a career in computer and data science.

    Lessons Learned

    In terms of capacity building, we observed that this project enabled all of our partners to learn from one another and learn from the student participants. The NASA Glenn Research Center and our industry partners introduced SACS, Nashville Technology Council, and the students to exciting new technologies, methods of data collection and analysis, and real-world applications that we could not have imagined prior to this partnership. Together, we developed the following aspects of capacity for doing partnership work:

  • Community expertise and insight
  • Improved impact
  • Enhanced credibility and legitimacy
  • Mutual learning and growth
  • Further, by working together with high school students, the project team had frequent “aha” moments that led us to pivot or think about how to design and implement the program in new ways. College professors who had never taught high school students had to adjust their teaching style to make it more interactive for this younger population. We gave students more time to ask and answer questions, and more opportunities to put what they were learning into practice. We listened to the students to meet them where they were in terms of skills, interests, and content knowledge to adapt the experiences so they were relevant as well as challenging.

    Next Steps

    This partnership has deepened our expectations of what collaboration can be and ensured that every participant gains inspirational and transformational experiences and encourages them to consider a STEM career. Based on what we learned from this first project, we applied for and received additional funding from NASA to continue the partnership. We’re excited for the next iteration of this program and to continue our work to broaden participation in STEM and who has access to pathways for careers in data science, robotics, and beyond. As we aim to continuously improve, we want more students to see themselves and experience themselves learning and working with these technologies.